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.

Day-to-day

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.

2018 Toyota Prius Prime and 2015 Nissan Leaf dashboards [CREDIT: JOHN C. BRIGGS]

2018 Toyota Prius Prime and 2015 Nissan Leaf dashboards [CREDIT: JOHN C. BRIGGS]

For these tasks the Prius Prime is our vehicle of choice. While the Prime does burn gasoline for these trips, which is disappointing for EV fans, at least it is able to travel 54 miles for each gallon of gasoline, or twice that of most vehicles sold in the USA.

Where are we?

As an electric vehicle advocate, I would like to have two long-range battery-electric cars charged at home with a large solar photovoltaic array and backed by an extensive network of high speed chargers that can fill the battery in 15 minutes. While the technology is rapidly approaching these goals high costs and limited technology rollout means we are not there yet.

So the current times demand a pragmatic environmentalism when it comes to electric vehicles. The combination of one battery electric and one plug-in hybrid vehicle can be roughly seen as my household being 75 percent electric and 25 percent gasoline. The battery electric vehicle is 100 percent electric as should be obvious.The plug-in hybrid is only about 50 percent electric, as judged by the 106 mpg (blended gas and electric) indicated on the dashboard, which for a car that gets 54 mpg on gasoline, means about a 50/50 split gas to electric. So the two vehicles together average out to 75 percent electric. Furthermore, the 25 percent that is gasoline, is twice the fuel efficiency of the average vehicle sold in the USA.

CHECK OUT: 1,000-mile Nissan Leaf electric-car road trip in the Northeast: are we there yet?

This amounts to a dramatic reduction in gasoline consumption for my household with all the positive impacts on CO2, pollution, oil spills, balance of trade, etc. True, I’ve fallen short, for now, of my personal goal of eliminating gasoline vehicles from my household, but I have also not had to suffer either the high expense of a long-range battery electric vehicle, or limited, slowish charging infrastructure of some such vehicles.

From day to day, I can enjoy all the benefits of two electric vehicles and two home chargers. But if I need to take a long trip, I can enjoy the 600-mile range of the Prius Prime and the vast network of gasoline stations that make 5-minute fill-ups possible. And that, my dear reader, that is a pragmatic solution that this environmentalist is willing to accept...until better/more affordable options become available.

 
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