New plug-in hybrids could be bridge to EVs

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LOS ANGELES — The 2022 Kia Sorento plug-in hybrid has it all for the modern crossover buyer who wants to dip a toe into the electric space without facing the dreaded range anxiety of a full-electric vehicle or learning the intricacies of battery management.

The Sorento PHEV now arriving at dealerships has a 1.6-liter turbocharged gasoline-powered engine; a 66.9-kilowatt electric motor; 261 hp; a 13.8-kW battery; 32 miles of electric range; 460 miles of total range; three rows with seven seats; and a federal tax credit of up to $6,587, Kia said.

The downside is that the plug-in Sorento is pricey and comes only in top trims with all-wheel drive. The least expensive SX version starts at $46,075 with shipping. But state and local tax incentives may also apply, and there’s potential for gasoline savings for drivers who diligently plug in at home.

The bigger question is whether consumers will buy the growing crop of mainstream PHEV crossovers, such as the Ford Escape that arrived as a 2021 model and the Hyundai Santa Fe now on sale as a 2022. New premium plug-in hybrids are also coming, such as the 2022 Lincoln Corsair.

To be sure, any crossover that makes it to a dealership should sell in the current market conditions. Consumers are already paying big premiums for gasoline-powered crossovers, and plug-in hybrids at least come with a tax credit.

But once the chip crisis eases, are PHEVs a dead end? Standard hybrids are nearly the same price as gasoline models in many cases, and several mainstream brands are developing family-friendly EV crossovers in the next few years. Luxury brands are also transitioning to EVs, which have a cleaner, greener image.

Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds, thinks plug-in hybrids will remain a niche product because there isn’t enough market competition. PHEVs are really only ideal for urban and suburban dwellers who can regularly plug in at home or work.

“These vehicles seem to be getting lost in the electrification space,” Caldwell said. “As a middle option between hybrids and pure EVs, one would think that PHEVs would be the most popular choice, but these vehicles haven’t had a standout, compelling product.”

Toyota has had success with the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime, but it’s only been available in limited quantities. PHEVs that have been on sale for years, such as the Toyota Prius Prime or the Hyundai Ioniq PHEV, have enjoyed only moderate success. The caveat: Those are cars, not crossovers.

The plug-in hybrid market today includes not just compact crossovers, but also the Jeep Wrangler 4xe, the Subaru Crosstrek and a slew of luxury vehicles from BMW, Volvo and even Ferrari.

There has long been a debate in the auto community about the value of plug-ins relative to EVs or standard hybrids. PHEVs are heavier because of the larger battery pack and other mechanicals. They also are more expensive and use up an automaker tax credit that could go to a full-electric vehicle.

Potentially, PHEV buyers can get a big tax break and access to the commuter lane for solo drivers in some states — without regularly plugging in. That would make them more wasteful than a lighter, more inexpensive standard hybrid or a modern EV such as the Tesla Model Y.

Advocates for plug-in hybrids say buyers are likely to understand the technology and use it correctly.

But the opportunity for plug-in hybrids is complicated, as many automakers prefer to invest in full EVs.

“Since many consumers cite range anxiety being a barrier to buying an EV, a PHEV would seem to be a natural stepping stone to get to full battery-electric. But if the product isn’t there, then it’s hard for the technology to be successful,” Caldwell said.

There are many fans of PHEVs as the perfect combination of the do-it-all vehicle and a stepping stone to full electrics.

“It’s exciting to see more plug-in hybrid crossovers enter the field, especially models with three rows,” said Robby DeGraff, industry analyst at AutoPacific. PHEVs come without the common concerns about EVs: limited range, limited public charging and poor cold-weather performance.

“Plug-in hybrids are a great way to introduce consumers to the benefits of EVs like pure zero-emissions driving while at the same time allowing for that comfortable flexibility of having a gas engine,” DeGraff said.

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