Battery-electric vehicle versus plug-in hybrid: why having both makes sense

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2017 Toyota Prius Prime and 2015 Nissan Leaf belonging to reader John. C. Briggs

2017 Toyota Prius Prime and 2015 Nissan Leaf belonging to reader John. C. Briggs

Not long ago, green car fans had only one choice: a hybrid vehicle like the Prius that gets all its energy from gasoline. Now there is a choice of several pure battery-electric vehicles that get all their energy from grid electricity, several plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that get their energy from a mix of grid electricity and gasoline, and several conventional hybrids like the Prius.

When it came time to replace my wife’s 2007 Toyota Prius we decided on a plug-in hybrid to replace it because it would significantly increase the number of electric miles we can drive without requiring any sacrifices in utility.

For the Prius replacement, we chose a 2017 Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid with 25 miles of electric range with a gasoline engine as backup. I also have a 2015 Nissan Leaf with 84 miles of electric range. Earlier this month, we talked about why my family chose a Prius Prime to replace the older Prius. This is the story about why we decided on a plug-in hybrid in the first place.

In the end, we chose a Prius Prime

In the end, we chose a Prius Prime

While the Nissan Leaf has been a great car, it has serious limitations on long trips, as I discovered on a 1,000-mile round trip journey from Boston to Silver Spring, Maryland in 2016. It took nine, 30-minute charging stops to complete the journey, which was only possible if all the CHAdeMO chargers along the way worked and were available. After this experience, I knew another battery-electric car like the Leaf was not the right choice for my family.

Having a plug-in hybrid like the Prius Prime makes it possible to travel anywhere that I want without worrying about range or charging infrastructure. The only limits I face is if both my wife and I want to take separate long-range trips at the same time, which is so rare as to be a non-issue. 

READ THIS: Follow-up: In the end, I bought a Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid

The easier technology to explain is the pure battery-electric vehicle. The car is charged from an electric outlet, typically in the owner’s garage. Then it can be driven a certain number of miles and recharged again, back in the owner’s garage again at night.

The more difficult technology to explain is the plug-in hybrid. These work like an electric car for the first, say, 25 miles, and then switch over and use a hybrid gasoline engine and run like a traditional gasoline car. The all-electric range for plug-in hybrids starts as low as 14 miles for something like the BMW 330e to a high of 97 miles for the BMW i3 Rex. But remember, the gasoline engine means that the car can be driven unlimited distance as long as gas stations are available.

Both technologies have their limitations and they complement each other well in two car households.


Both my wife and I have 20-mile round trip commutes to work. So we can each drive to and from work using only electricity. This provides a quiet ride and no tailpipe emissions for both of us. For these trips, the vehicles have similar qualities. But that is not the only type of trips that we make.

Medium-length trips

Occasionally, my wife and I need to take longer local trips together around Boston to see family or go to multiple stores. For these occasions, the Prius Prime would switch over to gasoline mode and reduce the greenness of our transportation. But the range of these trips is typically well within the capabilities of the 84-mile range LEAF and allows us to use only electricity for these tasks. So for medium length trips, the Leaf is our go-to vehicle.

Longer trips

On those occasions when we wish to hike the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the 84-mile range of the Leaf falls short. We would need about a 300-mile all-electric range in a battery electric vehicle to make these trips possible. Between a shortage of fast chargers in that area of the world and the relatively slow speed of such chargers (unless it is a Tesla), the pure battery-electric vehicle is just not the right tool for the job at this time.

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