My closest friend
just bought a plug-in hybrid SUV.
I’d like to be able to polish my knuckles and claim that it was on my advice, but the truth is she reached this conclusion on her own. She’s an eco-conscious suburban parent in a two-plus-two family who commutes, runs errands, and visits friends and family almost entirely within 40 km of her home. Driving a car with a battery is the ideal fit for her needs and lifestyle.
And here’s where the battery electric vehicle (BEV) drivers will inevitably jump in. If she can do most things close to home, why does she need a gas-powered engine at all? With an at-home Level 2 charger, she can easily keep her battery topped up enough for her everyday needs. Does she not know how far BEVs have come? Did she even consider buying one?
The answer is that she did consider it, and she’s very familiar with what BEVs can and can’t do. In fact, first-person awareness of the lingering limitations of BEVs is what pushed her into a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) in the first place.
And truth be told, it’s probably my fault.
My daughter and I have a not-small appetite for road trip adventures, and these friends occasionally like to come along. But the car my friend is about to sell is too small for her family of four, and the only other vehicle in the household is a Tesla Model S, which has become their default car for joining us on longer trips to cottages and national parks.
But once a drive is further than about 200 km, they need to make at least one stop at a supercharger to cover the distance. My daughter and I would drive ahead to our destination and unload our gear, and our friends would consistently arrive several hours later. That need to charge measurably ate into their leisure time with us.
My friend decided that enough is enough and opted for a plug-in hybrid SUV. It lets her do most of her daily driving on electric power, but the gas engine takes the inconvenience out of longer trips. Yes, she made an expensive purchase decision based on a scenario that comes up maybe two to three times per summer, but I don’t know many Canadians who wouldn’t.
It will likely take at least one more vehicle purchase cycle before BEVs can offer competitive enough convenience and pricing to be seriously considered by most Canadian households. That’s where plug-in hybrids come in: apart from the price premium, which some brands are working to overcome, PHEVs make zero-emission driving accessible to the average driver, and they do it right now.
Toyota Canada is one of the brands trying to break down this barrier. The RAV4 Prime, a plug-in hybrid version of its popular compact SUV, qualifies for both federal and provincial EV purchase incentives. In Quebec, this means that a RAV4 Prime ends up costing even less than a RAV4 Hybrid, which burns fuel far more frequently.
Stephen Beatty, vice-president and corporate secretary of Toyota Canada, spells out why the company feels that a push for plug-in hybrids will reduce emissions faster than trying to shoehorn consumers into BEVs: PHEVs not only cost less up front, but they also spread the resources required for electric driving out over more vehicles, putting zero-emission driving into the hands of more drivers.
Using the RAV4 Prime as an example, Beatty points out that it comes with an 8.8 kWh battery, as opposed to the 60 kWh battery found in a typical BEV. This means Toyota can put seven PHEVs on the road for every one BEV that would need the same capacity.
If we consider that a lot of people drive the way my friend does – shorter daily commutes that can be done on electric power with only occasional highway use, especially as more people transition into working from home post-COVID – those seven PHEVs make a more significant impact on emissions while also being a more appealing proposition for consumers.
“If you want to reduce carbon emissions in Canada, you'd do much better to move aggressively toward hybridization than toward pushing battery electric vehicles,” Beatty says. “It's not that battery electric vehicles are bad. It's just that it takes a lot of resources to put one battery electric vehicle on the road.”
There’s another elephant in the room where BEVs are concerned: the small car or crossover body style that’s common to battery electrics is not what North Americans want to buy these days. SUVs and pick-up trucks are dominating sales, and because they’re larger and heavier, they require more battery capacity to move around. This makes electrifying them even more resource-heavy and expensive.
“And then just the weight of the (larger) battery pack itself requires you to have that much more energy on board or to move it around, so there's an efficiency issue here,” Beatty adds. “It's not really hitting at the place where people live. That's what we think plug-in hybrids can do.”
Toyota isn’t the only brand that’s thinking this way. The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, an electrified mid-size SUV priced starting at $43,998, was the top-selling plug-in hybrid in Canada last year.
And Hyundai, a brand that comes across as laser-focused on EVs after launching its Ioniq sub-brand and enjoying success with its Kona EV, is planning a deep dive into the PHEV pool shortly as well.
“We think the ultimate goal is BEV, followed very soon after by (hydrogen fuel cell electrics),” says Jean-François Taylor, spokesperson for Hyundai Canada. “However, we also recognize that most buyers need transitional technologies to bridge the gap when they’re not yet ready to commit to full EV. Accordingly, … (Hyundai is) going to be aggressively introducing PHEV tech into our normal lineup in the next 12-18 months.”
So, which car did my friend choose?
Well, she’s looking for a compact SUV, so she really wanted to give the Toyota RAV4 Prime
a chance due to its relatively low price and 68 km electric range. But with a staggered cross-Canada rollout that’s sending product to Quebec first and then B.C. due to their provincial rebates, getting a Prime here in Ontario could require waiting up to a year for delivery.
My friend couldn’t wait that long, so she ended up in a Volvo XC60 T8. Its electric range is less than half and the price is a lot higher, but she can afford the premium and is taking delivery next week. She’s absolutely over the moon with her choice.
When those RAV4 Primes and similar PHEVs arrive with pricing that’s attainable for more Canadian families without compromise of today’s BEVs, that’s when we can truly expect electrification to turn a corner on its way to the mainstream.
BEVs are coming, but until pricing and technology come closer to parity with the gas-powered vehicle experience, it’s PHEVs that could change the zero-emission game for good.