Car Buying Tips

Answering Your Most Common Questions About Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles (PHEVs)

As fuel prices remain unstable and more shoppers consider sustainability in their purchase decisions, plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) are becoming increasingly popular. With the ability to deliver all-electric driving for shorter trips and commuting, while also offering a gasoline-powered hybrid system for longer trips, PHEVs promise to slash fuel bills.

One part EV and one part hybrid, PHEV technology is improving, becoming increasingly popular, and is widely considered to be bridging the gap between today’s gasoline-fired reality and our electric motoring future. Many new PHEV owners gleefully report being totally off of gasoline for their daily errands and commuting.

For more details on the different types of electric and hybrid vehicles available today, and a detailed explanation about the differences between hybrids and plug-in hybrids, check out our in-depth guide to electric vehicles.

Below, we’ll answer your 11 most popular questions about plug-in hybrids and PHEV technology.

Are plug-in hybrids zero emissions?

According to Transport Canada, a zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) is a vehicle that has the potential to produce no tailpipe emissions. A ZEV can still have a conventional internal combustion engine, but it can operate without it.

Transport Canada considers battery electric vehicles (also referred to as electric vehicles, BEVs or EVs), hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to be ZEVs. In Canada, therefore, PHEVs are classified as zero emissions vehicles, even though they do produce tailpipe emissions while their combustion engine is running. If they’re running on battery power alone, that’s when they’re truly zero emissions.

Can a plug-in hybrid charge itself?

Yes, all hybrids charge themselves automatically as you drive around, and this is also the case for plug-in hybrids.

In a regular hybrid, the self-recharging battery is charged using excess energy created by the engine, moving wheels, and recuperated braking energy as you drive around. In a plug-in hybrid, the same principle applies, but the difference is battery size.

A standard hybrid battery is only designed to store a small amount of charge, so it can quickly be recharged while driving. A plug-in hybrid’s battery, however, stores a much larger amount of energy, so while self-charging takes place, it’s insufficient to fill the larger plug-in battery up in a timely fashion. That’s why plug-in hybrids need to be connected to an external power source to charge fully.

Can a PHEV tow a trailer?

The answer to this depends on the PHEV. Popular models like the Toyota RAV4 Prime, Hyundai Tucson PHEV, and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV are rated to tow 2,500 lb, 2,000 lb, and 1,500 lb, respectively. The new Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe is a PHEV version of the popular 4x4, and it can tow up to 6,000 lb.

Look for more PHEV options as competition intensifies, including in the SUV and pickup truck market segments where towing capacity helps sell vehicles. All said, today’s shopper should have little difficulty finding a PHEV with enough towing capacity to meet their needs unless they’re planning on huge jobs.

What plug-in hybrid SUVs are available?

Today, there are many plug-in hybrid SUV models available in different sizes and price points. Some popular plug-in hybrid SUV models in Canada include the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, Toyota RAV4 Prime, Jeep Wrangler 4xe, Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe, Hyundai Tucson PHEV, Kia Sportage PHEV, Hyundai Santa Fe PHEV, Volvo XC60 and XC90 Recharge, Porsche Cayenne e-Hybrid, BMW X3 and X5 plug-ins, Lincoln Aviator and Corsair Grand Touring, Mini Cooper S E Countryman All4, Ford Escape PHEV, Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, Lexus NX, and others.

If you’re not set on an SUV, the Chrysler Pacifica PHEV is a plug-in powered minivan with a flexible interior and three rows of seating.

What plug-in hybrids come with AWD?

Most Canadians buy vehicles equipped with AWD or 4x4, and that’s reflected in today’s PHEV offerings. With a few exceptions, plug-in hybrid SUVs are all generally AWD-equipped. In the list above, only the Ford Escape PHEV and Chrysler Pacifica PHEV don’t offer AWD.

What plug-in hybrids have the longest electric range?

Most PHEV models offer between 30 and 80 kilometres of range, though these figures will vary depending on driving habits, locale, and other factors. The Toyota RAV4 Prime, Lexus NX 450h+, and Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid offer about 70, 60, and 50 kilometres of range, respectively. With most Canadians driving less than 50 kilometres per day, this all-electric range is sufficient to get most drivers off of gasoline for all but their longest trips.

Can a plug-in hybrid run without gas?

While a PHEV can run on battery power alone for short distances, you should never attempt to drive a PHEV (or any other vehicle) with an empty tank, as you could damage the engine.

Will a plug-in hybrid save me money?

The answer to this question depends on a lot of variables that will differ from driver to driver, so be sure to do your own calculations based on where and how you drive, and to consider a few factors as well.

After purchasing a PHEV, most drivers charge overnight in their driveway at home, while parked at work, or at public charging stations whenever convenient. Keeping the battery topped up helps maximize the amount of time the vehicle can spend driving in EV mode, where it uses no fuel. It’s most affordable to charge at home during off-peak hours, but if you’re using a Level 2 charger instead of the slower on-board charger that comes with a PHEV that you can plug into any wall socket, there’s an additional cost to buying one and getting it professionally installed.

For many drivers, charging the PHEV battery as often as possible means going to the gas station a few times a year, instead of a few times a month. It’s common for PHEV drivers to save hundreds a month on fuel, though the added cost of the vehicle and slight increase to your hydro bill should be considered, too.

So should resale value: as fuel prices are predicted to remain unstable, hybrid and plug-in hybrid models could have higher resale value than non-electrified vehicles in the coming years.

What’s the main advantage of a plug-in hybrid?

Compared to a regular hybrid, the main advantage of a plug-in is the extended capability for all-electric driving. In a regular hybrid car, the vehicle uses self-generated electricity to boost the power of the gas engine, and in some situations like coasting or parking, to drive the car solely on electric power with the gas engine turned off.

In a regular hybrid, all-electric driving is only possible for short periods because of the smaller battery pack. With the added battery capacity of a plug-in hybrid, additional stored energy can be used to drive the car in all-electric mode for dozens of kilometres at a time, instead of just a few seconds.

To put it simply, the biggest advantage is that plug-in hybrids can spend much more time driving on battery power alone, which can save large amounts of fuel.

Other benefits include an increase in performance and throttle response and the availability of certain government incentives available to some plug-in vehicles that aren’t available on regular hybrids (the kind with no plug).

What happens if you don’t plug in a plug-in hybrid?

A plug-in hybrid only needs to be recharged when the driver finds it convenient to do so. Since PHEVs also run a conventional gas-electric hybrid powertrain, they’re capable of driving even with zero charge left in the battery, as long as there’s fuel in the tank.

In fact, once the battery is depleted, the PHEV automatically runs the gas-hybrid engine, with no input from the driver. Ultimately, plugging in a PHEV is always optional and never mandatory. Though plugging in often helps you directly in saving fuel, there’s no situation where plugging in for a recharge is a requirement.

How far can a plug-in hybrid go?

With a full charge and a full tank of gas, a PHEV can travel several hundreds of kilometres. Most PHEV models offer about 50 kilometres of all-electric range with a fully charged battery, followed by hundreds of kilometres more on a tank of gasoline. Generally, a PHEV will drive as far or further than a comparable non-hybrid model – though it will use less fuel to travel the same distance.