2013 Plug-In Hybrids: Our Roundup

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2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid

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Hybrids have been popular gas-sipping choices for several years, but it's taken until this year for momentum to really gather behind plug-in hybrids.

Using mostly familiar hybrid technology, but with larger batteries that can be charged separately as well as during driving, many consider plug-in hybrids the ideal middle step between hybrid vehicles and full battery electric cars.

With some already  on sale and others due in the next year, we've compiled a guide on all the plug-in hybrids--and range-extended electric vehicles--you need to know about.

And happily for drivers in California, all of the cars below will have free access to California's HOV lanes.

2013 Chevrolet Volt

After slow intial sales and plenty of unpleasant prods from the media and politicians (revealed in more detail via our ultimate guide), the Volt is finally finding its feet and sales are steadily creeping up. Rather than a typical power-split plug-in hybrid like some of the others here, the Volt is really a range-extended electric vehicle--an electric drivetrain with around 40 miles of range does most of the work, but once you run out of battery juice the 1.4-liter gasoline engine keeps you going.

It's proving an incredibly popular vehicle with owners, who collectively have traveled 63 percent of their miles in EV mode--so Chevy can lay fair claim to the "electric car" tag, despite that internal combustion engine sitting in the nose.

2012 Fisker Karma during road test, Los Angeles, Feb 2012

2012 Fisker Karma during road test, Los Angeles, Feb 2012

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2013 Fisker Karma

The easiest way to think of the Fisker Karma is as a bigger, faster and sexier Chevy Volt. Indeed, it even uses a 2.0-liter GM turbocharged engine as a range extender, and it's not been immune to some of the problems Chevy faced in its first year of Volt production either.

In fact, those problems have rather tainted Fisker's reputation, with breakdowns, quality issues, recalls and fires all making the news. On the flip side, it's become the new poster child of eco-minded celebrities, with Leonardo di Caprio and Justin Bieber counting themselves among Karma owners. It may be rough around the edges, but you can't fault its performance or looks. You can read a full guide on the Fisker Karma here.

2013 Ford C-Max Energi

Ford's C-Max has been on sale for several years in Europe as a practical alternative to the Focus, and now it's hitting U.S. shores. Topping the range is the C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid version promising excellent fuel efficiency and a healthy electric range.

There's performance aplenty too. The C-Max Energi will hit 85 mph in all-electric mode, and when you're not doing freeway speeds Ford predicts an all-electric range of 20 miles. Combined EPA fuel efficiency should be around 95 MPG-equivalent. Pricing starts at $33,745--cheaper than its plug-in Prius rival.

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Comments (3)
  1. 1. It is hard to package a hybrid with IC engine, electric motors, batteries, and fuel tank. But it is exceptionally hard to package a PHEV/EREV. Manufacturers believe PHEV's will be only a small slice of volume, so they don't develop a unique platform. That means you end up with a battery stack aft of the rear seat with intrusion.

    2. This comparison also makes you appreciate what a unique product the Volt is. GM created a new body which widened the tunnel to create enough space for batteries. Yes, the Volt gives up the 5th seat but that's acceptable IMO. The 40 mile range gives the driver a much better chance to use just EV and save fuel. I'm not sure cars with a 10-15 mile range actually will get plugged in every night.

  2. @Rich: Have to disagree with your (1). Most makers (Toyota and Ford, with more to come) are deriving their plug-in power-split hybrids directly from their standard hybrids. It's not quite as simple as adding a larger pack, a charger, and a charging socket--but it's close.

    As for series hybrids (range-extended electric cars), the Volt is a more dedicated adaptation of existing GM components, and of course the Fisker Karma is a dedicated vehicle.

    Plug-in cars will remain a small portion of the overall market for several years. Only a few makers--notably Nissan--have been willing to take the plunge and tool up for volume plug-in production. The results of that bet are yet to be determined.

  3. @John: We agree on 1; for PHEV's, most manufacturers are adding a larger pack to an existing HEV without modifying the platform. Unless manufacturers revise the platform, they have fewer choices on where to put the larger pack (hence intrusion). Since they don't see the demand, they are not making dedicated PHEV/EREV's. Except Volt & Karma.

    The Volt uses Cruze components, but the underbody commonality appears to be only 28% so it is essentially a unique platform. These changes allowed GM to package the batteries in the tunnel and under the rear seat.

    Leaf has a unique underbody but holds corporate hardpoints to use Versa components and allow assembly in a common facility. Also a new platform.

    Different choices. Time will tell...

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