Here’s the thing about plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs): You get the benefits of a battery electric vehicle for driving a certain number of zero-emission miles, with the versatility of a gas-electric hybrid without range limitations. There’s no secret to it, and it’s that simple. But PHEV ownership does take some thought, and some effort.
The thought part is straightforward. If you’re in the market for a PHEV and your intent is to drive electric as much as possible, then part of the decision making is choosing a new plug-in hybrid model offering a battery electric range that fits your driving patterns. Some plug-in hybrids offer battery electric range as low as 14 to 19 miles, with a great many featuring electric range in the low to high 20s. Some raise that number up to 42 or 48 miles of battery electric driving, like the Toyota Prius Prime and Honda Clarity PHEV, before requiring a charge or the addition of combustion power. Many families find the electric range of Chrysler’s Pacifica Hybrid to be entirely workable at 32 miles, with its total 520 miles of driving range reassuring for any driving need.
The effort in owning a PHEV is that you need to install a 240-volt home wall charger and commit to using it to gain maximum benefit. Really, that’s no different than an all-electric vehicle, with the exception that an electric vehicle must be charged to function, while a PHEV will continue operating with the aid of combustion power once batteries are depleted. Both can be charged with a 120-volt convenience charger plugged into a standard household outlet, but that’s rarely a good option since the charging time at 120 volts is so long, while charging at 240 volts is comparatively short. The goal in achieving maximum benefit, of course, is to keep a PHEV charged in any event so you’re operating on battery power whenever possible.
What range do you really need? If your daily driving or commute is about 20 miles – as is the case for so many – then choose a PHEV with a battery electric range offering that capability, or more. Drivers with longer average daily drives should choose a PHEV with greater all-electric range. If you charge every night and wake up with a fully-charged battery ready for your day’s regular activities, you’ll likely find trips to the gas station unnecessary until longer drives are needed. In those cases, there’s nothing to think about because the transition from battery to combustion power happens seamlessly behind the scenes, with no driver action required. Yes, you’ll want to keep gas in the tank for those eventualities, but if your daily use fits within your rated electric range then fill-ups will be infrequent.
From my perspective, the ability to drive electric most of the time with the ability to motor on for hundreds of additional miles without thought is a win-win. I’ve been doing this for years with a variety of PHEV test cars, and more than a year-and-a-half now over 30,000 miles in a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. As much as possible, my driving is electric with zero localized emissions, as long as I’m consistent about plugging in at night and my charger isn’t required for another test car. I’m driven to do that not only because driving with zero emissions is the right thing to do, but also because electricity offers a cheaper cost-per-mile driving experience. If you’re on a utility’s electric vehicle rate plan and charge at off-peak hours, there’s even more money to be saved. And let’s not forget the blissful and effortless convenience of charging at home, right?
Any claim that PHEVs won’t deliver their desired environmental benefit is based on assumptions that drivers won’t plug in. That isn’t likely, given that PHEV drivers have paid, sometimes significantly, for the privilege of having a plug-in capability. The notion may have its roots in an unrelated alternative fuel story years ago, when we witnessed the phenomena of motorists driving flexible-fuel E85 ethanol/gasoline vehicles without ever fueling up with E85 alternative fuel. That occurred because of a loophole that allowed automakers to gain significant fuel economy credits by offering flexible-fuel vehicles without any consideration whether drivers would ever fuel up with E85 ethanol. Those vehicles were sold at no premium by the millions, with most drivers unaware their vehicle had an alternative fuel capability or whether E85 fueling stations were nearby.
But this is different. While you have the option to use public charging stations, and that’s a nice benefit enjoyed by many EV and PHEV owners, if you do this right there will be a plug in your garage that requires no effort at all to keep your PHEV charged up. Consider, too, that if a buyer spends the extra money for the plug-in hybrid variant of a popular model, there’s clearly an incentive to plug in most of the time to make the most of one’s PHEV investment.
PHEVs will be with us a long while because they are a sensible solution for many who wish to drive electric, and when used as intended they represent a logical pathway for the all-electric future many envision. There’s no doubt that the increasing number of plug-in hybrids coming now, and in the years ahead, will aim at greater electric driving range than the models that came before them. More choices and greater range will provide an even more compelling reason to step up to a plug-in hybrid for the daily drive.
The plug-in hybrid Mercedes-Benz S550e is world-class in every way. It’s also environmentally friendly with its efficient powertrain, which integrates a twin-turbocharged V-6 engine and an electric motor with a seven-speed 7G-TRONIC automatic transmission. The combination provides premium sedan buyers a luxury driving and ownership experience with the benefit of 14 miles of zero-emission electric driving. Overall driving range provided by the S550e’s 141 horsepower electric motor and 329 horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 is a total of 450 miles.
An array of advanced technologies optimize engine performance while reducing emissions, fuel consumption, and noise. These include rapid-multispark ignition that can fire up to four times-per-millisecond, high-pressure direct injection that can fine-tune fuel spray in 0.1 millisecond, a lightweight die-cast alloy block, widely variable valve timing, reduced friction, and on-demand ancillary components that de-activate when unneeded. An E-Boost feature enables the electric motor to raise total torque up to 479 lb-ft for quick 0 to 60 mph acceleration in just 5.2 seconds. The S550e has remarkable efficiency of up to 63 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) on the highway while driving on battery power. A drag coefficient of 0.27 CD contributes toward energy savings.
Four drive modes can be selected: The intelligent Hybrid mode optimizes use of the gasoline and electric motors together based on conditions and terrain, and even uses navigation data about the route. All-electric E-Mode offers emission-free driving around town. E-Save conserves battery power on longer highway trips and allows all-electric driving as desired in urban areas. Charge mode maximizes battery replenishment.
Economy and Sport programs vary the car's performance character while favoring electric or gasoline power. A third Economy+ program activates accelerator pedal tactile feedback that aids more efficient driving. Whenever it’s possible to save fuel by coasting, a double pulse in the pedal encourages lifting off the accelerator. When using all-electric E-Mode, pushing the pedal beyond a distinct pressure point engages the gas engine for an instant boost of power.
Advanced driver assist systems are prevalent in the S550e. These include Distronic Plus with steering assist, BAS Plus with cross-traffic assist, pre-safe brake with pedestrian recognition, blind spot assist, active lane keeping, and speed limit assist. The S550e also features enhanced radar-based regenerative braking. The extremely well-appointed cabin features dual 12.3 inch high resolution screens for driver instrumentation and a center display.
With its sleek styling, refined and accommodating interior, and plethora of advanced on-board electronics, BMW’s $96,600 S550e gives luxury sedan buyers yet another reason to opt for an environmentally-positive plug-in hybrid.
If ever a time existed that underscored there is no single approach to offering ‘greener’ personal transportation, that would be now. The 2014 Green Car of the Year® program gives the Green Car Journal staff an opportunity to step back and examine all possible vehicles that exemplify green leadership and innovation, a daunting challenge that literally involves dozens and dozens of models that must be explored, examined, and dissected to determine their ‘greenness’ and importance in raising the bar in environmental performance.
Some would assume these vehicles to be exclusively electric, or perhaps ones that achieve the highest fuel economy in a given class. These considerations are important since higher efficiency not only reduces petroleum consumption but also has a direct correlation with lower CO2 emissions. However, criteria for the Green Car of the Year® program is more expansive and involves much more than fuel economy or energy use. Important, too, is the potential for a candidate to bring about substantial change and significant environmental improvement in the real world. That element gives additional weight to a model’s sales volume.
Among many other considerations is the requirement that candidates be a 2014 model on sale by January 1 of the award year. Price and availability are important since nominees must be approachable to buyers. Some models are priced at entry levels while others are more aspirational, a reflection of the market. Vehicles being considered are more compelling if they are all-new or in the early years of their model lifecycle. Models vetted in a previous award year are only considered in a new award year if truly significant changes to that model have occurred, such as an all-new redesign, a much more efficient powerplant, or the availability of a new hybrid or alternative fuel option.
At one time this was a straightforward and relatively simple process. When the Green Car of the Year program was launched in 2005, the number of ‘green’ vehicles to consider was easily managed since this was a relatively new category for automakers. Times have changed with wide-ranging ‘green’ choices now available to consumers at new car showrooms. The process of identifying five finalists is much more challenging, but also more gratifying since this means the auto industry has made a serious commitment to developing more environmentally positive vehicles.
With painstaking effort and an eye toward recognizing the brightest and the best, Green Car Journal editors present the deserving finalists for 2014 Green Car of the Year, models that also happen to be the magazine’s Top 5 Green Cars for 2014 and recipients of the Green Car Products of Excellence distinction.
Audi’s 2014 A6 TDI blends excellent ‘green’ credentials with unexpected levels of performance in a high efficiency vehicle. Its 3.0-liter, 6-cylinder TDI clean diesel engine with tiptronic transmission and quattro all-wheel drive provides 240 horsepower and 428 lb-ft torque, achieving 0-60 mph in just 5.5 seconds. A start-stop system aids efficiency, as does a lightweight body that makes extensive use of aluminum body panels. This sedan features an EPA estimated 38 highway mpg that enables over 700 miles of highway driving range.
Featuring the first 4-cylinder BMW diesel engine in the U.S., the new 328d combines exceptionally high fuel efficiency with the performance expected of BMW models. EPA estimated 45 mpg highway fuel economy is achieved with this sedan’s 2.0-liter TwinPower clean diesel powerplant, which produces 180 horsepower and 280 lb-ft torque. Efficiency is enhanced with engine auto start-stop and brake energy regeneration. A 328d Sports Wagon is also available. The models are offered in rear wheel drive or with BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive system.
Honda’s popular Accord sedan aims to lead in the efficiency space with an array of efficient powerplant choices including four-cylinder, V-6, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid versions. Even the V-6, the largest engine option, nets 34 highway mpg with the four-cylinder rated at up to 36 highway mpg. The bar raises considerably with the Accord Hybrid at 50 city and 47 highway mpg, and the Accord Plug-In with its 47 city and 46 highway mpg on hybrid power. The Plug-In also offers an EPA rating of 115 MPGe, the highest of any mid-size hybrid sedan in the country.
The all-new third generation Mazda3, this automaker’s best-selling model worldwide, is lighter, more efficient, and packed with advanced electronics. The 2014 Mazda3 features an appealing new design and has been built from the ground-up with Mazda’s award-winning SKYACTIV technology. The 2.0-liter powered Mazda3 four-door sedan offers best-in-class 41 mpg highway fuel economy, with the five-door hatch coming in at up to 40 mpg. A more powerful 2.5-liter engine with an i-ELOOP capacitor-based regenerative engine braking system gets 38 mpg.
The Toyota Corolla has long been a best-seller due to its blend of efficiency and affordability. With the all-new 2014 Corolla, Toyota adds visual excitement, improved driving dynamics, and even greater efficiency to its popular compact sedan, achieving up to 42 highway mpg delivered by the model’s Eco version. This level of efficiency is achieved with a 1.8-liter, 140 horsepower engine featuring the first use of Toyota’s Valvematic technology in this country. A driver selectable ECO function moderates acceleration and optimizes on-board systems to enhance mpg.
Green Car of the Year jurors include leaders of the nation’s major environmental organizations including Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of Ocean Futures Society; Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club; and Matt Petersen, board member of Global Green USA, plus auto enthusiast and Tonight Show host Jay Leno. Green Car Journal editors round out the 2014 Green Car of the Year jury.
The Green Car of the Year will be announced during media days at the L.A. Auto Show, so stay tuned.
Available next month in California and Oregon, the new 2014 Spark EV 1LT can now be leased for as low as $199 per month for 36 months. Requiring a nominal $999 due at lease signing, which includes a security deposit but is exclusive of tax, title, and registration, now makes this small Chevy EV an affordable option for new car buyers interested in electric transportation.
The Chevy Spark EV's MSRP starts at $27,495 but is as low as $19,995 when factoring in an available $7,500 federal tax credit. Other state and local tax credits may be available to bring the price down further. Chevy says that compared to the average new gasoline-powered vehicle, the Spark EV can save drivers an average of $150 per month in fuel costs.
Driving range is an EPA estimated 82 miles, similar to that of other small EV models. Its combined fuel economy equivalent is rated by EPA at 119 MPGe. Charging with a Level 2 240-volt charger takes about seven hours and a 120-volt convenience charge cord comes standard, although charge time is considerably longer. Chevy points out that the Spark EV is the first electric vehicle on the market to offer an option to be charged via the recently approved SAE combo charger for DC Fast Charging, which will enable the Spark EV to recharge up to 80 percent of its capacity in 20 minutes. Of course, that’s when DC Fast Charging stations become available.
In-vehicle connectivity is well looked-after with Chevy’s MyLink infotainment system, which includes a seven-inch touch screen and integration with third-party apps and features such as Siri Eyes Free, Pandora, and BringGo navigation. These features require the user to purchase third party apps separately on a compatible smart phone. The Spark EV RemoteLink application, which requires a smart phone and OnStar subscription, provides an array of desired functions including charge status, scheduled charge timing, interior temperature pre-conditioning, and the ability to send a text or email for charge reminders.