For the most part, today’s plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are a joke. I say this for a couple of reasons.

First of all, a study conducted by the International Council on Clean Transportation points out that many PHEV owners do not plug in their PHEVs as often as they should. Instead, owners simply fill up the PHEVs’ gas tanks and run them as fuel-efficient combustion engine vehicles. 

Studies suggest that there is a correlation between how much electric range a PHEV has and how likely the owner is to plug it in. This makes total sense. It is very intuitive. 

We need only apply our minds to a thought exercise to understand this. Imagine you had a PHEV with just 2 miles of electric range. You know with certainty that you’re going to use the combustion engine on almost every drive. In order to get where you’re going you’re going to use gasoline. You’re going to have to continue to buy gasoline on a regular basis. So, why bother plugging it in?

Now, on the other hand, imagine that you had a PHEV with 90 miles of electric range. You know that you can skip the gas stations for weeks or even months at a time. You’ll need gasoline only for that occasional longer trip or road trip. You’re assured that you’re going to realize substantial savings on your transportation costs by driving electric. You’ll want to plug in your vehicle as often as needed to do all your day-to-day driving.

It is easy to understand why there is a correlation between the available electric range and the motivation to plug in. This can be illustrated in the following graphic.

My hypothesis is that somewhere around the 25 kWh of usable battery lies the point where the hybrid owner's likelihood to plug in falls off quite rapidly. Perhaps the true drop-off point is a little to the left or right, but I suspect that the motivation to plug in falls off quite quickly in correlation to the drop-off in the usable range. 

Where the exact drop-off occurs isn’t as important as accepting the concept that ample electric range is needed to encourage owners to do the right thing and regularly plug in. This should be taken as a warning to any manufacturer building any type of hybrid vehicle with a plug. Any manufacturer who thinks they can build a truly useful hybrid vehicle with only 12 kWh of usable battery is sorely mistaken. It would be better to be safe rather than sorry. It would be better to provide owners with 80-plus miles of usable electric range rather than fewer. 

My marketing intuition also tells me that a greater electric range will garner greater customer acceptance.

If research suggests that a larger battery pack encourages owners to plug in, why don’t manufacturers simply include larger battery packs in their PHEVs? 

It is chiefly a matter of cost! For the most part, today’s PHEVs tie both an electric motor and the combustion engine to the drivetrain. The combustion engine provides some mechanical power to the wheels. The complexity of tying these two disparate power sources to the drivetrain is expensive. PHEVs are already more expensive than their combustion engine counterparts. Adding a large battery pack to the mix may make the vehicle’s sticker price prohibitively high.

In spite of this, BYD and Toyota both say they are going to come out with PHEVs with longer ranges. BYD is promising a PHEV with 75 miles of electric range and Toyota is promising a future PHEV with 120 miles of electric range. There is no info yet on how much either one of these vehicles will cost, but if they follow suit and marry the two different power sources into the drivetrain I’d be surprised if they cost less than their pure (battery-electric vehicle) BEV counterparts. 

This brings me to the second reason why I say that today’s PHEVs are a joke. I’ve written before that today’s PHEVs ARE NOT EVs. In my opinion anytime a combustion engine is tied to the drivetrain in any way, that vehicle is no longer an EV. Instead, it is a Frankenstein's monster of an ICE vehicle. When the combustion engine provides any sort of mechanical power to move the wheels, it’s not an EV, IMHO.

So what’s to be done?

We can just wait and watch as pure BEV prices continue to come down and PHEVs become totally passe’. It is possible that within the next 10 years, there will be long-range pure BEVs that will comfortably compete on price/utility parity with ICE vehicles.

But there is another possible more immediate alternative that continues to bubble up in my mind. I am very curious to know how an extended-range BEV would do in the market. I can’t help but wonder how a BEV with a 25 kWh battery pack and a range-extending generator would fare. Could it be priced significantly less than a 90 kWh BEV? Would auto buyers be interested in it? Would auto buyers be able to wrap their minds around the idea of daily driving electric while still having the range available to comfortably road trip? Would it be a transition vehicle? If so, how long would that transition last? What would regulators' attitudes be toward the vehicle?

Enter the Mazda MX-30 R-EV

We might at length get some answers to these questions. In January, Mazda revealed what it calls the MX-30 R-EV at the Brussels Motor Show. It has some of the hoped-for extended-range BEV benefits. According to Mazda’s website, it is a true EV, meaning that the rotary combustion engine does not provide any mechanical power to the wheels. It is a true long-range vehicle. The combined range is about 370 miles. It is competitively priced. It’s priced below all other long-range EVs (350+ miles).

Now the downsides. Mazda is being very tentative with this vehicle and technology. Management doesn’t seem truly committed to the project. Mazda is not promoting the vehicle. The R-EV is not available in the US. Even the plain BEV version is currently available only in California.

It’s as if management is just dipping their toe in to test the waters. Or, perhaps Mazda is losing money on each vehicle they sell and is adverse to selling too many of them. Scale is so important to any automotive project. Being half-baked like this doesn’t seem a good idea to me.

Additionally, Mazda is applying this R-EV architecture to only this one quirky suicide door vehicle. Mazda management generally doesn’t seems ready to fully embrace the EV transition.

Finally, Mazda has cut the vehicle off at the knees. Rather than give it a healthy 80-plus miles of electric range, they’ve limited the electric range to around 50 miles. This is a mistake. The electric range needs to be enough to give customers a solid assurance that they can drive electric more than 90% of the time, regardless of conditions. 50 miles is just on the edge of where a buyer may or may not feel comfortable about that. The R-EV needs more electric range.

For these reasons, I don’t foresee Mazda making big inroads with this vehicle. I foresee the project ultimately failing. My questions about extended-range BEVs may forever remain an unknowable mystery. 

So, today’s PHEVs are still a joke.

What do you think? What is your experience with PHEVs?

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