PHEV or not PHEV – That Is the Question

Why I’m resuming testing cars that are not pure EVs.

By Steve Schaefer

2020 Niro PHEV

On April 25th of this year, with COVID-19 causing massive lockdowns and cars sitting parked, the skies around the world cleared up! This happy and unexpected news inspired me to declare to the world, in this blog, the following:

I have decided, after 28 years of automotive testing and writing, that I will now test and review only pure, all-electric vehicles. It completes the move away from testing gasoline-only cars that I made after my Climate Reality Leadership Training in August of 2018.

This bold, emotionally fueled statement meant I was giving up on hybrids, including the plug-in ones with chargeable batteries.

Well, since then, I have tested a single car—the delightful if range-impaired Mini Cooper SE. I’ve also had time to think about what is likely to happen in the 2020s. The fact is, regardless of how much I love EVs, barring some miracle yet to happen, they are not going to constitute 100 percent of new car sales anytime soon, except perhaps in Norway. In my home country, the United States of America, there will still be some people who choose not to drive electric, and there presumably will be some manufacturers willing to indulge them if profits can be made.

We don’t need a 100% electric fleet by 2030, as wonderful (and clean and quiet) as that sounds. We need a 50% electric fleet, with an eventual movement to 100% electric new vehicles, with the older ones eventually dwindling away as they are retired or massively disappearing if a program can be devised to do that.

Based on this line of reasoning, there is no reason why some people can’t opt for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) now instead of BEVs if they need them. And why would they need them? Perhaps they don’t have their own roof for solar and worry about access to public charging. Perhaps they need to drive long distances periodically, which in 2020 only a gas vehicle can do without stops that last under 10 minutes.

Although PHEVs are still saddled with not only a motor but a gasoline engine, fuel tank, radiator, and all that, because they have a chargeable battery, if driven locally within their much shorter range, they can serve nicely as EVs most of the time, only sipping fuel when needed. And that is MUCH better than a gasoline burner, or even a regular hybrid, which switches from gas to battery and back again and can’t be charged. Even a regular hybrid delivers twice the fuel economy of an internal combustion engine (ICE) car, which essentially takes half a car off the road. A PHEV can remove 90%, once again, depending on use.

Do I want to promote PHEVs, then? I’d rather entice someone to buy a BEV, because they are so silent and clean and wonderful, but realistically, we can still have some PHEVs in the fleet in the ‘20s until electric/gas price parity is achieved, the charging network is built out, and the 400-mile battery is invented. Instead of “all-or-nothing” thinking, this means looking at the overall goal of cutting our CO2 emissions in half by 2030 and finding a workable strategy for eventually making the fossil fuel industry history.

Yes, I would like to have a few more test cars, too, although I don’t need one every week. Many exciting electrified vehicles are arriving in the next couple of years that are plug-in hybrids, and it would be a shame for me to miss out on testing those cars.  I need to be able to guide readers to the best transportation solution for them now, and in the future.

For a great example of the wonders of plug-in hybrids, see this story on the Kia Niro PHEV by freelance auto writer Mike Hagerty. I’ll plan to serve up a few PHEV stories myself once I let my test fleets know my change of heart. Stay tuned.

Kia Niro Hybrid Crossover Spotted at the Mall

kia-niro

I was walking through the mall tonight with my wife, just after purchasing new sheets at Pottery Barn and look what I saw. It’s the new Kia Niro!

I’ve heard about this hybrid crossover for a while now, and expected to see one on the road or at a dealership soon. This one is here to show off.

Kia is smart to introduce a compact crossover, sized between the boxy Soul and the venerable Sportage, that has similar fuel economy to a Toyota Prius. The new Prius, the poster child for hybrids and the highest performing one, fuel economy wise, is an acquired taste visually. What folks seem to want now are crossovers, and the new smaller ones are hot hot hot. So Kia is in the catbird’s seat here.

I sat down in the car, and although I couldn’t get the seat to adjust (the battery, apparently was drained), I could tell that Kia is using the same clear, no-nonsense styling inside, with premium materials, to convey high competence, value for the money, and in the case of a crossover, that ride high feeling.

The Niro has a dual clutch six-speed automatic–not a CVT–so you can feel the gears shift normally and even move them manually. Of course, I didn’t sample that in the mall, but the Niro should at least emit a more sonorous sound than the moan of a CVT.

The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, mated to a 43 hp electric motor, contributes to the overall 146 horsepower. That motor will likely be as smooth and silent as motors are. My understanding is that there will be a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid version.

The young woman managing the display gave me a free Niro bag to carry things in, and took my information for future updates. Of course, I expect to hear from the automotive PR folks at some point soon, but this’ll tell me what interested car shoppers will get.

The thank-you email told me I could download the Niro app and configure a car on my iPad, so I did that. It took a while to download. It shows a musical video of the Niro zooming through a city – with no driver… Is this a look at their future autonomous vehicle?  Then–out to the country! A quick roll through a charging station (not stopping) and onward. You can click a button periodically to get details on the topic they’re presenting, such as Exterior Tour and Fuel Efficiency, all shown to a high-tech beat.

I’ll be looking forward to a real test of this car soon.