The Four Most Important Factors When Choosing a Plug-in Hybrid

By · March 30, 2017

Chevy Volt

The Chevrolet Volt offers 53 miles of all-electric range.

If you’ve been thinking about making the switch to an electric car, but have concerns about how far you can drive before needing to recharge, then you should consider a plug-in hybrid.

A plug-in hybrid provides most of the environmental and efficiency benefits of an electric car while maintaining the same driving range as conventional vehicles—eliminating so-called "range anxiety.” In other words, some drivers—particularly those with long commutes or who take regular long-distance road trips—can travel local miles on electricity but still have the option to quickly refuel at a gas station and zip back on the highway. That’s the charm of a plug-in hybrid.

But which of the nearly 20 plug-in hybrids is right for you? Consider these four factors to help you make the best choice.

1. Go with the highest all-electric range.

The Chevy Volt goes a whopping 53 miles purely on electricity before the gasoline engine is brought into use. After those 53 miles, a 1.4-liter gas-powered engine takes over most of the work, adding 367 more miles of range when the 8.9-gallon gas tank is full.

So if you plug in every night at home, and have a daily commute of fewer than 50 miles, you could drive for weeks without using a drop of gas—and only need to visit a gas station a couple of times per year. And yet, when you’re ready for a long trip, the Volt can still serve your needs.

Why should you want the longest all-electric range, which allows you to drive more miles in electric mode? Because it gives you all the benefits of an EV:

  • Quick, quiet and smooth acceleration
  • Cheap electric fuel
  • Avoiding the time and hassle of going to a gas station
  • Reducing wear and tear on the engine, so the car is cheaper to operate
  • Dramatic environmental benefits, including to tailpipe emissions

While the Chevy Volt is the gold standard for all-electric range, most plug-in hybrids provide between about 15 to 30 miles on electricity before switching to gasoline. We recommend the Volt for its outstanding all-electric range—but perhaps you’re looking for a car that’s bigger, offers more luxury features, or has different styling. In that case, peruse this list of plug-in hybrids sorted by range, from highest to lowest.

2. Study your likely driving and charging patterns.

After studying the list—focusing on the plug-in hybrids with the highest range—it’s time to evaluate how far you typically drive in a single day. This is important because the goal is to drive on electricity as much as possible. If the mileage you drive in a day is lower than the all-electric range of a plug-in hybrid, then you are likely to remain running on electricity and not burn any gasoline.

There’s something else to consider: your ability to charge during the day. If you have access to workplace charging, then you might be able to drive on electricity on the way to work, and then (while on the job) plug in to top up your car’s battery pack, preparing for your return commute. In this way, you can drive on electricity in both directions.

The relatively small battery pack in a plug-in hybrid (compared to a pure EV) means that you can completely recharge in a relatively short period, usually two to three hours. If you have access to a Level 2 240-volt charging station during the day, you will effectively be increasing the number of miles you travel on electricity during a typical day. So before finalizing your shopping list, study your driving and charging patterns—or using an online map, measure the distance between common destinations. A little research could expand your options to include plug-in hybrids with relatively lower all-electric range.

3. Consider the efficiency after the battery pack is depleted.

Toyota Prius Prime

When using its gas engine, the Prius Prime gets 54 miles per gallon, making it one of the most efficient cars on the road even after the battery pack is depleted..

Once again, the benefit of a plug-in hybrid is the flexibility it offers for driving locally on electricity—but using some amount of gasoline for longer trips.

If your commute requires driving past the car’s all-electric range, it’s not a big deal. Don’t make perfect the enemy of the very good. Those first electric miles were as clean and green as any EV. After the battery is depleted, the car essentially becomes a conventional hybrid, which is also exceptionally efficient. And yet, some plug-in hybrids are more efficient than others when the gas engine is being used. For example, after the Prius Prime plug-in hybrid runs through its first 25 miles purely on electricity, its gasoline efficiency is 54 mpg—compare to the Volt's 42 miles per gallon.

Also, the way a plug-in hybrid handles (and sounds) can noticeably change after the battery pack is depleted. A plug-in hybrid’s gas engine is often downsized because it gets a boost from the electric motor. But small high-revving gas engines can sometimes be noisy, making them a little annoying after enjoying a quiet electric ride for the first set of miles.

4. Choose a plug-in hybrid just like any other car you might buy.

At the end of the day, your car's powertrain is only one of many considerations. There's also price, comfort, handling, cargo capacity and the number of passengers that fit. So shop the same way you would buy any vehicle. For many buyers, that means starting with cost—so check out the list of plug-in hybrids sorted by price from lowest to highest.

Vehicle size is obviously critical. There are plug-in hybrids offered as compacts, midsize sedans and even a minivan. Narrow your selection by the number of people who will typically travel in your car.

The market is also roughly divided down the middle based on luxury brands (like Audi, BMW and Mercedes) and affordable makes (such as Chevrolet, Ford, Hyundai and Toyota).

Audi A3 E-Tron

The Audi A3 E-Tron only offers 16 miles of all-electric range, but it’s a fun, stylish and capable car. There is no reason to sacrifice style and luxury when buying a plug-in hybrid.

It’s nice to have plush seats and beautiful appointments, but they come at a cost, so keep this in mind: If you’ve been driving a luxury vehicle, you might be surprised by the creature comforts and high-quality driving manners offered by affordable brands. Driving on electricity provides a level of refinement and quiet usually not found in cars with modest price tags. And plug-in hybrid variants of popular models often come with high-tech and luxury features reserved for more expensive trim levels.

It’s also important to consider the automakers face a challenge of finding enough space to package the gas engine, electric motor and the extra batteries. In some cases, that means using trunk space for the batteries, reducing the cargo space. Read our car reviews on that regard, and then visit a dealership, where you should open the hatch or trunk to evaluate if there’s enough room for gear.

Considering these four factors should help you get started with finding the best plug-in hybrid for you. The fun part comes next: taking a test drive to see how each car feels behind the wheel.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
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  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
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  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
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