Electric Hybrid Vehicles Key to Buyers Seeking Flexibility
Drivers who want to eliminate emissions during their daily commute but still have the flexibility to take long road trips on the weekend are increasingly looking to plug-in electric hybrid vehicles.
Plug-ins are like their hybrid cousins in that they carry two drive trains – an all electric one running off a motor and battery bank – and a gasoline-powered engine. But plug-ins have the advantage of having much bigger batteries than traditional hybrids, allowing them to push 50 miles on all electric drive alone.
When their batteries are close to being depleted, they switch over and rely on the gasoline engine to recharge the batteries and to propel the vehicle down the road.
When you get where you are going, you can plug the car into an electric outlet and recharge for your next trip. And if your employer has a charging station, they pay for your fuel while you work.
One of the primary things holding many people back from buying an all-electric vehicle is so-called “range anxiety.” Even though today’s all-electric vehicles are getting more than 200 miles per charge, drivers worry that if their trip is at the edge of that range they may fall short and be stranded. Because plug-in hybrids can switch over to the gasoline drive, plug-ins save you from that anxiety.
Automakers have close to four dozen plug-in models to chose from, says Genevieve Cullen, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association. Choosing between them is largely a case of picking what is important to you.
“You have to look at price point, electric range, vehicle size, and your own charging capacities,” Cullen says. “What is your daily commute? What are your range needs? What are you willing to spend? Are you going to pull a boat? What are you looking for? What are your priorities?”
Plug-ins come in a range of vehicles, from minivans to sports cars. Some have comically small all-electric ranges, while others easily get you through your daily commute and evening errands without running out of charge.
Some automakers, such as BMW, are offering plug-in versions for nearly every model they are offering.
“Buying a plugin vehicle is not about sacrifice. It is about optimizing what you want,” Cullen says. “You need to identify what you are looking for, and there is something in the plugin market that meets your needs.”
Joel Levin, executive director at Plugin America, echoes the sentiment that buying an electric vehicle is not about “sacrifice.”
“Electric drive is a fundamentally better way to move cars around than gasoline,” Levin says. “Electric is more powerful. It’s not like eating your broccoli. The performance is better. It’s cleaner. It’s more convenient.”
Electric simplicity means savings for drivers
One of the primary draws of the electric propulsion system is its simplicity, Levin says.
“Instead of hundreds of moving parts, it’s just a battery, electric motor and wheels,” Levin says.
Levin said that simplicity translates to lower maintenance costs. The all-electric mode also means you have no tail pipe emissions, and you are using locally produced electricity, rather than importing gasoline from other countries.
Some state, such as California, also allow electric vehicles to drive in the carpool lane even with just a single person in the car.
“One of the other advantages that people might not consider is it is a better driving experience,” says automotive expert Philip Reed. “It’s primary advantage is they feel very quick, they are very quiet, they handle well because their battery is on bottom with a very low center of gravity. They get great midrange acceleration and instant torque.”
Cullen also points out that once you make the initial investment, electricity costs about a quarter as much to operate the car than gasoline does.
Ronald Montoya, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds also says that when you buy plug-in electric cars, you get a lot “thrown in” by the manufacturer.
“Because they are positioned as ‘showcase vehicles,’ they tend to be more nicely equipped,” Montoya said. “They typically have more standard options on them.”
This is not all to say that plug-in hybrids come without drawbacks.
Because the technology is still relatively novel, Reed said some people have the perhaps unfounded worry that the added complexity may lead to more maintenance issues.
“But all cars are complex now, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Reed says.
As a new piece of technology, plug-in hybrids are still selling for a premium that you likely won’t recover in either the tax credits or the lower operating costs, Montoya says.
“If you are in it thinking you will save money overall, plug-ins might not be the best choice for you,” Montoya says.
The federal income tax incentive ranges from $2,500 to $7,500 for buying an electric vehicle, though the total credit depends on the size of the battery of the vehicle. Your ability to get that rebate also depends on how much income tax you pay each year. Many states, including California also offer state and even some local tax credits as well.
Because they have both gasoline and electric drives, plug-ins also are carrying around two power trains – and their added weight and complexity – which can be seen as a drawback as well, Reed says.
Another con – in some cases – is that insurance can be more expensive because if it breaks or get into an accident, the cost to repair can be higher, Montoya says.
“You might check with your insurance company to compare it to a non plug-in version before you buy it,” Montoya says.
There are also potential startup costs, such as adding a physical charging station to your home. And while adding a 240-volt dedicated charger does make it much faster to recharge your plug-in, it is not purely necessary. Plug-in hybrids can also use traditional 110-volt outlets, just at a slower recharging pace.
Resale values of electric hybrid cars
Something else to be wary of is the resale value. Because they are still new, Montoya says there isn’t a robust market of people looking for used versions of them, which means their value drops comparatively faster than non-electric drive vehicles.
Levin also points out that the fact that the technology is changing so rapidly, people aren’t eager to buy the older version, but instead are choosing to opt for the newer versions, much like they are drawn to the newer versions of smartphones rather than two-year-old models.
Many dealerships also can’t seem to be bothered with the electric vehicles – many don’t carry them in their inventory, and many others hesitate to steer customers toward the ones they do carry.
“It is hard to find informed salespeople. They really do seem to have a general lack of interest in selling you an electric or plug-in,” Reed says.
For several years, many people have worried that the battery longevity just won’t hold up.
“But we haven’t seen that to be true,” Levin says. “The batteries hold up pretty well. People are more nervous about them than they need to be.”
He says that if you shop wisely, that misplaced prejudice against used electric vehicles could lead to some good deals.
Cullen says that is especially true in places where the electric vehicles get you in the HOV lanes.
Because the technology is changing so rapidly, and because of a quirk in the tax credit, most experts say that plug-in hybrids are uniquely good choices to lease, rather than buy.
When you buy a plug-in, you have to wait until the next tax year to claim the credit on your income tax. When you lease it, the dealership gets the tax credit immediately and can pass that money on to you in the form of lower lease payments.
Montoya says he strongly encourages people to consider leasing their plug-ins rather than buy them.
“The technology is changing so much that three years from now, the range might be twice as much. If you purchase a vehicle, you would still be making payments on it when you really would want to be able to take advantage of those advancements,” Montoya says.
Levin says the key to understanding plug-in hybrids is to head over to a dealership and give one a test drive.
“It’s really hard to understand in your gut until you have driven one,” Levin says. “They sell themselves. If we could get everyone to spend 10 minutes in an electric vehicle, the market would shift overnight.”