Plug-in Hybrid – Transitional Tech, or Pointless Pursuit?

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Chrysler/Stellantis

Mainstream hybrid cars have been with us for more than twenty years – at least since the first Toyota Prius hit the market in 1998 – and their image has evolved considerably. When they first arrived on the scene, for example, they were hailed as the car to be seen in if you wanted to be seen saving the planet, and there were a lot of celebrities who wanted to be seen in the things in the early Aughts. Over time, the virtue-signaling vehicle of choice switched from the Prius to the Tesla, but the Prius soldiered on with considerable green cred, eventually spawning an entire line of Priuses (Prii?) in the process. These days, however, the green crowd doesn’t want to talk about hybrids in a positive light, with some journalists calling for an end to the “era” of hybrids to come – now.

From climate crusader to internal-combustion enabler in the span of just two decades, then. That’s kind of impressive, I think, but it got us thinking about plug-in hybrids. Were they really a transitional technology that could hold the hands of overly cautious consumers as they tiptoe from internal combustion to battery power, or were they a flawed, compromised technology by definition – the worst of all possible worlds, combining the pollution and maintenance needs of internal combustion with the added weight and electrical complexity of electric, with nary a benefit over either to be found? 

I, for one, think the answer to that question depends on your definition of “benefit”.

ELECTRIC DOESN’T HAVE TO BE GREENER TO BE BETTER

When Ford called me out to get a sneak peek of the new-for-2021 Ford F-150 PowerBoost hybrid truck, I made the same mistake that a number of my fellow journalist/tree huggers made: I approached it as a “green” vehicle whose purpose was to make the F-150 more environmentally friendly.

If “going green” were the goal, it would be hard to call the PowerBoost a success. Sure, it gets better MPG than the EcoBoost or the 5.0L Coyote V8, but the 25/26 MPG ratings aren’t going to land the F-150 PowerBoost on the cover of the Sierra Club newsletter – especially in “How many cows do you think died to upholster this interior?” King Ranch trim, you know? But, as I said, this was a mistake. Ford’s PowerBoost-equipped pickups weren’t created to help greenwash rural America. They were created to show every Ford truck buyer everywhere that electric was better by offering on-the-job capabilities that couldn’t be matched by trucks powered via internal combustion alone.

Just look at all that—110 and 220 available right from the bed of the truck, without the need for a secondary, gas-burning generator. Heck, you don’t have to keep your F-150 with PowerBoost running at all if there’s enough battery. What’s more, the system is smart enough to kick the gas engine back on if the charge on the smallish (compared to a “pure” EV) battery gets too low.

The advantages of having a rolling electrical outlet don’t stop on the job site, either. You can plug your camper into the bed of a PowerBoost-equipped Ford and glamp to your little heart’s content from just about anywhere, without the sounds of a generator spoiling the scenery. If you’re a Starlink customer, you’ll even have Netflix or Peacock or whatever.

Ford’s not alone in making a practical, rather than an ideological, case for electric adoption, either. Over at Jeep, the Wrangler 4xe is doing such a great job getting the general public to accept electrification that some of them don’t even realize it’s electrified to begin with!

That makes sense, of course, because the electrified Jeep Wrangler 4xe is by far the cheapest way to lease a new Jeep Wrangler going.

Yes, some of that has to do with Chrysl—sorry, Stellantis subsidizing the lease and some of it has to do with the $7,500 federal tax credit that most new 4xe buyers will qualify for, but more of it has to do with the fact that the residuals on the Jeep 4xe are a fantastic 74 percent after 3 years. Compare that to something like a Mercedes-Benz GLE, which is projected to lose more than 40 percent of its value after just three years of ownership, and the Jeep’s super low cost of admission starts to make sense.

What’s more, the Jeep Wrangler 4xe offers genuine off-road advantages compared to the internal combustion Jeeps in its pure-electric 4 Low setting like instant torque and uber-predictable power delivery with a single pedal that will make the trail-rated 4xe much more accessible to off-road noobs.

Speaking of off-road, it’s getting harder and harder to take internal combustion vehicles off-road at all, thanks to increasingly common fire restrictions and some states’ outright ban on off-road combustion engines. In the 4xe, that’s simply not a problem. You can drive out to Bentley Hills on your gas engine, then cut it off when you get to the trails and ride around fire-free.

Kind of, anyway.

ANSWERING THE QUESTION.

So, I guess I should answer that initial question about hybrid tech and whether it’s worth pursuing. In an ideal world, where consumers are educated and smart and everyone understands that electricity is electric fuel and you can almost literally get it anywhere? No – of course not. Everyone should have an EV because EVs are cleaner, quieter, and (most importantly) faster than a comparable internal-combustion car in almost every real-world scenario a typical American driver will face.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. Consumers understand “regular and premium” most of the time, but even that’s a little hazy, so getting them to understand CCS or CHAdeMO or fast charge or slow charge or kilowatt-hours is going to be a big ask. Even if they understood all that, gasoline is marketed with 100’ tall signs that light up at night and wave the American flag.

Matt Teske

That little tiny sign on the left? That’s also advertising fuel – in this case, electric fuel. Do you think the average consumer is equally aware of the fact that they can get gasoline and electric fuel at this location? What if they were driving past at 45 mph? 70?

I know, I know – there are antiquated laws preventing the for-profit sale of electricity at play here that don’t allow a business case for advertising electric fuel to be made, but that’s a reality that we deal with today. Given that context, then, I think there’s a place for PHEVs.

There’s a lesson here, too, for the critics of plug-in hybrids who clutch at their pearls when they learn that most PHEV buyers (gasp) don’t actually plug in their cars, and that’s the fact that plug-in hybrids are making a compelling case for EV technology by showcasing a number of benefits that matter to people right now, for the way they live and work and play today, and not in that utopian future where we’ve shut down the Top 100 Polluting Companies and the choice between a Prius and a LEAF actually makes a difference.

PHEVs are meeting people where they are, and (as others have said) the fact that someone is able to choose a PHEV and drive it around burning less gas, and maybe even making a few all-electric trips around the neighborhood, without changing their driving or fueling behavior in any other way, should be a compelling case in and of itself. What’s more, if my electrified pickup can actually serve my needs better than my old V8 truck? All the more reason to check out an F-150 Lightning EV the next time around … maybe when my lease is up.

[Images: Chrysler, Ford, Matt Teske]





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