Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, also called plug-ins or PHEVs, are the right choice for many drivers for much of this decade, until the number of public charging stations increases, battery-pack bang for the buck improves and overall prices fall on pure battery electric vehicles.
Half of our favorite plug-ins go at least 30 miles, roughly the length of the average U.S. round-trip commute, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The others get you to work and started on your way home. None of them will strand you, because there’s a gasoline engine and tank.
One in Five Electrified Vehicles Were Plug-Ins Last Year
Sometimes statistics about “electric cars” can be tricky. Do they include plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), or just battery electric vehicles (BEVs)? It goes both ways. Last year, Pew Research said 64,300 plug-in hybrids, vehicles with a gas engine and electric motor, were sold in the U.S., compared to 213,000 battery-only cars. According to Statista, PHEVs accounted for a fifth of all electric sales last year.
PHEV sales were down by half since 2018, but Covid-19 plays a role and it’s hard to draw firm conclusions—the whole car market declined by 23 % in 2020. The format was always transitional to battery EVs, which have been steadily adding range as technology improves. General Motors, for one, isn’t even offering a PHEV since killing the Volt in 2019—it clearly thinks pure EVs, featuring its Ultium batteries, are ready for prime time. EVs as a whole (including PHEVs) are still only 2% of U.S. new car sales, but 10 million of them are now on the world’s roads.
Toyota and sibling Lexus get a significant share of sales from alternative propulsion vehicles: 16 of 30 vehicles are offered as hybrids or plug-ins, including one hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (Mirai), and they accounted for 24% of Toyota’s sales for the first nine months of 2021. Of the two models with hybrid and plug-in versions, just under half of Prius sales were plug-ins and a fifth of RAV4 alternative propulsion models, one in five were plug-ins.
Why Plug-Ins Make Sense
Many cars available today can be bought in PHEV versions. They eliminate legitimate concerns about range anxiety and available public charging. Plug-ins combine passable electric range of 18 to 42 miles—passable when there’s another 300 to 600 more miles on tap from the gas engine. For people with short commutes, the gas engine might only be used for longer weekend getaways.
All plug-ins can get at least part of the available federal income tax credit of up to $7,500. The credit is based on battery size, and varies considerably in PHEVs. A vehicle with a battery of 16.0 kilowatt-hours is eligible for the full $7,500 credit.
Plug-In’s Electric Motor as Turbocharger
One more thing to know: An electric motor develops maximum power (torque) at much lower rpm than the companion gas engine. Even when the car switches to gasoline mode, there’s still enough juice for the battery and motor to act as a booster, essentially an electric turbocharger. RAV4 Prime partisans are fond of noting the RAV4 Prime is Toyota’s quickest four-door vehicle.
In other words, the same electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack intended to improve mpg also zips you to 60 mph a second or two faster. In the case of of the RAV4 Prime, it’s as little as 5.7 seconds, 2 seconds less than the gas engine RAV4.
Below are 10 relatively strong-selling PHEV choices, ranging from entry level to full-on luxury. We’ve sorted them by battery range. If you want a bridge vehicle to carry you toward the full-electric future, then you’ll want to do most of your daily driving without waking the gasoline engine, and battery range should be a big part of the buying decision.
Three of our favorites travel at least 500 miles combined, battery motor and gasoline engine. The cars below are 2021 models except where specified. For more on plug-ins, see Best Plug-In Hybrids For 2021 from Forbes Wheels reviews.
Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, 48 EV Miles
The battery-only version of the Clarity (discontinued last year) was a range-challenged EV, but the PHEV has much to recommend it, including 48 electric miles from its 17-kilowatt-hour battery pack. The 1.5-liter four (which rarely drives the wheels) combines with a beefy electric motor to produce a combined 212 horsepower and decent 8.1-second zero to 60 times. Owners praise the comfort and ride quality, though the back seat could be larger. The $33,400 Clarity gets the full $7,500 credit.
Toyota RAV4 Prime, 42 Miles
This is what a plug-in should be: The $38,500 PHEV version of the RAV4, with an 18.1-kilowatt-hour battery, 42 miles of EV range, 600 miles total. It’s an impressive ride. Some reviewers say the real-world range is better than that. There’s also 302 combined horsepower on that RAV4, which makes it the fastest four-door Toyota. Only the Supra has faster acceleration. The RAV4 Prime gets the full $7,500 tax credit. The upmarket XSE model ($41,675) offers many useful features, including 19-inch wheels, paddle shifters and some safety equipment. There have also been some improvements to the $28,220 Prius Prime sedan, which now has 25 miles of EV range. But it’s a pokier beast, with a 121-horsepower powertrain. The $28,220 Prius Prime is eligible for a $4,502 federal income tax credit. If there’s one plug-in you shop, make it the RAV4 Prime.
Ford Escape Plug-In Hybrid, 37 Miles
Toyota produced the first hybrids that Americans could buy and Ford had the first American entry with the Escape in 2004. They subsequently proved themselves as taxis on the potholed streets of New York. The Escape PHEV ($34,755, with a $6,843 credit) uses a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine coupled to an electric motor for 221 total horsepower. Electric range is 37 miles (530 total) via a 14.4-kilowatt-hour battery pack. There’s no all-wheel drive version. It’s worth upgrading to the $38,000 SEL version, which adds heated simulated leather front seats with power adjustment for the driver, convenience and cold weather packages, parking sensors and fog lights. The Co-Pilot360 Assist+ package adds adaptive cruise.
Chrysler Pacifica Plug-In Hybrid Minivan, 32 Miles
The $39,995 Pacifica is still America’s one PHEV minivan, though the Toyota Sienna is now only available as a hybrid. Electric range via a 16-kilowatt-hour battery is 32 miles (566 total). A drawback of the PHEV version is that the company’s famous Stow ‘n Go seats are not available in the second row (which is equipped with captain’s chairs. It’s a big vehicle, and needs the 260 horsepower it gets from a 3.6-liter V-6 (the same one that’s in the standard Pacifica) with two electric motors. For a grocery getter, the 7.4-second zero-to-60 time isn’t bad. Cargo space—critical in a minivan—is 87.5 cubic feet if the third row is down.
Hyundai Santa Fe Plug-In Hybrid, 30 Miles
Good news for Santa Fe buyers: The 2022 model has a 13.8-kilowatt-hour battery pack, giving it a $6,587 tax credit. Apply it, and that means the PHEV is actually cheaper than the hybrid version. The 2022 Santa Fe starts at $40,535, though discriminating buyers might want to spring for the Limited. The PHEV’s 177-horsepower 1.6-liter four is linked to a 90-horsepower electric motor for 260 horsepower combined. Electric range is 30 miles, 440 total. The Limited trim increases the price to $46,545, but adds such useful features as leather seats, a 360-degree camera, and an eight-inch infotainment screen with a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster.
Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid, 26 Miles
Starting at $30,765 (with a $4,543 credit) the Niro is one of the more affordable PHEVs. EV range is 26 miles via an 8.9-kilowatt-hour, with a very good 560 miles total. The 1.6-liter four and electric motor provide a modest 139 horsepower via a six-speed automatic. Kia also makes an Optima PHEV, $37,315 in the only EX trim (with a $4,919 credit). With a 10-kilowatt-hour battery electric range is slightly more, 28 miles, and you get a fair amount of oomph—202 horsepower. You have to opt for a sedan, though. That’s an issue for some people who like to sit up high. Recharging the Niro is a quick 2.5 hours; the Optima might take a little longer.
Audi A7 55 TSFI e Quattro Plug-In Hybrid, 24 Miles
The A7 PHEV allows its buyers to own a big, luxurious high-end Audi and still claim some green cred. The Sportback offers a turbo two-liter four that sandwiches an electric motor between it and a seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission. It produces a net 362 horsepower, good for 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. But remember, this is a PHEV, so its 14.1-kilowatt-hour battery gives it 24 miles of all-electric range (440 total). The S line exterior package is standard, as are LED headlights with high-beam assist, four-zone automatic climate control and 20-inch wheels. This is a $74,900 car, with $6,712 in federal money available to reduce the sting.
Mitsubishi Outlander Plug-In Hybrid, 24 Miles
This was one of the first plug-in hybrids available. Now it has a great deal of competition. The $37,490 PHEV loses the three-row seating of the conventional model, which was redesigned for 2022. The 2.4-liter engine and electric motor produce a combined 221 horsepower, an increase from the earlier model. The credit is now $6,587. EV range is also up, to 24 miles from 22. But total range of 320 miles is a bit skimpy. As in the Escape, it’s the SEL model that’s the sweet spot, adding the touchscreen Apple/Android infotainment you’re going to want, along with auto high beams and blind-spot monitoring.
BMW 530e, 24 Miles, and 530e xDrive, 18 Miles
BMW offers PHEVs in the 3-, 5- and 7-series, as well as the X5 and, through the 2021 model year, the X3. In total, BMW has offered 18 PHEV models since 2014, the most of any automaker. The current 530e sedan (there’s also an all-wheel-drive, or xDrive, version) is eligible for a $4,668 rebate, offsetting the $55,550 purchase price. The four-cylinder turbo engine and electric motor produce 288 horsepower at the rear wheels. The EV range from a 12-kilowatt-hour battery is only 21 miles (320 combined), and a mere 18 in the xDrive version. That’s not impressive, and pales compared to the X5 PHEV’s 31 miles. Owners getting to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds might not worry all that much, but there are faster BMWs.
Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring, 21 Miles
This luxurious $68,980 SUV weighs in at 5,700 pounds, but it has 494 horsepower available from its three-liter, twin-turbo V-6, 10-speed automatic and 75-kilowatt electric motor. That’s enough for an amazing 5.5-second zero to 60 time. The battery is 13.6-kilowatt-hours, and that yields a modest 21 miles of EV range (460 total). Though it would increase charge times, a larger battery would be welcome. Towing is a plus, since the Grand Touring can pull 5,600 pounds.
Other plug-ins to consider: Polestar 1, Bentley Bentayga, Hyundai Ioniq, Jeep Wrangler 4Xe, Karma GS-6, Porsche Cayenne E-Hybrid, Subaru Crosstrek and various Volvos.
|Best Plug-Ins for Range|
|Vehicle||Electric Range||Total Range (miles)||Battery (kWh)||Horsepower (combined)||Base Price|
|Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid||48 miles||340||17||212||$33,400|
|Toyota Prius Prime||42 miles||600||9||121||$28,220|
|Ford Escape Plug-In Hybrid||37 miles||530||14||221||$33,075|
|Chrysler Pacifica PHEV||32 miles||566||16||260||$39,995|
|Hyundai Santa Fe PHEV||30 miles||440||14||260||$40,535|
|Kia Niro PHEV||26 miles||560||9||139||$30,765|
|Audi A7 55 TSFI e Quattro PHEV||24 miles||440||14||362||$74,900|
|Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV||24 miles||320||14||221||$37,490|
|BMW 530e, 530e xDrive||21 miles (18 xDrive)||320||12||288||$55,550|
|Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring PHEV||21 miles||460||14||494||$68,890|
|Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), sorted by range on battery power. Total range combines battery and gas-engine ranges. Source: Manufacturers, EPA|
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