In an era of uncertain gas prices, car buyers are looking for the most fuel-efficient rides out there. And while you may already be familiar with such green vehicles as hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs), you might not be up on PHEVs.

Below, we’ll cover what PHEV stands for, how this type of green vehicle operates, and its main pros and cons.

What Does PHEV Stand For?

PHEV is an acronym for a type of green vehicle known as a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). In a nutshell, PHEVs act as a bridge between hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and full battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

As with battery electric vehicles, PHEVs have a lithium-ion battery pack, but their battery packs generally have significantly lower capacity than a BEV. 

And like traditional hybrid electric vehicles, the PHEV’s powertrain is a combination  of at least one electric motor and an internal combustion engine (gasoline or diesel engine). But unlike a typical hybrid, which always needs some combustion to support movement, the PHEV’s battery pack gives it a short all-electric driving range that generally falls between 40 and 80 km, though some outliers have significantly higher and lower ranges.

Once you deplete their all-electric range, the PHEV’s internal combustion engine (the gasoline engine) fires up, at which point it acts similar to a hybrid.

As the name implies, PHEVs must be plugged into an electrical source to charge their batteries. Generally, a 110-volt household outlet is sufficient to recharge the batteries overnight.

How Does a PHEV Work?

Typically, a PHEV’s batteries are charged overnight from a power source — generally a plug in your garage. That allows you to get the maximum all-electric range, meaning that when you get in a fully charged PHEV and start the ignition, the vehicle will begin in pure BEV mode unless you override it into its hybrid mode to preserve the battery.

Under normal driving conditions, and with a fully charged battery, the PHEV will continue operating with the electric motor only, which uses the battery pack for its fuel. In some PHEVs, however, the gasoline engine may turn on to supplement the power whenever there is heavy acceleration or when using the heating and air conditioning system.

Once the batteries start to deplete, the gasoline engine will kick in to help power the vehicle and provide electricity to the electric motors, much like a regular hybrid car. In some cases, the gasoline engine is nothing more than a generator for the electric motor, and there’s no mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels. A good example of this is the BMW i3 REx.

As with any hybrid, you can drive your PHEV as far as your gasoline tank will last you. Then, you simply fill it up, and you’re on your way again.

Some PHEVs also include generators that produce electricity to recharge the batteries when coasting or braking. This is referred to as regenerative braking.

The PHEV’s drivetrain combination of an electric car and HEV gives owners the flexibility of having a BEV for their daily commute and an HEV for longer journeys.

What Are the Pros of a PHEV?

Plug-in hybrid vehicles have a lot going for them. Here are a few pros of these eco-friendly vehicles.

Perfect for Short Commutes

With an all-electric range typically in the 40 to 80 km area, PHEVs often have enough battery capacity to get their owners to and from work on electricity alone. If your workplace has a charging station or an accessible 110-volt outlet, you can also charge while you’re at the office.

Reduced Emissions

When running on battery alone, PHEVs have the same tailpipe emissions as a BEV: zero. And then when the gas engine kicks in, they remain a low-emissions vehicle, much like your typical HEV.

Great Fuel Economy

Fuel efficiency is a key benefit for most PHEVs, as they generally deliver BEV-liter fuel consumption equivalent numbers when in BEV mode. They generally range from 1.8 to 3 Le/100 km, though there are some outliers, like the Porsche Cayenne PHEV and others that sit in the 5 to 5.5 Le/100 km range.

In hybrid mode, they also rival standard hybrid vehicles with combined fuel consumption ratings in the 4.3 to 6 L/100 km range. Again, there are outliers, but those are generally niche PHEVs from premium brands.

No Special Charging Station Necessary

While a special 240-volt charging station or power outlet would certainly speed up a PHEV’s charging, they are generally unnecessary. Most PHEVs will get a full charge on a regular 110-volt outlet in 6 to 10 hours, so you can plug them in overnight and have a full charge by the morning.

And if your workplace has an accessible 110-volt outlet and you secure the proper permissions, you can easily charge your PHEV at work too.

No Need to Charge on Road Trips

While the charging infrastructure is improving and charging times are plummeting — you can get 320 km of charge in 15 minutes on some Tesla models — charging is still not as convenient as filling up your gas tank.

On long road trips, you can keep the trip going with just a few quick stops at the gas station to top off the tank, whereas a BEV would require 15 to 40 minutes on a DC Fast Charger to recoup enough driving range to make a dent in your long journey.

What Are the Cons of a PHEV?

There are many positives to PHEVs, but there are some trade-offs to consider.

Short EV Range

There’s no way around it: if you want to charge your vehicle overnight and run all your errands the next day on electricity alone, most PHEVs won’t cut it. You’ll eventually exceed the 40 to 80 km electric driving range on most PHEVs and run on the internal combustion engine at some point.

These drivers are generally better off with a BEV that has a few hundred miles of driving range on it.

Not an Engaging Drive

Unless you’re shopping for one of the niche performance-oriented PHEVs on the market, these cars are generally about as engaging to drive as your typical hybrid vehicle. Granted, these cars are built for fuel economy, so it’s understandable, but if you have a craving for performance, you won’t find it here.

Like BEVs, however, PHEVs take advantage of the instantly available torque from their electric motors to deliver engaging drives. In fact, some models are surprisingly fast, such as the Tesla Model S Plaid, which zips to 60 mph in 1.99 seconds.

Pricier Than an HEV

Because of their BEV technology, PHEVs generally carry a higher MSRP than their HEV equivalents. You may make up the difference in fuel and maintenance savings, but you’ll want to consider how much you drive and your savings relative to the higher price.

Which PHEVs Have the Longest Electric Driving Range?

When shopping for a PHEV, the electric driving range is very important, so here’s a list of some PHEVs with the longest driving ranges.

2015-2021 BMW i3 REx

The Bimmer i3 REx’s range-extended electric powertrain is classified as a plug-in hybrid by Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN), making it the best in the class by a pretty wide margin. Depending on the year and the type of i3 you buy, it ranges from 116 to 203 km of driving range on battery power alone.

Keep in mind, though, that the i3 has a 10.9-litre fuel tank, so its gas-powered range-extender is only good for another 116 to 129 km before you need to refuel.

2021 Karma Revero

Effectively a resurrected Fisker Karma, the Karma Revero is one of the niche plug-in hybrids that focuses on performance. Its 1,100-horsepower GT model indicates this. That said, it still is a leader in all-electric driving range at 87 to 98 km, depending on the model you choose, before the gas engine kicks in.

Its fuel consumption numbers are high, though. In BEV mode, it ranges from 3.4 to 3.8 Le/100 km. In hybrid mode, its combined ratings are 9.1 to 10.8 L/100 km.

2017-2019 Chevrolet Volt

The Chevrolet Volt PHEV is also more of a range-extended BEV than a typical PHEV, but NRCAN classifies it as the latter. It delivers 85 km of electric driving range on a full charge. Unlike the i3, though, the Volt has a normal-sized fuel tank and delivers another 591 km of range when the gasoline generator kicks in.

2018-2021 Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid

The Clarity Plug-in Hybrid can drive up to 77 km on electric power alone with a full charge. In hybrid mode, it delivers another 475 km of range.

Pick up a Quality Pre-Owned PHEV at Clutch

Ready to get a PHEV of your own but don’t want to break the bank on a brand-new model? Clutch, Canada’s largest online used car retailer, has a wide range of quality pre-owned PHEV models to choose from.

Plus, all our pre-owned PHEV models have been through a 210-point inspection and reconditioning process to ensure they are in top-notch shape. We then back them up with a six-month or 6,000-km warranty for good measure.

You can also feel secure in your purchase because Clutch offers a 10-day, no-questions-asked test-own period. Which means that if you don’t love your pre-owned PHEV from Clutch, you can return it or exchange it for a different vehicle.

We’ll even help you secure financing, evaluate your trade-in, and deliver your vehicle to your door. So what are you waiting for? Check out our latest PHEVs today.