After more than three months of research and lots of electrified miles of driving, we can say that the 2016 Chevrolet Volt, which costs about $35,0001 (or $27,500 after a federal tax incentive), is the best plug-in hybrid for most people. This eco-friendly kind of vehicle lets you do most of your everyday driving on electricity but also has a gas engine that lets you keep going even after you’ve drained the battery. Of all the plug-in hybrids we looked at, the Volt has the second-longest electric range, and it remains very fuel-efficient when its gas engine is running. It’s always quiet and zippy like a pure electric car, even with its gas engine on. It offers decent cargo space for a car with such a large battery pack, and it’s the least expensive plug-in hybrid you can buy right now.
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The new 2016 Volt improves on its predecessor, our previous top pick for plug-in hybrids, in almost every way, cementing its status as the best plug-in hybrid you can buy. It increases the electric range to 53 miles, adds a small fifth seating position, and gains a new look inside and out. You may also still be able to find some great deals on remaining 2015 models. We think you’ll be happy with your choice for years to come.
The name of the game for plug-in hybrids is all-electric range; the longer you can drive on electricity, the less gasoline you burn. In this regard, the 2016 Chevrolet Volt is hard to beat. Its 53-mile range is more than double that of the closest competing plug-in hybrid in its price range. In fact, in designing the new Volt, GM collected driving data from older Volts and interviewed owners to see what it would take to allow them to drive almost all of their miles on electricity. Owners of the old Volt, with just 38 miles of electric range, managed to drive 80 percent of their total miles on electricity. The company expects owners of the new Volt to boost that number to 90 percent. That seems like the right strategy to us, and it’s well executed in the Volt, as most other plug-in hybrids either don’t provide enough electric range (maybe 15 to 25 miles) or are overly reliant on a gas engine for everyday driving.
At the same time, the Volt offers a break from other hybrids that feel like appliances on the road. It’s genuinely fun to drive, and you don’t have to feather the accelerator pedal. It has the quiet, zippy performance of an electric car regardless of whether it’s fully charged or winding down after a full day of long-distance driving. The Volt works pretty much like a fuel-efficient conventional hybrid for long trips: After the battery charge runs out, the gas engine kicks in and delivers a very good 42 miles per gallon and another 420 miles or so of range before needing a fill-up.
Moreover, the Volt is a practical compact car with reasonable passenger space and cargo capacity despite the big battery it’s carrying around. By contrast, many plug-in hybrid designs that are conversions of conventional gas cars have batteries that eat into their cargo space. One note: Although the new Volt adds a fifth seat where the old version had just four, with the battery running between the rear seats, the new center perch is only thinly padded atop the battery. It’s not a comfortable place to ride, but it functions more as an occasional jump seat or a workable spot to install a child seat.
All of these positive traits would be wasted if they commanded an unreasonable price. But given a $7,500 federal tax credit, the Volt carries the lowest price among all plug-in hybrids: about $27,000. That seals the deal.
That said, the Volt isn’t really big enough to be a comfortable family car, like, say, our new runner-up, the Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid. So it works best either as a commuter car or for single buyers, young couples, or empty nesters.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, priced at about $36,0002, offers the next longest range at 27 miles, along with much more room to stretch out inside, even for five passengers. In a long couple of days with the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, we found it easily approaches that 27-mile range even in the cold and when driving on the highway, which is rare for a car running on electricity. When the engine runs, it’s quieter than the Volt, and it runs the engine much less often than other midsized plug-in hybrid sedans, such as the Ford Fusion Energi. The car had no trouble running at freeway speeds on electric power (when the battery was charged), and when the engine is on, it uses a smooth and unobtrusive conventional six-speed automatic transmission. The interior is beautifully finished and offers Google’s Android Auto interface to bring all the cellphone apps you use while driving to the car. (Apple’s CarPlay is coming soon as well.) The Sonata Plug-in Hybrid also has the largest trunk of any plug-in hybrid sedan; at 9.9 cubic feet, the battery doesn’t take up much space at all (though it replaces the spare tire).
But the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid doesn’t measure up to our top pick in the key reason that most people buy a plug-in hybrid: saving fuel. It can’t go as far without using gas and burns more of it when its engine kicks on. The Sonata Plug-in Hybrid is a fine fall-back plan if you need the extra interior space or want the added comfort, but it doesn’t quite make the most compelling plug-in hybrid.
Volvo took one of the best luxury SUVs you can buy and made it better by adding a plug-in drivetrain. The $69,0003 2016 Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine Plug-in Hybrid stands out because it offers seating for seven (most offer five) even with its plug-in hybrid drivetrain onboard, and it doesn’t compromise SUV cargo versatility for a big battery pack. (The battery runs down the center floor tunnel.) It also has a unique system whereby a gas-powered, four-cylinder engine under the hood powers its front wheels and an electric motor in the back drives the rear wheels, which gives this Volvo true all-wheel-drive traction in a much more efficient form. The plug-in hybrid XC90 also gets the best overall gas mileage of any three-row SUV (tying the Toyota Highlander Hybrid) and offers 14 miles of pure all-electric driving. That’s not much (at least compared to the Volt), but it’s a lot more than a hybrid that doesn’t plug in, and it matches the five-seat plug-in BMW X5 4.0e.
The XC90 also has the industry’s most advanced touch-screen infotainment screen outside of a Tesla (all 9.3 inches of it, which includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto coming later). It also offers unheard-of active safety systems, including Volvo’s new Intersection Auto Brake, which keeps the car from turning into oncoming traffic, and rear collision warning, which locks down everybody’s seatbelts and clamps on the brakes before a rear impact. There’s also all the usual luxury active safety aids, such as forward collision braking, lane keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, an around-view camera, and automatic self-parking.
All that said, with only 14 miles of electric range and a rating of only 25 mpg combined with its engine running, the XC90 T8 Twin Engine Plug-in Hybrid is still not the best way to save gas with a plug-in hybrid.
The BMW i3 REx, priced at $47,0004 (or about $39,500 after a $7,500 federal tax credit), gets a big thumbs-up for its 72 miles of electric range, which is nearly 20 miles more than the Volt’s. The range is enough to handle virtually anyone’s daily commute while keeping the gas engine off for even longer. But feeding this BMW model’s small, two-cylinder gas engine is a tiny 1.9-gallon gas tank—no bigger than a motorcycle’s—that gives the i3 REx only an extra 75 miles of range after the battery is depleted. Beyond that, you’ll need to stop at a gas station every hour or so on longer trips. This car brings other tradeoffs, too. The i3’s small, skinny low-rolling-resistance tires are fine in the city, but they make for uncertain footing in fast highway lanes or along twisty roads. The small engine also sounds a like a lawn mower when it’s running. Lastly, the i3’s limited cargo capacity makes it less practical than the Volt.
I have spent the past 10 years as the green-car writer for Consumer Reports, driving and writing about every new electric, hydrogen fuel-cell, and other alternative-fuel vehicle on the market. I’ve written definitive articles on how all alternative fuels may affect buyers and society as a whole. Before that, I spent 15 years following alternative energy solutions as an economics reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. In the process, I’ve made it my business to read every new scientific study that I can lay my eyes on, as well as to interview the authors, scientists, and engineers behind them to ask hard questions to see whether the proposed solutions really add up. Along the way, I’ve also driven and reviewed about 2,000 traditional new cars for comparison (including all of the EVs in this guide), and I’ve become an expert at shopping for and finding the best deals on new cars and minimizing their long-term expenses.
For this guide, we also interviewed other experts in the field, including Jim Motavalli, author of two books on green cars and contributor to Car Talk on NPR, The New York Times, and other news outlets; John O’Dell, senior editor for fuel efficiency and green vehicles at Edmunds.com; and Tom Moloughney, board member of Plug In America and an expert on BMW’s vehicle electrification program.
Why is it better to run on electric power? Electricity drawn from a plug and sent through an electric motor is significantly cleaner and more efficient than the gasoline that fuels a traditional engine. And the cost for using electricity as an automotive fuel, depending on many factors, is commonly one-half to one-third of the cost of gasoline.
Because plug-in hybrids use two power systems, however, they cost more than similar gas-powered cars and even traditional hybrids, though they’re usually less expensive than pure EVs. Plus, thanks to the ability to keep driving on a gas engine, plug-in hybrids eliminate the “range anxiety” that some electric-car drivers experience.
As mentioned, the best models go far enough on electricity alone that many drivers need to use the gas engine only sparingly, yet these vehicles are efficient at sipping gas even after their battery packs are depleted. The good ones also compromise little passenger or cargo space to make room for their larger battery packs, and they continue to provide zippy electric acceleration regardless of their battery’s state of charge.
The challenge is finding a plug-in hybrid that best matches your driving routine, which means considering how far you typically drive as well as where and when you’ll have access to charging. The goal is to spend most, if not all, of your daily miles driving on electric power, and that’s a lot easier to achieve if you have a plug-in hybrid with a longer range or access to charging during the day, such as at work. A few plug-in hybrids, like our top pick, the Chevy Volt, offer enough electric range to get most people through an entire day of driving without charging.
The key to maximizing those savings is the battery size, which the industry measures in kilowatt-hours. A car like the 2015 Toyota Prius Plug-in17 has a relatively small 4.4-kWh battery pack that grants only about 10 miles of electric range. This Prius is a weaker plug-in hybrid than the Chevrolet Volt with its 18.4-kWh battery pack, which provides more than 50 miles of driving in electric mode.
Not all plug-in hybrids use their gas engine the same way. Some models, such as the Chevy Volt, activate it mainly after they’ve used up their electric range, and then only for sustaining the charge in the battery pack. Others, like the aforementioned Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, use the gas engine whenever they need extra power, such as when they’re accelerating onto highways or passing, even if the battery pack has plenty of charge. (The Volt will sometimes run its engine to generate heat for passengers when it’s really cold outside, or as part of a maintenance cycle about once a month to keep the gas and oil inside fresh.) From our perspective, the ultimate litmus test of a plug-in hybrid’s effectiveness is how well and how often it stays in electric mode and therefore avoids visits to the pump. A Volt gives you more than 50 miles of electric driving at a time, while the Prius Plug-in Hybrid may stay on electric power only until your next passing maneuver.
Inevitably, at some point you will want to drive longer than your plug-in hybrid’s electric range, so it’s fantastic to know that you can roll up to a gas station and, minutes later, pull away with a few hundred miles’ worth of fuel. This capacity for a plug-in hybrid to work like a gas-powered car eliminates the “range anxiety” that you might feel in a pure electric car when the battery’s charge starts getting dangerously low and there’s not an outlet in sight.
Almost all plug-in hybrids work perfectly fine for road trips, but some are more efficient and pleasant to use than others. It comes down to how fuel-efficient they are after the battery is depleted, and the amount of passenger and cargo space for spreading out during the journey. The BMW i3 REx, for one, is almost unusable on particularly lengthy road trips: Its small, two-cylinder engine is noisy, its skinny tires feel less stable on the highway, and its tiny 1.9-gallon gas tank needs refueling every 70 miles or so.
Federal and state governments offer incentives for people buying cars with plugs. These incentives can lop $2,500 to $7,500 off the cost of a plug-in hybrid. Even after that assistance, plug-in hybrids still generally cost more than similar gas-powered cars.
The more you can avoid buying gas, though, the quicker a plug-in hybrid can make up that cost difference. In 2011, Consumer Reports stated that a 30-mile trip in a 2011 Chevrolet Volt cost only about $1.13 in (electric) fuel, while a contemporary Toyota Corolla racked up $3.56 at the pump. That’s because, according to CR’s estimates, the Volt cost only 3.8 cents per mile when running on electricity (based on the national average of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour for the cost of electricity), versus 11.9 cents per mile for the Corolla running on gasoline. Think about how much that could add up over time. While gas prices have come down since 2011, the cost savings are still persuasive.
Even though the main efficiency strategy of a plug-in hybrid is to maximize all-electric miles and rarely use the engine, the miles-per-gallon rating of a plug-in hybrid when running on gasoline is still important. You don’t want to burn gas at all—but when you do, you want to burn as little as possible. Most plug-in cars are generally more efficient than the average car, with combined EPA city-highway ratings ranging anywhere from 37 to 42 miles per gallon. You’ll find exceptions on the low side, such as the 33-mpg Cadillac ELR and 22-mpg Porsche Cayenne S e-Hybrid. Our top pick, the Chevrolet Volt, offers 42 mpg, the best rating of any plug-in hybrid on account of the Prius Plug-in Hybrid taking a year or two off.
Again, the battery packs of plug-in hybrids are big, and most hybrid models are converted versions of regular gas-powered cars that weren’t originally designed to accommodate those batteries. As a result, some plug-in hybrids, such as the Ford C-Max Energi, Ford Fusion Energi, and Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, sacrifice cargo space to fit their battery packs. The packs usually attack the trunk and gobble up cubic feet until all that’s left is what you might find in a tiny convertible. The gas-powered Ford Fusion, for instance, normally has a 16-cubic-foot trunk, but its plug-in counterpart offers just 8.2 cubic feet.
In contrast, other plug-in hybrids, like the Volt, were designed from the get-go to carry those larger batteries, so they provide more cargo space. The Volt runs its battery pack down the center of the vehicle and beneath the rear seats in a T shape. This setup sacrifices comfortable space for a fifth passenger in the middle of the rear seat but preserves a decently sized trunk, especially when those seats are folded forward.
Gas engines also make some noise and shake when they come on. You can hear and feel it happen in pretty much every plug-in hybrid, but the effect is more intrusive and annoying in some models than others. The BMW i3’s tiny two-cylinder engine is perhaps the most obnoxious. The Volt is the best at muffling the effect of the engine turning on and off, providing a more seamless transition between the electric and gas driving modes.
Note that your driving routine is an important consideration when you’re choosing a plug-in hybrid. If the all-electric range of the plug-in hybrid you’re looking at is equal to or longer than your daily drive, you won’t be using its gas engine (and, therefore, gas) very much at all. That’s the goal. Also, if you’re able to charge at work, you can keep replenishing your car’s battery pack throughout the day, further maximizing your electric miles and minimizing your gas-powered ones.
Don’t forget also to consider where you’ll plug the car in. While most plug-in hybrids can easily make do with ordinary 110-volt household power outlets, you need to have one in your garage or your parking space. You can’t use an extension cord; these cars won’t charge unless you connect the car’s power cord directly to an outlet.
Start your evaluation by getting introspective and thinking hard about whether you want your plug-in hybrid to provide a good and efficient drive primarily for local, regional, or long-distance driving. Because we consider a long everyday electric range to be most important for most people, we believe the Chevrolet Volt provides the best overall experience.
The math is straightforward: One gallon of gasoline contains about the same energy as 33.7 kilowatt-hours of electricity, so you can figure out how many miles your car can travel on those 33.7 kWh.
Here’s the key: All cars operate approximately two to three times more efficiently when running on electricity rather than gas. So the real-world efficiency of plug-in hybrids reflects how often you stay in electric mode (i.e., how frequently you can recharge) more than lab-based numbers usually reserved for gasoline attempting to represent the efficiency of a system that often runs without gasoline.
It’s beyond the scope of this guide to dive into the battery technology that makes plug-in hybrids and EVs work. Instead, here are answers to the four questions we kept asking ourselves when researching plug-in hybrids.
Will the battery pack die at some point and require a pricey replacement? It’s very unlikely. Software specializes and manages the batteries to ensure that they last for the lifetime of the vehicle. In fact, warranties commonly cover the battery packs for 10 years and 100,000 miles. If you’re still worried, consider leasing rather than buying a plug-in hybrid.
Is an expensive home charging station necessary? Unlike for a pure electric car, installing a 240-volt home charging station for your new plug-in hybrid is a nice option but much less critical. Why? The higher power from a 240-volt outlet, which commonly serves clothes dryers and other heavy-duty appliances, is essential to charge the larger battery pack of a pure EV overnight. In contrast, typically you can fully recharge the smaller battery packs in most plug-in hybrids through a standard three-prong, 120-volt outlet in eight to 10 hours. That means they can fully recharge from a normal household outlet every night while you sleep.
A good charging station from companies such as AeroVironment or ClipperCreek costs around $500, usually with installation costing another few hundred dollars. A 240-volt station providing juice of at least 30 amps could allow you to add about 20 to 25 miles of driving range for every hour of charging, but most plug-in hybrids can’t even take advantage of those extra amps and will slow the faster charger down to about 10 to 12 miles of range for every hour of charging. That’s more than twice the four to five miles per hour of charging you get from a standard outlet, but since both outlet types can fully recharge a plug-in hybrid’s battery pack overnight while you sleep, why spend $700 to charge just a bit quicker?
Will the EV range remain consistent year after year? Somewhat and it depends. The capacity of all batteries slowly diminishes over time and use. For most plug-in hybrids and EVs operating in mild temperatures, that decrease will be minimal—a few percentage points over several years. We have seen reports of rare exceptions where the range prematurely and inexplicably drops, but those situations almost always crop up with pure electric cars rather than with plug-in hybrids. The slightly more common problem is with extreme heat in sun-baked places like Arizona. Even though carmakers test vehicles in the scorching desert, some owners of plug-in cars report more substantial decreases in range over multiple seasons of extreme temperatures. Once again, however, these batteries are designed to last the lifetime of the vehicle. They come with robust warranties, and so far reports of any problems whatsoever have been quite rare five years after plug-in hybrids first went on sale in the United States.
Bear in mind that federal incentives provide a tax credit that you apply to your next tax filing and not at the time of purchase. If you decide to lease, though, the dealership will immediately reduce the price of the car by the amount of the credit. In either case, like many issues related to taxes, things get complicated very quickly with lots of exceptions to every rule. All you really need to know is that the tax credit can reduce your cost by thousands of dollars, although maybe not by the full amount listed on the government website. You should confirm the credit amount with a tax professional before buying or leasing a plug-in hybrid.
In addition to help from Uncle Sam, many states also offer tax credits, as well as cash rebates, sales-tax breaks, and other discounts. You’ll also encounter nonmonetary incentives. As you can see from the incentives page on PluginCars.com, some states allow drivers of certain plug-in hybrids to use carpool lanes even when driving solo. Also at the local level, many electric utilities offer special rates, including time-of-use rates, to reduce the cost of powering a plug-in hybrid. Check with your local utility company for exact rates and other details. You might also discover that your insurance company offers a discounted rate for a plug-in hybrid, and your local community might offer preferred or free parking spaces.
It’s important to think of the extended-range EV and the plug-in hybrid on a continuum, with varying degrees of reliance on the gas engine, depending on the many different specific technical approaches that automakers use. For example, an extended-range EV such as the BMW i3 REx uses the gas engine only to recharge the battery pack when it’s depleted so you can continue driving. As in a pure electric car, the electric motor always drives the wheels. On the other hand, a plug-in hybrid, in the strictest definition, is more like a conventional hybrid because the gas engine can also power the wheels directly, usually in a blend of gas and electric propulsion.
The Chevy Volt sits in the middle: If its battery is not depleted, it almost always uses its electric motors exclusively to drive the wheels. But there are conditions when the battery is depleted and you’re driving at higher speeds or under heavier loads that the engine’s power will be mixed with the electric motors’ to turn the wheels. Also, the engine can turn on even when the battery isn’t depleted, like in extremely cold weather, to generate extra heat or if the car’s been run on electricity alone for more than six weeks to prevent the gas in the fuel lines from going stale. As former engineer, current analyst at Navigant Research, and Volt expert Sam Abuelsamid puts it, “Electricity is the primary motivator, but the engine can indeed help out in certain limited conditions.”
Those kinds of technicalities, however, are probably more than you need to know. The most important thing to us as testers, as well as to buyers, is the functional benefit, rather than a list of components and how they work together. And that benefit is the ability to drive purely on electricity for a set of miles followed by additional miles using gasoline so you don’t have to worry about driving range or long recharge times.
Using this broad definition, our list of cars to consider included the Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron, BMW i3 REx, BMW i8, BMW X5 xDrive40e, Cadillac ELR, Chevrolet Volt, Ford C-Max Energi, Ford Fusion Energi, Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, Porsche Cayenne S e-Hybrid, and Porsche Panamera S e-Hybrid, as well as a pair of plug-in supercars in the McLaren P1 and Porsche 918 Spyder.
We did not include traditional hybrids as they lack the ability to plug into the grid, and we didn’t include pure EVs, which have no engine. Although we conducted some research regarding the new breed of supercars that have plug-in hybrid powertrains, such as the million-dollar McLaren P1, we didn’t seriously consider them given their high price tag and their focus on performance over efficiency. Even the relatively more affordable $142,0005 BMW i8, an extraordinary piece of automotive engineering, was not seriously in the running because of its limited availability and its limited utility as a low-slung sports car for two passengers.
We then conducted an exhaustive study of existing articles, car reviews, and technical evaluations of these plug-in hybrids. We used automaker websites, auto review websites like Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book, specialty EV websites like PluginCars.com, and government vehicle efficiency and safety sites such as FuelEconomy.gov and NHTSA.gov. We also held interviews (by phone and email) with three top experts in the field: Jim Motavalli of The New York Times and NPR’s Car Talk and the author of Forward Drive and High Voltage, two influential books about green-vehicle technology; John O’Dell, the green-car editor at Edmunds; and Tom Moloughney of Plug In America. We asked them for their definitions of the category, their recommendations on how to approach a comparison of the models, what they saw as the best plug-in hybrid (and why), and where the technology is heading.
You need extra time to evaluate a plug-in hybrid because your time on the road tells only half the story. Of course, it’s important to get a sense of acceleration, handling, brake feel, dashboard controls, and creature comforts. All of those features add up to the critical driving personality so important to owning any car. But we took a few more days to drive the cars to the point of running out of electricity, driving a bit more, plugging the vehicles back in, and starting the process all over again. This testing strategy, in a nutshell: Drive and plug, drive and plug, repeat.
Few consumers taking the standard 15-minute test drive at a dealership get the chance to try this routine, but we did. And as a result, we were able to take years of thinking, months of research, and weeks of debate into consideration as we finally identified the 2016 Chevrolet Volt as the best plug-in hybrid.
We chose the 2016 Chevrolet Volt, which costs about $35,0006 (or about $27,500 after a $7,500 federal tax credit) as the best plug-in hybrid for most people because it lets you drive for up to 53 miles purely on electric power before the gas engine kicks in, yet it’s still relatively affordable, comfortable, and practical even on long road trips. The Volt stands at the top of its growing class of competitors because of its impressive all-electric range, which ranks second only to that of the more expensive BMW i3 REx.
Also, unlike most plug-in hybrids, the Volt always feels like an electric car to drive, providing quiet operation and swift acceleration even when the engine is on—and when that engine is in use, the car remains fuel-efficient and highway-capable. Despite the Volt’s big battery pack, the vehicle has a decent amount of cargo space. And the cherry on top is that the Volt is the least expensive plug-in hybrid you can buy, partly because it qualifies for the largest amount of federal incentives that you can get when purchasing this type of car.
You could argue that other plug-in hybrids beat the Volt on specific characteristics, and you could say that they offer better style, more utility, or more enjoyable driving. But our focus is on why you would want to pay extra money for a plug-in hybrid in the first place. If your highest priority is to max out on fuel efficiency by driving gas-free as much as possible while avoiding the constraints of a pure electric car’s limited range, the Chevrolet Volt is the clear winner.
The 2016 Volt has brought a complete redesign and features a bigger battery, as well as a longer electric range of about 53 miles, a small center rear seat for a fifth person, and new styling that makes the car look fresher and more modern. These improvements, along with a new dashboard design that makes controls much simpler and easier to use on the road, make the 2016 Volt significantly better than old model, our previous top pick, and builds on its attributes without diminishing them in any way.
For many Volt drivers, their daily commute is an engaging game of doing whatever it takes to avoid a visit to the gas station. Winning that game is a matter of driving and plugging in, each time working to get back to a plug before using up the Volt’s all-electric range of about 53 miles. Careful management of this drive-and-plug routine can reduce trips to the gas station to just a handful of times a year. That’s eminently possible with the Volt but not so much with most other plug-in hybrids that offer electric ranges below 20 miles or even 10 miles. Everybody together now: “Dump the pump.”
Plugging in the Volt is as easy as plugging in your cell phone. You can charge a Volt on any 120-volt household outlet using the charging cord provided, but that takes as long as 13 hours to reach a full charge from empty. A faster approach is to use a 240-volt home charging station, which allows you to add about 10 miles of electric range for every hour on the plug, for a complete empty-to-full charge in four to five hours. A 240-volt home charging station commonly costs around $500 before installation from companies like AeroVironment or ClipperCreek.
Keeping the Volt in all-electric mode day after day is satisfying. When the dashboard reads “250+ mpg,” the highest number possible, you can feel proud that you got one over on OPEC and scored a victory for Mother Earth. At the same time, the option to quickly refuel at a gas station (even though you can mostly avoid it) eliminates the “range anxiety” that afflicts drivers of pure electric cars with fewer than 100 miles of range. Recharging a pure electric car via a plug takes many more hours, whereas once the Volt’s battery is depleted, you can fill up its 8.9-gallon gas tank to full in about five minutes and add another 420 miles of range.
For plug-in hybrids, the size of the battery pack is most important. The Volt can go about 53 miles on all-electric power because it has a bigger battery than most other plug-in hybrids. (Keep in mind that real-world all-electric range can be higher or lower depending on how and where you drive.) The Volt’s nearest competitors in price (the Ford C-Max Energi and Fusion Energi, the Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron, and the Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid) all have smaller batteries and offer between 17 and 27 miles of all-electric range. Naturally, those models will require more frequent visits to the gas station and will burn more gas.
How many miles do you travel in a typical day? According to a 2014 survey by the US Department of Transportation, nine out of 10 commuters drive fewer than 35 miles on a typical day. It’s been that way for more than a decade, according to surveys by the DOT dating back to 2003. If you’re among that 90 percent, you might avoid gas stations for weeks or even months while driving a Volt. That’s the point of a plug-in hybrid.
Most people are amazed and delighted the first time they drive an electric vehicle. It seems almost magical that a car can operate so well without the noise, vibration, and emissions of an internal combustion engine. The Volt gives that feeling more than other plug-in hybrids. Unlike Ford’s and Toyota’s plug-in hybrids, which run more like traditional hybrids by switching back and forth from electric to gas, the Volt almost always operates its wheels with nothing but battery power. That makes a difference in performance. For instance, only the Volt and the BMW i3 REx allow you to put the pedal to the floor for a full dose of the car’s horsepower whether the gas engine is on or not, whereas the other models have slightly less oomph when the electric motor is operating solo. The swift and silent nature is present at full capacity and even when the gas engine is running to charge the battery.
As a result, the Volt doesn’t suffer from clunky transitions between electric and gas. Some hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, have sometimes come under criticism for the high-revving rumble and vibration that occur when the gas engine comes on, or for the impression that something has gone wrong when it again falls silent. The Volt, on the other hand, always feels like a surging electric car. Edmunds echoes our preference for the Volt over conventional hybrids, declaring: “From the compliance of its ride quality to the reassuring weight and response of the steering, the Volt drives more naturally and feels more substantial than hybrids like the Prius.”
That 42 combined miles per gallon using gas also beats every other plug-in hybrid, including the lightweight BMW i3 REx.
For most of our week-long evaluation of the 2016 Chevrolet Volt, the engine would start almost immediately after we turned the car on because the temperature was well below freezing outside and the car’s electric heater doesn’t put out enough power to make the interior comfortable at those temperatures. If it did, we’d be complaining about how much mileage it ate out of the range. That didn’t help our mileage any. In the end, after a week of about 500 miles of driving on one long 400-mile trip and several trips around town using mostly electricity, we just eked out 40.4 mpg.
If you don’t plug your Volt in, it will function like a conventional hybrid with fuel efficiency in the mid-40s. That’s still very efficient, nearly matching the fuel economy of a conventional Toyota Prius. Bottom line: Even if you’re on a long road trip and you can’t plug in, the Volt remains among the most fuel-efficient cars on the road. More commonly, the lifetime efficiency rating of a Volt will be around 100 miles per gallon, according to Volt Stats, a site that aggregates remote data about Volt efficiency directly from vehicles via OnStar.
For a relatively small car, the Volt has surprisingly good cargo space, too, at least compared with other plug-in hybrids. In this regard, you’ll find a big difference between plug-in cars that were designed from the ground up to accommodate a large battery pack and those that were converted from existing gas-powered or traditional hybrid models.
In the case of so-called plug-in conversions such as the Ford Fusion Energi and Ford C-Max Energi, vehicle designers did not originally provide space for batteries, so the batteries steal space from the trunk. In some cases, you barely have enough room left over for a big trip to the grocery store, let alone a long road trip. The Volt avoids that problem. Jim Motavalli, who writes about green and efficient cars for The New York Times and NPR’s Car Talk, told us, “I think the Volt is the best plug-in hybrid because it’s been fully conceived from the beginning as a plug-in hybrid.”
In our grocery-bag-bottom test, 11 bags fit in the Volt’s rear cargo area. And that was with the back seats upright. Here’s where the Volt, as a hatchback, comes in handy, as its folding rear seats drop down to fully open the space behind the front seats and accommodate nine more bags. Don’t get me wrong: The Volt’s 10.6 cubic feet of cargo space with its rear seats up can’t compete with taller hatchbacks and SUVs that will accommodate bigger, bulkier items. But the Volt beats plug-in hybrid sedans by a couple of cubic feet and by even more with its seats folded forward.
The net price of the Chevy Volt, after incentives, makes it the least expensive plug-in hybrid available. That’s remarkable when you consider the size, and therefore the cost, of a big battery pack that offers the second-longest all-electric range of the cars we looked at. Its $35,0007 sticker price drops to about $27,500 after a federal tax credit of $7,500, and in some states such as California, where the Volt qualifies for an additional $1,500 rebate, the price falls below about $26,000. Legislators have based the amount of these credits on battery size, so Volt owners receive the maximum amount: Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid owners get $5,000, and Ford C-Max Energi owners get just $4,000. You can see how much every plug-in hybrid qualifies for by checking FuelEconomy.gov.
For all the remarkable electron-powered capabilities of the Volt, its price premium compared with similarly sized gas-powered models is not that much. Making a strict comparison with a gas car is hard because Chevy doesn’t make a “conventional” Volt, but you can buy a well-equipped compact car for about $22,000. Considering that a new Volt costs $27,500 after its $7,500 federal tax credit, and keeping in mind that even more incentives for purchasing a plug-in electric vehicle might be available in your particular state, the cost premium then drops to a few thousand dollars, and over a few years you could erase it completely depending on how much you’ll save on not buying gas. You get good value in the Chevrolet Volt. It proves that driving electric need not be cost prohibitive.
The 2016 Volt has two trim levels, one that’s fairly basic and one that’s loaded. The base LT comes with a backup camera, a six-speaker stereo, and an eight-inch touchscreen display for Chevy’s MyLink entertainment system that’s used to control music and your phone through Bluetooth, along with an increasing number of custom apps on your phone. In addition, the Volt’s MyLink system includes Apple’s CarPlay iPhone interface that allows you to control iPhone calls, apps for music, and navigation more directly on your phone through the MyLink screen.
For $460, you can add heated front seats and a very luxurious heated leather steering wheel in the Comfort Package, an eight-speaker Bose stereo for $560, and leather seats for $900. We recommend getting the Comfort Package with the heated seats and steering wheel, because using those features instead of turning up the cabin heat can help extend the range (since the cabin heater uses even more electricity from the battery), along with the $225 illuminated charge port, because it can be a pain to line up the plug in a dark garage or parking lot.
The 2016 Volt now includes all of the former model’s Premium package equipment in an up-level Premier trim, and for the first time it adds to the Volt available active safety equipment such as active cruise control, forward-collision alert, and lane-keeping assist. The Premier trim costs another $4,350 and comes with heated leather seats and a heated steering wheel (plus heated rear seats!), a Bose sound system, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. For this trim level, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert are bundled into the Driver Confidence I package for $495, while the Driver Confidence II package for another $495 adds the more active assist features like low-speed collision avoidance, forward collision warning, and lane keeping assistance, along with automatic high-beams. A built-in navigation system adds yet another $495, and you still have to pay the extra $225 for the lighted charge port. As with all plug-in hybrids, a tire-inflator kit replaces a spare tire in order to save space and weight.
If it were not for the Volt’s impressive all-electric range, our short list of gripes might sway our overall opinion more. The top two annoyances are the tight backseat that’s difficult to get into and the lack of a tuning knob for the radio. While we’re at it, though, we’ll call the Volt’s gimmicky “regen on demand” paddle on the steering wheel a missed opportunity.
Don’t get us wrong, the Volt’s back seat is more usable than before. Where the first Volt had just twin buckets in back, this one has a mostly full-fledged bench. But most people of average height will have to scrunch their necks to sit there. And where the previous Volt had next to no room to maneuver your feet into the rear footwells, this one has a slightly smaller battery that sits two inches lower and farther back. We’ll take the two inches, but you still need a contortionist’s apprentice certificate to get your feet under the front seats. Also, climbing into the middle seat means holding one knee to your chest to hoist it over the big center tunnel where the battery lives. In reality, the new center seat is a useful addition either for very short trips or for kids, who will probably be the primary users.
And while we welcome the upgraded interior and the binning of the shiny white seat of finicky capacitive buttons, the new dashboard has done away altogether with the tuning knob for the radio. No matter how high-tech radios get, it will always be a lot quicker and less distracting to scroll through radio stations with a physical knob than having to look down at a screen to see what to press and then press it multiple times to get what you want.
Lastly, while other critics have praised and even awarded prizes to the Volt’s “regen on demand” steering wheel paddle, it’s a poor substitute for a well-designed regenerative braking system. When it started off on the Cadillac ELR, the paddle acted like a downshift paddle, increasing the level of engine braking a little with each pull, just like you were downshifting a manual transmission before going into a curve. As a bonus, pulling the lever would increase the amount of juice the car sent back to the batteries every time you slowed down. Since electric motors don’t naturally have much resistance when you lift off the accelerator, this braking regeneration can be a nice little feature to eke out a few fractions of a mile in range and make the car feel more responsive to accelerator movements.
As implemented on the new Volt, the paddles are more like another brake pedal that you can’t modulate or adjust. It’s just on when you pull it and off when you don’t. Since easing onto the brake pedal already gives you braking regeneration (to send some of your lost momentum as you slow down back to the battery as energy), the paddle is redundant. Pulling it does nothing but make your stops feel jerky, like a teenager first learning to drive. The regen paddle is a particular disappointment to us after testing lots of the latest electric cars that offer a choice of a sporty, efficient braking regen mode or a normal mode that mimics a conventional gas car with an automatic transmission. The regen-on-demand paddle is a poor substitute for the “braking” mode in EVs because you can’t fine-tune it. It’s no dealbreaker, though, because you can always ignore it.
Like anyone researching a car purchase, we surfed the Web for hours, reading reviews and ratings from the most respected auto websites. Their assessments confirmed our view that the 2016 Chevrolet Volt is still the best plug-in hybrid.
Greencarreports.com joined us in picking the 2016 Chevrolet Volt as its “Best Car to Buy 2016.” John Voelcker, the executive editor, wrote, “The second generation of the Chevy Volt stays true to the original, and radical, concept of a range-extended electric car. But it also fixes most of the shortcomings of the original. It remains a five-door hatchback, but it’s a much better-looking car than the old one, with a more rakish profile and crisper lines.”
In its first test, Automobile Magazine gushed: “The new Volt addresses every one of our original criticisms — and succeeds on almost every front… If the outgoing car were a promising college quarterback, the new edition is Aaron Rodgers. The 2016 Volt is that much of a step up… Inside, Chevy got smart and realized that “conventional but simple” is better than “splashy but exasperating.”
Edmunds.com notes that the Volt’s 53-mile electric range “is within shouting distance of some pure electric cars”, yet it “offers peace of mind that true electric vehicles can’t match.” The new engine also drew praise: “It’s more responsive and snappy around town and it’s quieter just about everywhere… More of a purr than a growl, the more refined 1.5-liter engine sounds (and feels) more distant and remote. Sure, the volume goes up when climbing a grade, but it’s dramatically less raucous.”
Car and Driver concurred: “You can tell that GM closely studied the way EV drivers operate their vehicles. It’s all about energy management, and Volt II gives you lots of control.
“As promised, the Volt is quiet even with the plugs firing, unless you really draw the battery down by, say, running nine successive quarter-miles, or by climbing a mountain… The cockpit has its share of plain black plastic but is laid out with pleasing hints at pseudo-grandeur. Mercedes could take a lesson from the artful integration of the central touch screen into the dash.”
Motor Trend’s road test editor Kim Reynolds waxed almost poetic in his writeup of the magazine’s experience gathering track data on the new 2016 Volt: “I stared at the old Volt. Sitting next to our 2016, it looked like a chunky electronics project box I’d buy at Fry’s Electronics. By comparison, the new one appears to have been poured through a fine-mesh nerd filter, both more conventional-looking—in a generic/beautiful way—but slinkier and sexier, too.
“The original Volt had some real strengths… But it heaved heavily over road undulations, and its engine sometimes went into a panicked, roaring regen frenzy when the battery got too low. This one has no vices. I’d forgotten … how nimble it is. How its sense of battery weight now feels more like solid, road-quieting ride motions. Never did the new, bigger engine sweat and scream to redline to recharge the battery—it’s too smart to let itself get painted into an awkward operational corner like that.”
And perhaps Autoblog.com’s green-car writer Sebastian Blanco summed it up best when he wrote: “The interior and exterior have both been upgraded to something I would truly like to see in my driveway every morning.”
Compared to the Chevrolet Volt, the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid for about $36,0008 is a luxurious package with a spacious back seat for three, beautifully finished dashboard, and even a sizable trunk. It has the next longest all-electric range after the Volt at a real-world 27 miles. And, along with the regular Sonata, it’s the first vehicle to offer Android Auto, Google’s in-car interface for Android smart phones. (It works just like Apple’s CarPlay, only for Android phones. CarPlay is coming soon as well.)
Driving the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid couldn’t feel more normal. Most other plug-in hybrids use some form of continuously variable transmission, or CVT, which spins the engine to charge the battery out of sync with the driver’s demand for power or acceleration. We didn’t experience that in the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid with its conventional 6-speed automatic transmission; the car remains quiet and subdued whether the engine is running or not. We also found it can be counted on to reach its maximum electric range of 27 miles, even in cold weather. And with the battery charged, we regularly saw 70 mph on the freeway in pure electric mode. It’s rated at 99 MPGe using gas and electricity combined (1 MPGe better than the original Volt), and 40 mpg when running on gasoline. That would be almost as good as the Volt, if the Sonata Plug-In Hybrid had nearly the same electric range as the Volt. But it doesn’t.
The space inside the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid is what makes it feel like a luxury car, even if the materials and finishes in the base model do not. The Sonata Plug-in Hybrid has the biggest trunk of any plug-in hybrid sedan, and the battery sits around the edges, rather than blocking the whole innards of the the trunk. At 9.9 cubic feet, it’s the largest enclosed trunk of any plug-in hybrid we researched.
Move up to the Limited trim and you may wonder if you’re driving a luxury car. Not only does the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid offer a center rear seat, it’s comfortable enough for grown-ups (unlike our top pick Volt’s center-rear seat). Lastly, Hyundai also offers Google’s Android Auto interface to bring all the cellphone apps you use while driving to the car’s in-dash screen (Apple’s CarPlay is coming soon as well).
So if you want a plug-in hybrid and need a bigger back seat than what the Volt provides, or if you just prefer something that looks and acts like more like a typical four-door sedan, the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid is a great choice. But with an electric range half that of the Volt, it’s not quite good enough to be our top pick.
The 2016 Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine Plug-in Hybrid is a full-size SUV with all the comfort and utility that buyers of big, expensive luxury SUVs like this expect. Plus, for a price of around $69,0009 it can go 14 miles on electricity alone before needing any gas and is rated at 50 MPGe when operating in its default hybrid-electric mode. At at a combined 25 mpg once the battery runs out, it’s also tied for first in fuel efficiency among three-row SUVs. Lastly, efficiency aside, the XC90 is one of the most beautifully finished luxury SUVs you can buy, has one of the most advanced touchscreen systems available in any car, and offers some advanced safety features you can’t get anywhere else. Yet while it’s a great choice for luxury SUV shoppers who want to go a little green, the XC90 still can’t touch the Volt where it counts: electric range and overall efficiency.
The plug-in hybrid XC90’s biggest selling point is that it has three rows of seating that fits seven people. Most large plug-in hybrid SUVs kick their third row of seating to the curb to fit their big batteries in back underneath the cargo floor, thus limiting their seating to five. The XC90, however, runs its battery up the center tunnel like the Volt does, preserving the rear for more butts in seats.
Also, unlike other all-wheel-drive plug-in hybrids, the XC90 has no mechanical connection to the rear wheels. Instead, it uses an efficient electric motor to drive only the rear axle and provide all-wheel drive. This means the gas engine also has to be running to drive the front wheels at the same time, though the rear electric motor will engage to provide AWD even after the battery runs down, using electricity generated by the engine.
The XC90 also has the industry’s most advanced touchscreen infotainment screen, nearly rivaling the Tesla Model S. In many ways, it’s easier to use. The 9.3-inch screen (again, second biggest to Tesla) includes Apple CarPlay and will have Android Auto soon.
Volvo’s flagship SUV is also the first vehicle of any kind to offer Intersection Auto Brake, which keeps the car from turning into oncoming traffic, and rear collision warning, which locks down everybody’s seat belts and clamps on the brakes before a rear impact to minimize injury and keep the car from being bounced into the car ahead. These features are completely unique to the Volvo, but you can also get all the usual luxury active safety aids, such as forward collision braking, lane keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, an around-view camera, and automatic self-parking.
All these attributes make the plug-in hybrid XC90 a great SUV. And we’re not even put off by the fact that the gas engine has to run when you need all-wheel drive— you’ll probably want it running to provide heat and defrosting at that point anyway. But luxury features and space aren’t why most buyers seek out plug-in hybrids, so the Volt, with its longer electric range, greater fuel efficiency, and significantly lower price, is still a better choice for most people looking to curtail oil consumption with minimal sacrifice.
We consider the BMW i3 REx to be both a great, small, luxury electric car and a really good plug-in hybrid, but not the best plug-in hybrid for most people. Although it offers genuine luxury, drives like a BMW, and provides the longest electric driving range—72 miles—of any plug-in hybrid we looked at, the i3 REx is comparatively expensive and ill-suited for longer trips due to its tiny engine and gas tank.
Even at its relatively lofty starting price of about $47,00010 (or around $39,500 after you apply the maximum $7,500 federal tax credit it’s eligible to receive), the i3 REx has great value as a rolling laboratory of exotic materials and clever engineering. When we priced it out in the Mega World trim, with metallic paint and a Parking Assistant package (which was the only way to get a back-up camera), the pre-incentive price was about $49,000. That said, you’re still paying more than $40,000 for what’s essentially a subcompact car that prefers city streets to the open road.
So what’s the problem? Why didn’t the i3 win the prize? We believe that a plug-in hybrid should continue to perform well even after its battery pack is depleted and its gas engine kicks in. The i3, for all its charms, wasn’t designed for long road trips. Yes, the gas engine lets you go an additional 70 miles or so after you’ve drained the 21-kilowatt-hour battery pack, and that should be plenty to get you home or to a charging station. But the tiny two-cylinder engine and 1.9-gallon gas tank (a size you’d usually see on a motorcycle) would not make for a pleasant experience on longer trips, because after the battery is depleted, you would need to make a pit stop for fuel at 70-mile intervals, or about every hour of highway driving.
To make matters worse, when the gas engine comes on, it’s a loud and rough intrusion into the peaceful sanctum of the previously silent cabin. Finally, the i3’s tiny back seat, limited cargo capacity, and small, skinny tires put a real dent into its highway capability.
So far, we’ve dwelled on our four recommendations for plug-in hybrids: the Chevrolet Volt, Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine Plug-in Hybrid, and the BMW i3 REx. But that’s only four out of about a dozen plug-in hybrids we considered. One of the first things we did was to group the contenders into four rather obvious sets.
The first grouping consisted of five-seat family cars: the Chevrolet Volt, the Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, the Ford Fusion Energi and the Ford C-Max Energi. We’ve talked extensively about the first two. Like the Sonata, the Fusion is available in three variations: gas, conventional hybrid, and plug-in hybrid. We really liked the handsome styling of the Fusion Energi sedan, but it fell out of contention as the best plug-in hybrid for several reasons: Its cargo area is compromised to make room for the battery pack; its power is reduced when running purely on the electric motor, and its limited 19 miles of EV range were hard to overlook.
The same goes for Ford’s C-Max Energi. While it has the lowest starting price of any plug-in hybrid at about $32,50011 (which drops to around $28,500 after a federal tax credit of about $4,000), the C-Max Energi costs about $1,000 more than the Volt after you net out the incentives. And it has the same meager 19 miles of all-electric range that the Fusion Energi does. The C-Max energi isn’t a bad car—we named it an alternate pick in 2015—but newer models offer more practicality and more range.
We defined the second group as luxury cars. In addition to the BMW i3 we do recommend, several plug-in hybrids in this set didn’t make the cut: the Audi A3 Sportback e-Tron, the soon-to-be-cancelled Cadillac ELR, the Mercedes-Benz S550 Plug-In Hybrid, and the Porsche Panamera S e-Hybrid.
The Audi A3 Sportback e-Tron is a tempting package for potential plug-in hybrid shoppers who want a luxury buying experience, but it falls short in electric range at just 17 miles and doesn’t offer any extra equipment that the 2016 Volt doesn’t.
We quickly dismissed the ELR because its price does not justify what it offers. It’s essentially a first-generation Volt dressed in a tuxedo—and with only two doors and a tiny trunk. Cadillac essentially admitted to the problem when it dropped the 2016 ELR’s price by about $10,000, from $76,000 to $66,000,12 in early 2015. Although the ELR shares the same powertrain as the original Volt, this two-door coupe is a lot less functional, not quite as efficient, and, in our estimation, more sizzle than steak. Cadillac has already announced it will stop selling the ELR after this current generation.
The plug-in hybrid Porsche Panamera and Mercedes-Benz S550 have powerful engines and capable electric motors that combine for more total power than many sports cars offer. However, the Porsche Panamera S e-Hybrid’s price tag of $94,00013 and its paltry 16 miles of all-electric range make it a hard choice as the best plug-in hybrid for most people. The S550 Plug-In Hybrid carries the luxury equation even farther with a limo-like backseat, the latest automated driving aids, and even a perfume-dispensing air freshener. And its 18 miles of electric range will get some commuters through a day. That may justify its price tag for some shoppers, but that’s hardly most people.
A third group we defined as plug-in hybrid luxury SUVs. In this category, the Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine was the clear winner for its efficiency, seating for seven, advanced technology, and gorgeous interior appointments. Its only two competitors are the BMW X5 xDrive40e and the Porsche Cayenne S e-Hybrid.
The BMW X5 xDrive40e plays second fiddle with its mechanical all-wheel-drive system and battery sitting where most luxury SUV buyers want to have a third-row seat. While it has the same 14-mile electric range as the XC90, the X5 40e is rated at 24 mpg when relying on its gas engine—one mpg short of the Volvo’s 25 mpg. It costs about $5,000 less than the Volvo, but with seating for only five and a base price still well over $60,000,14 it doesn’t seem like the best plug-in hybrid SUV for many people, either.
If it weren’t for the Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine Plug-in Hybrid, the Porsche Cayenne S e-Hybrid’s impressive power and luxury appointments might make a good case as an efficient luxury SUV. But its high-tech interior is busy and complex, rather than helpful and intuitive; it’s just not as current as the XC90’s. And the Cayenne feels snug inside, even for just five passengers (again, the Volvo can seat seven). While it has the same 14-mile electric range as the other two luxury plug-in hybrid SUVs, once its potent V6 engine comes to life, it gets a fairly unimpressive 22 mpg, three fewer than the Volvo. Those don’t seem like the priorities of shoppers looking to spend extra money for a luxury SUV than can run on clean, efficient electricity, especially at a starting price of $78,500.15
The final grouping, and the most fun to drive, consisted of plug-in hybrid supercars. After all, in addition to supplanting petroleum with electricity, plug-in hybrid technology can serve to maximize torque and horsepower.
The poster children for plug-in supercars are the $1.1 million McLaren P1 and the $845,000 Porsche 918 Spyder. Both of these limited-edition supercars were sold out almost immediately after going on sale. (Since then, prices for them on the used market have continued to rise.) For good measure, we also lumped in the almost-as-exciting $142,000 BMW i8.16 All three are tremendously sleek and powerful vehicles, and legitimate plug-in hybrids, but they’re not exactly within most people’s reach.
The BMW i8 is an extraordinary vehicle. With its sleek, futuristic design and signature scissor doors, it’s a knockout. At the same time, the i8 coupe’s powerful electric motor, which feeds power to the front wheels, and its 1.5-liter turbocharged engine in back combine for genuine sports-car power that is remarkably easy to pilot. The i8 has a top speed of 155 miles per hour and zero-to-60 performance of about four seconds, the equivalent of a Ferrari California. It accomplishes this feat while providing a relatively good rating of 76 MPGe when using both electricity and gas, and a decent 28 mpg purely on gas. You can even drive 15 miles purely on electricity when the need arises.
If you can afford any of these, we say go for it—and give us a call if you’re willing to take us for a spin. But you don’t need our help, or our justification, in your decision to buy an i8, a P1, or a 918 Spyder. Rock on.
No fewer than 12 upcoming plug-in hybrids are on our radar, many of them from German luxury automakers. Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz are expected to make most of their vehicles available with some plug-in capability—with Mercedes specifically offering a new plug-in model based on an existing gas-powered model in its lineup—every few months over the next couple of years.
The German plug-in hybrids from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz will be relatively expensive but will also offer smooth rides and plenty of luxury features. Their all-electric range, though, will vary depending on the automaker; most are likely to fall short of 20 miles once production cars are tested by the EPA, and none will come close to the 2016 Volt’s 53-mile range.
Mercedes-Benz will add a new plug-in hybrid variant of its winning C300 compact luxury sedan. Called the C350e, the new model will offer the same well-appointed interior and advanced safety features as the C300. Mercedes has said its plug-in battery will deliver 20 miles of all-electric driving. With a $1,000 price premium over a base C300 and a tax credit of about $4,000, it could wind up being a compelling value. Its price and its range limitation, however, would still likely keep it from being the best plug-in hybrid for most buyers.
Mercedes-Benz will also expand its plug-in offerings with a new GLE550e—an updated name for the automaker’s popular ML SUV. Mercedes claims the GLE550e will go about 20 miles on electricity, though that’s likely to drop once it’s officially rated by the EPA. And it still needs to use its twin-turbocharged gas V6 for anything more than mild acceleration.
Farther out, Audi has announced plans for a plug-in hybrid Q7 E-Tron Quattro, based on its upcoming redesigned Q7. Audi claims the Q7 E-Tron will have a battery big enough for 33 miles of electric range, backed by Audi’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder.
If you’re looking for a large, four-door luxury vehicle with an electric range close to the Volt’s, keep your eyes open for announcements about the Cadillac CT6. The gas version of the brand’s all-new flagship model is expected in early 2016, with a plug-in model having a claimed 35 to 40 miles of range to follow later in the year.
This year, Kia is also expected to add hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of its new second-generation Optima. Expect the plug-in version to mirror the capabilities of its sister car, the Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, with about 27 miles of electric range.
And in 2017, Hyundai is expected to introduce the Ioniq, a “green” car with hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and pure electric variants.
The US still lacks a minivan with a conventional hybrid system, but Chrysler plans to change that with its replacement for the Town and Country and Dodge Caravan, the Pacifica. The all-new Pacifica goes on sale this spring and will be followed later in the year by a plug-in hybrid version that offers 30 miles of all-electric range and an 80 MPGe rating. The only downside? The plug-in hybrid version loses Chrysler’s famous Stow N’ Go seats; they needed that extra space for the batteries.
Mitsubishi first promised to bring its Outlander Plug-In Hybrid SUV to the US in 2013; that’s when it was introduced in Europe. But with each successive delay, we have to wonder if it will ever happen. This SUV with a claimed 30 miles of EV range is now targeted for a mid-2016 release. Time will tell, but I won’t hold my breath.
Note that automakers have now had enough time to factor bigger batteries into their product planning, allowing engineers and designers to put those batteries in locations (mostly under the cabin) that don’t interfere with passenger or cargo room. That should allow future plug-in hybrids to offer even more electric range without compromising utility compared with their conventional counterparts.
Also keep in mind that carmakers sometimes cancel plug-in models, as Honda did with the Accord Plug-in Hybrid after the 2015 model year. The company has said it will shift its focus to creating a brand-new, purpose-built plug-in hybrid (and electric car), but it hasn’t given more details.
The Chevrolet Volt was the first battery-powered, plug-in car to also carry a backup gas engine, and it therefore established an entirely new category, plug-in hybrids. Five years later, it’s still the leader of a growing pack mostly because of its ability to travel more than 50 miles without using any gasoline. So far, no competitors have come along that can challenge its ability to drive every day without using gas and still comfortably make long trips, so it’s status as our top pick remains solid for 2016.