You don't want to be stuck in an electric car when your battery dies. I mean, who would?
While carmakers have made strides in improving the range of electric vehicles, the fear, and in some cases the reality, of running out of juice with no way to recharge remains a hurdle in selling electric cars.
The Tesla S, for instance, has a range approaching 370 kilometres, which remains the high-water mark for electrics. Even that is a hurdle, however. Do you want to plan trips around 370-km intervals? Even the fastest recharge takes longer than filling a gas tank.
So, first we saw the hybrid: That was a gas engine supplemented by electricity to cut fuel use. Good first step, but hardly a long way down the road to electrification. You got better fuel economy, but those first hybrids ran both gas and electric. Then, someone came out with the idea of a parallel hybrid, which created the EV button you see on the dash of certain hybrids now. Parallel hybrids move the yardsticks a fair way, since they can operate on gas, gas-electric or just electric.
The first cars with EV mode kicked back into hybrid operation at anything above golf-cart speed. Today, the best operate at full electric at almost any speed for a short duration.
Then came an idea that combines the best of both worlds, one that turned the hybrid concept around: Pure electric but with a way to keep the car moving by supplementing the electric drive with gas. The Chevy Volt, Cadillac ELR, Ford Fusion Energi, the Ford C-Max Energi and Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid are all available in Canada. Honda created the Accord Plug-in Hybrid, but it's not for sale here.
Jumping on the plug-in bandwagon lately is Hyundai, which last week unveiled the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid.
All have electric-only range such that many drivers may never burn a molecule of gasoline again. The Volt, for instance, can go as much as 50 kilometres on full electric. When the Volt battery gets low, a gas engine fires up, but only as a generator to keep the electric motors moving.
The new Sonata, when it's released later this year, will travel up to 35 kilometres on electric before reverting to standard hybrid operation.
Since many commuters' drives are less than that, the plug-in hybrid - like the Volt and Fusion Energi - may get you to and from work entirely on electric.
While it will drive much like the regular hybrid, the plug-in will have a 9.8 kilowatt-hour battery, about five times as much capacity as the regular hybrid.
The gas engine is a 2.0-litre, direct-injection four-cylinder. The electric is a 50 kW motor mounted to the six-speed automatic transmissions bell housing and taking the place of the traditional torque convertor. It is 30 per cent more powerful than the electric motor in the Sonata Hybrid.
Pricing has not been announced, but expect the plug-in to be more expensive than the hybrid. The Sonata Hybrid is currently $29,562 and the Chevy Volt is $38,895 while the Ford Fusion Energi is $38,399. Expect Hyundai to use both the Canada-Korea Free Trade Agreement and currency differences to undercut both by a little. I'd guess the price to be around the $35,805 price of the Prius Plug-in, perhaps a bit less.
Hyundai says the car reverts to normal hybrid operation once the battery gets low enough, which means on gas-electric, it should come close to the current hybrid's 6.3 litres per 100 km combined fuel consumption. If you charged it and then drove it for more than the 35-km electric range, your first 100 km should see average fuel consumption between four and five litres per 100 km. After that, expect to see the hybrid's 6.3.
Compared to the current gas Sonata, the electric-only range displaces about $3 of gas at today's low prices. At the prices of a few months ago, it displaces about $4 of gas.
The economic case for any hybrid remains difficult. Payback for most drivers is beyond the length of time most people own new cars. Carmakers recognize this, but count on other factors to drive the buying decision.
"The case for hybrids and plug-in hybrids is the same as the reasons Hyundai is leasing fuel cell vehicles in the Vancouver market," said Chad Heard, Hyundai Canada's public relations manager. "It's a step toward reducing our environmental footprint. Some customers share that view, which is what interests them. Others are intrigued by the technology and want a vehicle that's different.
"In this segment, buying decisions are often motivated with emotional reasoning."
The Sonata PHEV is built in South Korea and will go on sale later this year. Pricing will be announced closer to launch.
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