Way back at the beginning of the electric car era (2010), Tesla and Nissan decided to forego plug-in hybrid strategies and make battery electric cars instead. Chevrolet decided to go in a different direction. It chose the plug-in hybrid route but with a twist. Instead of a car that drives mostly thanks to an internal combustion engine with assistance from an electric motor, it decided to make a car that drives mostly thanks to an electric motor and with assistance from an internal combustion engine.
Nissan has gone on to sell the most electric cars in the world. Tesla has established itself as a maker of premium electric luxury cars. But Chevrolet may have arrived at the best compromise between electric mobility and real-world convenience. For drivers of electric cars, range anxiety is an issue. True, there are more electric chargers available today than there were in 2010, but once you unplug from your charger at home, you always have this question nagging at the back of your mind — where can I recharge my car if I need to?
With the Chevy Volt, there is no range anxiety ever. As long as there are gas stations, you can drive whenever and wherever you want with nary a care for how much electric power is available from your car’s battery. Even in gasoline mode, the Volt gets a very respectable 42 mpg on the highway — better than 95% of all other cars on the road.
Now Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota are beginning to see that Chevrolet had the right answer. Together, they have decided to make plug-in hybrid technology an important part of their core business model, at least until battery technology and charging infrastructure combine to eliminate range anxiety as a factor in ordinary driving.
Dave Zuchowski, CEO of Hyundai Motor America, tells Automotive News that plug-ins do more than just help car companies to meet tighter fuel economy and emissions regulations. They also are less expensive to buy and own than ordinary hybrid vehicles, once government incentives are factored in. Hyundai currently has a full range of hybrid models but expects to add plug-in variants in the near future. “Every one of our hybrids will have plug-in derivative,” Zuchowski says.
Car companies always have an eye on how much it costs them to make a car. Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor America told the press at the New York Auto Show in March, “The next iteration of extending mileage is probably going to be plug-ins, because that takes the least amount of r&d. Every time you improve the battery or you improve the [internal combustion engine], then you improve the overall range and mileage of a PHEV,” Lentz said. “So to me that’s the next big move in volume.”
Toyota will introduce its next-generation Camry in 2017. Industry observers think that may be the perfect time for Toyota to add plug-in technology to the Camry.
Honda announced recently that two thirds of its vehicles will be electrified by 2030. It will introduce the new Clarity later this year. Originally designed as a fuel cell car, the Clarity will also offer a plug-in hybrid and battery electric version in 2107. “Globally we’re committed to offering a plug-in variant on our major core models in the future,” John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co., said in announcing the Clarity plans last month.
Honda’s next-gen CR-V is due next year. It is a likely candidate to get a plug-in hybrid powertrain, especially since the new Toyota RAV4 plug-in is enjoying strong sales since it was introduced. The CR-V will share the same platform as the current Civic and next-generation Accord, so if a PHEV powertrain fits one, it should fit all.
The market has responded favorably to plug-in cars. Plug-in sales were up 40% in the first quarter of 2016 according to Edmunds.com, due in part to strong demand for the second-generation Chevy Volt. Purists bemoan the fact that plug-in hybrids are a compromise. They would prefer car companies to push battery development as hard as possible instead of wasting time on some in between solution that has one foot in the internal combustion past and one in the battery electric future.
They have a point, but in a world where total auto sales exceed 40 million per year, automakers have to figure out how to meet tougher regulations, satisfy customer expectations, and still build millions and millions of cars at a profit. For right now, the plug-in hybrid is the answer they are all coming up with.