Plug-in hybrids are the gateway drugs to full-electric automotive ecstasy. That was the general feeling amongst many auto industry types, at least amongst OEM execs offering PHEVs, back when the modern electric vehicle era kicked off almost exactly a decade ago.
The ability to plug a vehicle into any socket and receive a warm, comforting electric blankie of silent all-electric range for the daily commute, while still retaining a full gas engine to scare away the twin demons of range anxiety or grumbling family members on road trips would make PHEVs the next green bridge from hybrids to an all-electric nirvana, went the theory.
We went the opposite route and put down our hard-earned funds in late 2011 on a 2012 Nissan Leaf battery electric (BEV) five-door. No more gas, no more oil changes, no gas station visits, and with its limited range and early January pick up date, no more hopping in the car without considering how far you had to go.
With a fairly short 30 km commute from the ‘burbs into traffic-packed downtown areas, either the Leaf or the similarly new Chevrolet Volt PHEV would offer the promised land of super-smooth and gas-free daily commuting – but when you’re looking at fuel efficient hatchbacks, it’s hard to get much more efficient than using zero gas.
And I liked the idea of a front row seat to the sunrise of an all-electric vehicle future, even if I knew there would certainly be growing pains along the way.
To be clear, this was not a discounted media vehicle, nor a ‘long-term’ test drive in a borrowed vehicle for a few months, nor a marketing deal worked out between ourselves and any dealer or Nissan Canada itself. And these all-new Leafs were going for full MSRP – which was north of $40k all-in for a loaded one at the time, even though it only offered a 160 km range.
Which was later officially de-rated to a measly 117 km. In ideal conditions. At a time when public charging stations were just emerging at a few forward-looking businesses, often with government support. Then, as now, looking at your predicted range in the Leaf and achieving anywhere close to that figure was serious California Dreamin’ in any type of chilly weather, even though larger batteries in new Leafs have helped double and triple (in Plus models) those predicted range figures, while its heat pump and updated software at least help the Leaf come a little closer to its predicted range.
A feeling many Tesla owners know now. At least, before they switch their battery readouts to the commonly recommended percentage mode.
Back then, the Chevrolet Volt PHEV and the all-electric Nissan Leaf BEV duked it out for the hearts and wallets of plug-in vehicle buyers in Canada in late 2011, offering parallel yet different paths to zero emissions. Yes, the debut of the Tesla Model S in 2012 turned the auto world on its head, but it was still a relatively high-end luxury vehicle.
The Volt offered a pragmatic feet-first jump into life with 56 kilometres of electric power before the gas engine came in to save (or ruin) the day, while the Leaf promised the smoothest powertrain on the market outside of a Rolls-Royce, and maybe similarly quiet if far from as isolated suspension-wise. Nissan’s awkward-looking hatchback was more futuristic in feel and comportment than any other $40,000 vehicle on the market, and could easily have been marketed as an Infiniti straight away.
The Volt then proceeded to crush the Leaf in sales for the next six years, until GM pulled the Volt from the market. This sales dominance in the small but growing affordable EV segment over those years strongly suggested that Canadian plug-in buyers in this class preferred a healthy number of electric miles with an internal engine backup for emergencies, range-sapping winters and easy road-tripping.
For us, we ran into multiple situations when we wondered whether we had made the right plug-in call, especially that first winter when still learning about the Leaf, and its laughably optimistic ‘guessometer’ (GOM). And though we were never stranded even in our early 24 kWh Leaf, a host of convenience issues (poor range, slow quick charging, few public chargers) and cost factors (rapid depreciation), convinced us after less than five years that it was time to move from our early BEV, to a PHEV.
So we traded in our Leaf in 2016 for a used Ford C-Max Energi, which for our 30 km commute purposes covered just about all of her commuting in all-electric mode for most of the year. And even with the C-Max Energi, my wife didn’t have to give up her cherished warm interior garage welcome on winter mornings, even though our electric range dropped closer to 20-25 km in the winter, those cold mornings and rising gas prices incentivizing us to plug it in every day.
Fast forward to now, and it seems like the plug-in landscape has shifted greatly since then. Tesla Model 3 sedan and Model Y crossovers dominate the plug-in sales charts, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the entire plug-in market in Canada. New BEV introductions are much more plentiful than new PHEV vehicles, although longer-range PHEVs like the Toyota RAV4 Prime and Ford Escape PHEVs are just hitting the market, and proving very popular (if low in volume) so far.
Nissan has just reduced the base price of the 2022 Leaf in Canada by nearly $7,000, and it’s déjà vu all over again. Nissan had dropped the base price of the Leaf by $6,700 all the way back in 2013 as well, dropping it down to $31,698. It had crept all the way back up to start at just over $44k in 2021, but at $37,498, it has become the least expensive BEV on the market, after this most recent price drop of a near-identical $6,800.
This is great for potential new and used Leaf buyers, not so much for ones that had bought new Leafs earlier. The all-electric 2022 Chevrolet Bolt has also had a similar price cut earlier this summer, although a major recall and stop sale on all Bolts at Chevrolet dealers has complicated new and used sales on it for now.
All this has got me thinking that it may be time for a new, or at least new-to-us plug-in vehicle. But PHEV versus BEV? The answer seems simple now. New BEV ranges are much longer, public DC fast charging is much quicker, and there’s no doubt that Tesla and its regular software updates have pushed the industry to keep improving in many areas around the driving experience as well as the charging one.
To me, plug-in hybrids now feel like they’ve done their noble duty, but are now clinging onto what is clearly an all-electric future. The worst part of driving a PHEV is when the quiet hum of your electric motor turns into the thrashing of the internal combustion process, thousands of mini-explosions each minute under your hood. And I still walk by neighbours who rarely plug in their PHEVs, negating their potential environmental and gas-saving abilities.
For buyers who only have one vehicle and may live or travel to less populated areas regularly that still don’t have much quick charging infrastructure, PHEVs are a great option. But for our family, whether new or used, the time is coming soon when we’ll be back to a gas-free future.