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Plug-In Hybrid Vs. Standard Hybrid: Kia Sportage Makes It Easy For The Budget Conscious

Many car shoppers may consider buying a standard hybrid (HEV) versus a plug-in hybrid (PHEV). They may not know which will have a lower operating cost, or smaller carbon footprint. Only some brands offer both HEV and PHEV compact SUV options (one or more from Toyota, Mitsubishi, Ford, Mazda, Subaru, Jeep, Hyundai and Kia plus some luxury brands). Someone near and dear to me asked me to help her decide whether a PHEV might make more sense (or cents). When it comes to the Kia Sportage, the choice may be clear.


Previously, I compared the standard, non plug-in version of the Kia Sportage Hybrid to the Honda CR-V Hybrid. While the two are quite competitive, the Kia Sportage came out ahead with a deeper set of safety features, lower price point, longer warranty, and better efficiency/lower fueling costs. But what are the differences in price and fueling costs between the very efficient hybrid SUV and its PHEV version? How long might it take or recoup the cost differences in fuel savings and are the feature sets the same? Let’s find out!

Comparing the Kia Sportage PHEV to the standard HEV version, the PHEV version starts at $38,690 MSRP (before any potential incentives) for the X-Line trim and goes up to $43,190 for the X-Line Prestige. The primary difference between the two trims is in the available features; only the more expensive X-Line Prestige model has all the safety features that Kia offers (apparently identical to how the HEV feature sets are structured, with the absence of Smart Cruise Control being the most glaring omission, in my opinion, from the X-Line trim). For ease of comparison, I will compare the top trim PHEV version to the top trim HEV version (and point out any important details re: the lower trims otherwise).

The PHEV version can run on battery power alone for around 34 miles on a full charge, and as such gets much higher fuel efficiency as it can avoid trips to the gas station for weeks, if not months at a time. But one will pay for this privilege; the difference in price between the HEV and PHEV top trims is $6,800. Note that the difference between the lower trim PHEV and the mid and lower trims of the HEV version are $11,200 and $7,500 MSRP respectively, so if you want all the features and can afford it, the highest end trims have the least difference. Also note that the two PHEV trims are positioned as the more off road capable models, so if that matters it may be another factor in your decision making.

If you are eligible for any incentives for the PHEV from federal, state, or local sources, that could lessen the difference as well. However, in Washington state, though there may be partial sales tax exemption for the PHEV, the state’s steep registration fees penalize plug-in vehicles with 30+ miles of all electric range and add an extra $125 in annual registration fee (on top of a $75 fee for all hybrids and electric cars). This is in addition to hundreds of dollars on top of those two fees if you live in one of the 3 most populous counties (for a mass transit levy based on the resale value of your car). This means the more expensive PHEV Sportage trims may cost hundreds of dollars more per year, somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 - $900 annually, in registration fees compared to the less expensive HEV trims, which might only cost around $550 - $650 per year. Those fees are to maintain roads and build out more public charging infrastructure, however, they do not favor more fuel efficient vehicles unless driven more than the national average mileage of 13,000 or so miles annually.

Thus, in states like Washington, if you drive less than the average annual distance, you may be paying much more in registration fees to drive an efficient vehicle than those who drive equivalent gas-only vehicles the same distance. Given the higher price point of the PHEV, before considering any possible incentives, and using the national average prices of a gallon of gas ($3.40) and 1 kWh of electricity (about $.15 cents), that $6,800 difference between the two top trims would pay for well over 70,000 miles of fuel for the HEV version. This math improves if you have more expensive gas and cheaper electricity (as we do in Washington state, with some of the lowest electricity costs and highest gasoline costs in the nation), or vice versa if you have cheaper gas and more expensive electricity. In the case of my dear friend though, even with the calculus favoring electric “fuel” here in Washington, the price difference would still pay for around 50,000 miles of driving.

Speaking of fuel efficiency, the PHEV version has a combined (gas and electric) efficiency of 84 MPGe and 35 MPG (when running on a depleted battery). There’s no question then that the Sportage PHEV is extremely efficient given its size, weight and shape. However, if your budget is the limiting factor, the HEV version is likely going to be the more cost effective choice at least for however long it takes to drive 50,000 miles, or so, and depending on where you live and whether gas works out to be more expensive than electricity.

What do you think readers, would you still opt for the PHEV Sportage over the regular hybrid Sportage? If so, why? Please leave your questions or comments below and stay tuned for a follow up piece comparing the more affordable Kia Niro trims to the Sportage HEV and PHEV trims.

Images courtesy of Kia.

Justin Hart has owned and driven electric vehicles for over 15 years, including a first generation Nissan LEAF, second generation Chevy Volt, Tesla Model 3, an electric bicycle and most recently a Kia Sorento PHEV. He is also an avid SUP rider, poet, photographer and wine lover. He enjoys taking long EV and PHEV road trips to beautiful and serene places with the people he loves. Follow Justin on Twitter for daily KIA EV news coverage.


Maggie Ruiz (not verified)    April 3, 2023 - 2:50PM

I currently have an EX AWD 2023 Sportage and I am looking to upgrade to either the Hybrid or Plug In. I am new to electric and hybrid vehicles as a whole and was wondering if we could speak on questions I have.

Barry (not verified)    April 29, 2023 - 8:07PM

I read about both HEV & PHEVs getting lower mileage when the battery is depleted. My question is how easily does this occur in highway driving? If I'm driving long distances ( for example, 300+ miles on a relatively flat highway,) should I expect the battery to deplete? I haven't found anything that addresses this question.

Justin Hart    May 2, 2023 - 2:32AM

In reply to by Barry (not verified)

I can definitively answer this question for you! You have complete control over the state of charge of the battery. But, if you simply turn the Sportage PHEV on, put it in drive, it will “prioritize” the use of the battery first (until you press down hard enough on the accelerator/go fast enough to switch it into hybrid mode). Since I have made several 300+ miles trips in my Sorento PHEV (which has the same powertrain and battery as the Sportage) I can advise this: DON’T simply put your PHEV into drive and forget about what mode you are in/how you are driving it IF you want to maximize efficiency. Instead, do this: begin your 300+ mile trip by using up say, 5-10 miles of battery range. Save the rest for use en route, switching back to battery for the final 30 miles or so of your trip (assuming you can charge up when you get there; if you can’t charge when you get there, save some of your battery for slower speed driving, perhaps in traffic or side roads but keep at least 5-10 miles of range on the battery until you get to place you can recharge). Why? The answer is simply: by preserving most of the battery for use in slower driving (i.e. 50 MPH or less) you’ll get more EV range. By using up some miles at the start of your trip you’ll have space to recapture some additional range from braking or coasting downhills. By saving enough battery until you know you can charge at the end of your drive, you give the vehicle additional opportunity to run for short periods off the battery when it is in HEV mode. You also save ample “buffer” for going over a tall mountain pass. These things will get you better gas mileage/overall efficiency, I’ve written several articles here on Torque News about my experience following these principles. Let me know if you have more questions!