Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are slugging it out with pure battery cars and SUVs to lead the great electric revolution, boosted by their elimination of range anxiety, but governments and radical environmentalists can’t abide the fact they can use miniscule amounts of fossil fuel and they seek to ban the technology, in a classic case of “killing the good in a quest for perfection,” as Voltaire almost said.
I’ve been driving the Suzuki Across PHEV, a mirror image of the Toyota RAV4 Prime PHEV in the U.S., and its range – up to 50 miles because of a much bigger battery – presents a compelling case as a pure electric vehicle almost all of the time for average users.
Suzuki pulled out of the U.S. market in 2012.
PHEVs have petrol or diesel power to back up a battery which can run on electricity independently. Most current PHEVs dry up after about 30 miles on a good day or more likely around 20. Ferrari GTB PHEV owners can feel battery-smug only for about 16 miles before the twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter 654 hp V6 screams into life. Traditional hybrids, made famous by the Toyota Prius, use a gasoline engine augmented by a battery which boosts the performance and helps fuel economy. The battery is powered by liaising with the internal combustion engine (ICE) and can’t be charged independently. Battery-only range is less than a mile.
This Across/Prime battery will stay alive for about 50 miles and that’s more than enough for most people’s daily commuting, school runs and shopping. But the 2.5 liter gasoline engine raises range to about 430 miles, so high-speed long journeys or the race to the summer sun are possible without the dreaded range anxiety. More long-range PHEVs are on the launch pad, notably one from Mercedes which offers about 60 miles of battery-only range.
Currently the top three PHEVs in Europe are the Volvo XC40, the Peugeot 3008, and the BMW 3 Series, according to Schmidt Automotive Research.
Some European governments, notably Britain but not big auto making nations like Germany, France and Italy so far, plan to ban the sale of ICE powered vehicles by 2030 and have called into question the future of PHEVs and regular Prius-type hybrids. European Union (EU) rules jeopardize the sale of PHEVs and regular hybrids because of harsh CO2 emission rules. EU CO2 rules insist auto makers raise average fuel efficiency by curbing CO2 emissions to the equivalent of about 57 miles per U.S. gallon in 2020/2021, up from 41.9 mpg in 2015, tightening again by 15% in 2025, and hitting 92 mpg by 2030. The EU is expected this month to tighten the rules again for after 2025.
How did PHEVs become hated pariahs rather than enabling saviours, at least by politicians and environmentalists?
Some big fleet operators exploited the tax exemption rules by buying PHEVs, then failed to make their operatives use them sensibly. Because company car drivers don’t pay for their own gasoline, they had no incentive to plug-in the vehicles. Result? Many corporate owned tax-funded PHEVs consumed more fuel than the ICE ones they replaced. This could easily be fixed by perhaps geo-fencing or imposing rules, but this hasn’t happened. So this fantastic shortcut to electrification with no range anxiety has been stymied, as green groups cheer from the sidelines.
Last year GreenPeace UK said this.
“Plug-in hybrids are the car industry’s wolf-in-sheep’s clothing. They may seem a much more environmentally friendly choice, but false claims of lower emissions are a ploy by car manufacturers to go on producing SUVs and petrol (gasoline) and diesel engines.”
Brussels-based Transport & Environment said this.
“Plug-in hybrids are fake electric cars, built for lab tests and tax breaks, not real driving. Our tests show that even in optimal conditions, with a full battery, the cars pollute more than advertised. Unless you drive them softly, carbon emissions can go off the charts. Governments should stop subsidizing these cars with billions in taxpayers’ money.”
These comments make sense only when talking about business use of PHEVs, not private.
In a week driving 309 miles with this PHEV and plugging it in every night, I mostly used no gasoline at all. On a slightly longer trip some gasoline was used for an effective overall return of 257.3 miles per U.S. gallon. My annual mileage of about 8,000 miles with this vehicle would use perhaps between only 1% and 5% of normal ICE gasoline consumption. Suzuki claims an average of 235 miles per U.S. gallon, but this is a very arbitrary claim. The important one is, in average use, this vehicle will use no gasoline at all.
Because of this, PHEVs are popular. In the first half of 2021 in Germany, electrified vehicles won 22.5% of the market, Europe’s biggest, with PHEVs on 11.8% and battery electric vehicles (BEV) 10.7%, according to the Center of Automotive Management. But forecasters predict this will be a peak for PHEVs, while BEVs will capture more and more market share, according to data provider IHS Markit. IHS says in the European Union, BEV market share will rise to 23.0% in 2025 and race on to 39.5% by 2030, while PHEVs will manage 8.8% in 2035 and only 9.5% in 2030. Given that BEVs are still and will probably remain unaffordable for average wage earners by 2030, and rapidly shed electric power while cruising legally in Europe at 80 mph, this is bad news for car buyers.
The likelihood that a PHEV used by an average driver might use, say only 5% of the gasoline compared with an ICE vehicle, makes it hard to understand why EU rules are aimed at forcing people to buy BEV. The rules don’t actually say that, but the technicalities suggest otherwise.
Al Bedwell, analyst with LMC Automotive, agrees PHEVs are an attractive proposition.
“From a user point of view, under certain circumstances, I think you’re right, and that the latest PHEVs have pretty much all of the attributes of a BEV that most people need on a daily basis. They can reap the benefits of low fuel cost and silent running plus, and this is quite a big one, especially in the U.K., users may pay less for them than they would for an ICE car because of favorable company car tax rates,” Bedwell said
“However, one of the reasons that we continue to be rather pessimistic about PHEVs is that we think that as BEV battery prices come down, they will be able to reduce costs quite considerably whereas PHEVs will be constrained by greater mechanical complexity. And, policy will inevitably push the industry to zero emissions, ruling out PHEVs in the long-term (2030+),” Bedwell said.
It remains to be seen if this long promised emergence of cheaper batteries ever sees the light of day. Meanwhile Bedwell concedes PHEVs could surprise forecasters.
“We may be underestimating their (PHEV) appeal in the medium-term though, and their success from now until 2030 is likely a function of how quickly BEVs get cheaper and how quicky the charging infrastructure improves. If that happens more slowly than our assumption, then our PHEV forecast might end looking too conservative,” Bedwell said.
But public reluctance to buy electric cars because of their price, range anxiety and the clunkiness of the charging experience – the lack of a universal system of payment, plus a perceived unreliability of charge point availability – will make PHEVs attractive to the public.
British-based automotive analyst Charles Tennant puts it this way.
“Yet while it is the punitive EU CO2 emission targets that are driving the move to electrification it could also be said that customers remain reluctant to completely give up their love of ICE cars, and that the PHEV option may surprise us all by continuing to sell well. Even Volkswagen are seeing higher Western Europe sales of their (new) hybrids – 70,000 sales so far this year – than the pure electric (ones) with 50,000 sales. After all, if the PHEV can benefit from better battery technology to give higher electric only range (currently up to 50 miles) and a total range of over 400 miles then that is certainly a customer incentive to purchase,” Tennant said.
“So while it is range anxiety that is keeping the PHEV sales going it will eventually be government policy that kills it,” Tennant said.
Professor Patrick Ploetz from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research said manufacturers should strive to raise the range of PHEVs from the current 30 miles to close to 60 miles and that would be enough to cover about 70% of private German car drivers if charged every day. Company car operatives should be incentivized to recharge frequently, Ploetz said in a report last year entitled “Real-World Usage Of Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles.
Suzuki and Toyota have a cross-shareholding arrangement under which Suzuki gets to put its badge on a modified RAV4.
The full quote from French…