Most people don’t think of Sierra Club as the place to go for information about new technology. After all, the 121-year-old organization, with the motto “Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet,” is best known for its efforts spent protecting the places where living things live.
But since, these days, we do a lot of our exploring and enjoying behind the wheel of a mobile steel and glass vehicular bubble, it makes sense that they should feature an article that advises us on vehicles that can explore while, if not protecting then, at least, minimizing their impact on the planet. Hence, this new online guide to Plug-in hybrids.
The idea behind plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), is to provide a best-of-both-worlds option, combining the kind of range that gas-powered vehicle drivers are accustomed to, with the carbon-free, inexpensive, peppy performance that has garnered all-electric cars so much attention. The six vehicles featured in this review (shown with retail price after federal tax credit): Chevrolet Volt ($32,495), Ford C-Max Energi ($30,389), Ford Fusion Energi ($35,744), Honda Accord Plug-in ($36,944), Fisker Karma ($95,000-108,500) and Toyota Prius Plug-In ($30,295-37,829) display several different approaches to the job-sharing that takes place under the hood between the electric drive train and its gas-powered counterpart. For example, in the Chevy Volt, the gasoline engine never directly powers the wheels, but instead, drives a generator that ensures that the battery stays charged so long as there is gas in the tank. All the others have the gas engine driving the wheels at certain times, whether it’s after the battery has depleted, or for an extra boost of power. Sometimes these options are selectable, in other cases they are programmed as defaults in the car’s operating software.
Best of both worlds rarely comes without compromise, and that is true here, too. All of these cars cost ($4,000+) more than their “straight” hybrid counterparts. There is also a significant loss of cargo space to make up for the additional batteries. Generally speaking, those cars that were designed from the ground up to be hybrids or electrics (e.g. Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf) do better in the cargo space category.
Other than that, though, these cars all sound great. They get great mileage, anywhere from 54 mpge for the performance-oriented Fiskers to 115 mpge for the Accord, with the rest hovering around the 100 mpge mark. Driving is peppy and fun, especially in the all-electric mode. The big question you need to ask yourself is how each of these fits your particular driving pattern. If the name of the game is to use the car in electric-only mode as much as possible, but still want the car to be able to take long trips, then you really need to look at each car’s electric-only range. This could be anywhere from 11 miles for the Prius, 13 for the Accord, 21 for either Ford, 33 for the Fisker, or 38 for the Volt. Actual mileage will vary depending on many factors ranging from battery age, to what accessories you are using, and, of course, how fast you drive.
The article also rated how green each entry was compared to an all-electric vehicle, which is, by all measures, the greenest of them all. Here, the Chevy Volt rated a full 4 out of 5 “leaves.” The Plug-in Prius and the Accord both got 3 leaves, while the other three all got somewhere in between.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.