Plug-in hybrids save drivers time and money. Why don’t more people buy them?

This photo provided by the Ford Motor Co. shows the 2021 Ford Escape Hybrid, a small hybrid crossover SUV that's still roomy and comfortable. ( David Westphal/Ford Motor Co. via AP)
Caption
This photo provided by the Ford Motor Co. shows the 2021 Ford Escape Hybrid, a small hybrid crossover SUV that's still roomy and comfortable. ( David Westphal/Ford Motor Co. via AP)

Credit: David Westphal

Credit: David Westphal

The plug-in hybrid, or PHEV, version of the Ford Escape compact SUV slipped into dealerships recently, generating — as always seems to be the case — less attention and acclaim than this exceptionally useful technology deserves.

Perhaps PHEVs are inherently confusing, but I suspect that automakers — and writers like me — have also explained them inadequately and praised them insufficiently.

Add to that the fact that full-electric vehicles — GMC Hummer EV, Ford F-150 Lightning, Rivian R1T, etc. — have been in the spotlight this year, and it’s easy to overlook PHEVs, which are widely seen as an intermediate step between gasoline engines and battery-only EVs.

Caption
This photo provided by Hyundai shows the Ioniq 5, a new electric SUV that debuts in fall 2021. It packs the interior room of a midsize SUV, even though it's no longer than a compact crossover (Courtesy of Hyundai Motor America via AP)

Credit: Uncredited

This photo provided by Hyundai shows the Ioniq 5, a new electric SUV that debuts in fall 2021. It packs the interior room of a midsize SUV, even though it's no longer than a compact crossover (Courtesy of Hyundai Motor America via AP)
Caption
This photo provided by Hyundai shows the Ioniq 5, a new electric SUV that debuts in fall 2021. It packs the interior room of a midsize SUV, even though it's no longer than a compact crossover (Courtesy of Hyundai Motor America via AP)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

U.S. sales of the Escape PHEV were delayed about a year by a problem with battery fires in the European model, which is called the Kuga. The Escape PHEV has been on sale here for a few months, with no reports of fire.

How does 2 gallons of gasoline a week sound?

I just drove a 2021 Escape PHEV and loved it, using just under2 gallons of gasoline in a 149-mile week of mainly local driving and two 40-mile-plus runs to appointments.

That’s about 75 mpg, but the bigger takeaway is that I burned no gasoline at all for short to medium jaunts and parts of the longer drives, thanks to the Escape PHEV’s EPA estimate of 37 miles on a fully charged battery. Real-world range will vary depending on your driving style, time spent on the highway, weather and other factors, but 37 miles a day covers most or all regular driving for a lot of people. More if you add the growing number who charge at work as well as home. Much of the time, many PHEV owners live nearly free of tailpipe emissions.

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No juice, no problem

Another benefit: I recharged it from a standard 120v household plug — no need for a professionally installed 240v charger — and spent a moment worried about running out of fuel.

Escape PHEV prices start at $34,755, according to Edmunds.com. The vehicle is eligible for federal and state tax credits that can take thousands off the price. I tested a loaded Titanium model that cost $38,855 excluding destination charges. Not cheap, but competitive with similarly equipped compact SUVs that rely solely on either gasoline or electricity. Particularly when you consider EPA estimates:

—$1.04 for electricity to drive 25 miles, compared with $2.50 with gasoline.

—$850 annual energy cost, assuming 15,000 miles a year, divided 45% highway/55% surface streets.

Lincoln also just began selling the Corsair Grand Touring, a PHEV version of its compact SUV. Prices start at $50,390, excluding destination. The EPA rates its electric range at 28 miles.

The Escape PHEV is responsive and nimble, but only available with front-wheel drive.

The more short trips, and the more surface streets you take, the lower your costs, because hybrids are more efficient in stop and go driving, and you can avoid using gasoline at all in many local drives.

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Best of all, if I want to drive to Chicago, I don’t have to worry about finding an available, functioning, high-speed electric charger en route, as I would with many pure EVs. When a PHEV’s battery is depleted, no problem: The gasoline engine takes over and you continue on your merry way. And — unlike even the best electric vehicles —you never have to stop and charge when you’d rather be driving.

EVs are almost certainly the future, but a PHEV can be a pretty sweet ride here and now.

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.

PHEVs available now

Audi A7 TFSI e

Audi A8L 60 TFSI e

Audi Q5 TFSI e

Bentley Bentayga

BMW 330e

BMW 530e

BMW 745e

BMW X5 40e

BMW X3 30e

Chrysler Pacifica

Ferrari SF90 Stradale

Ford Escape

Hyundai Ioniq

Jeep Wrangler 4xe

Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe (later in 2021)

Kia Nitro

Karma Revero

Land Rover Range Rover Sport

Land Rover Range Rover

Lexus NX

Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring

Mini Countryman SE

Mitsubishi Outlander

Polestar 1

Porsche Cayenne S E-hybrid

Porsche Panamera E-hybrid

Toyota Prius Prime

Toyota RAV4 Prime

Volvo XC60 T8

Volvo XC90 T8

Volvo V60 Recharge

Source: EVadoption.org, Free Press research

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