Excerpted from Take the Wheel: A Woman’s Guide to Buying a Car Her Own Damn Self by Kristen Hall-Geisler—new and improved and available November 2017!
If a hybrid is dipping a toe in alternative fuels, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is rolling up your jeans and wading in to your knees. These are hybrids that recharge their batteries by plugging into a wall in addition to using regenerative brakes. They also have that trusty gasoline engine on board.
Plug-in hybrids have bigger battery packs that can store more energy—way more than you could capture with just the brakes. Plugging the car in overnight will give you an electric-only range that might get you to work and back the next day. Most PHEVs can travel 20–30 miles using electricity only.
These cars all have a gasoline engine on board to alleviate range anxiety—the fear that the batteries don’t have enough juice to get you where you’re going, which might leave you stranded alone on the side of the road at midnight in a desolate, moonless landscape ripe for murderous rapists. Anyway, you won’t have to worry about that because plug-in hybrids have an engine. How they use that engine varies, though. Some use it just the way a regular hybrid does—when you ask your car to go a little faster or a little farther, like passing on the highway or taking a road trip, the engine kicks in and mostly does all the work.
But the engines in some plug-in hybrids never turn the wheels. Sometimes these are called range-extended vehicles, though the US Department of Energy classifies them as PHEVs. Their engines act as on-board generators for the batteries. You can drive a few dozen miles in a Chevrolet Volt on the power from your plug, but if you drive farther, the generator engine starts cranking out power and storing it in the batteries, so your electric motor can keep turning the wheels. If all you do is commute ten miles to work and ten miles home with an overnight plug-in, the gasoline engine might never fire up.
While a PHEV can recharge at any outlet, it will recharge quite a bit faster at a 220-volt outlet than at the more usual 110-volt outlet. There is a gasoline engine to keep you rolling, though, so whether you want to install a higher voltage outlet is really up to you. The 220-volt is the same kind of outlet your dryer uses, which is not all that special, but you probably don’t have an extra one in your garage.
Who Gets the Biggest Bang for This Buck?
Like the hybrid powertrain of the 2000s, a plug-in hybrid gets its best fuel economy in town, where the electric motor can do most of the work. Once you get up to highway speeds and distances, the gasoline engine will start to help out, either directly or as a generator.
Compared to a conventional combustion engine, though, these souped-up hybrids are gas sippers. Plug-in hybrids work really well for one-car households, whether that’s because there’s only one adult who drives, or because you share a car, or because you both bike to work but occasionally need a car for groceries or trips to IKEA. Plug-in hybrids tend to be substantial vehicles rather than small cars, so they usually have four doors and room for kids in the back.
Having that backup engine gives buyers wading in the green-car marketplace a measure of security. No being stranded in a moonless landscape ripe for murderous rapists for you, plug-in hybrid owner! But the technology is still pretty expensive, so make sure that you’ll be able to maximize the electric-only miles in order to justify the extra dollars.
Is It Really Green?
Here’s a revelation: a plug-in hybrid is slightly more eco-friendly than a plain old hybrid and not as green as an electric-only car. Since that is pretty obvious, here’s a quick look at the numbers so you can see for yourself what each type of car on the electric spectrum consumes and emits.
The easiest and most basic data to compare comes, yet again, from the EPA. The Toyota Prius Prime, Chrysler Pacifica Plug-In Hybrid, and Chevy Volt are representative of what a plug-in hybrid can do. Each of them emits 100–150 grams of carbon dioxide per mile or less. That’s about a quarter of the average passenger car, which emits 411 grams per mile.
And that’s if you drive it according to the boring old Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Owners of plug-in hybrids know all the tricks for eking out every electric mile, from charging every time they park to changing their commute routes to maximizing the downhills. Sites like VoltStats.net show what the dedicated plug-in hybrid owner can do. This site is devoted to the Chevy Volt, and users are regularly racking up more than a thousand miles per gallon.
On the driving side, plug-in hybrids are as green as you make them. You can use hypermiling tricks and charge during your utility’s off-peak hours to maximize the green effects of the car and save money, or you can just drive it like you would any car and still get better mileage than you would from a car with only a gasoline engine.