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Americans Favor One Of The Least Efficient Plug-In Hybrid SUVs Around

Many of us have family and friends that we like to bring with us on journeys far and wide. We load up our companions and equipment and hit the road for: exploration, (re)discovery, togetherness, solitude, (re)connection. How we get there, what we drive, is an important part of the trip. While I don’t really know what’s right for anyone else’s needs other than my own, I can’t help but feel there’s something wrong with our priorities when it comes to plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) in the U.S.

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I say this because the number one selling PHEV in the United States, by a large margin, is the Jeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid (which sold more than 2:1 over the far more efficient and possibly second best selling PHEV, the Toyota Rav 4 Prime). The Jeep sold more than 43,000 units in 2022. The Wrangler PHEV gets a paltry 22 miles of range on a full battery charge, hardly enough to cover the one way distance of the average American daily distance of around 40 miles. When the Jeep runs on its gas engine, it gets an even less impressive 20 mpg. Yet it was the most commonly sold PHEV in America last year. Certainly, the fact this particular Jeep can plug-in and cover a limited number of miles in full electric mode is better than not being able to cover any, right? In my mind, the answer is barely, if at all, because the amount of materials and manufacturing that go into the fairly large battery the Jeep PHEV uses and its especially low EV range mean that the number of miles one needs to cover in EV mode to “make up” the difference in emissions from manufacturing compared to a non-plug in hybrid are likely north of 50,000. That’s just a guess on my part based on stats for other plug-in hybrids I’ve read about. But maybe I’m just biased?

Let’s do a little comparison to expand on what I am getting at. Last weekend we took a trip to the Kitsap Peninsula in beautiful Washington State. I had 3 generations of my family, one in each row, of our Kia Sorento PHEV which has an EV only range of 32 miles and gets about 34 mpg when running in hybrid mode (though in my experience I am capable of exceeding 40 miles of EV range regularly and my lifetime mpg on gas is actually 36.3, something I track manually in a spreadsheet). This trip was approximately 300 miles and with all 6 seats occupied plus some cargo in the back we had about 800 pounds onboard. I saw my lowest EV range yet of approximately 29 miles on a charge, but I’ll note that in addition to the full load, it was in a rainstorm and at least half the distance was at speeds above 45 mph; if I were driving mostly 45 mph or less, I am certain I would have gotten 32 miles or more of range, as I did on the middle leg of our road trip. I was also able to fully charge our battery 3 times, once before departing our home, again at my brother’s house about 60 miles into the journey, and a third time the morning before coming home at about 200 miles into the trip. We drove mostly on rural two lane highways and never with a speed limit over 60 mph. Temperatures were in the upper 40’s to low 50’s F and there were some sunny days, too. I managed to get a blended 47 mpg roundtrip due to being able to get a full charge 3 times (which means that figure represents electric and gas distances combined).

For the sake of comparison, assuming I had an equivalent amount of weight on board (not as many people fit in the Jeep), the same driving conditions and opportunities to fully recharge otherwise, I estimate that I would have only gotten a blended 31 mpg in the Jeep, covering approximately 60 miles on battery and using about 9.4 gallons of gas for the rest (vs. about 6.1 gallons in my Sorento PHEV). This brings me to my point: while some people do need a vehicle with more ground clearance or more robust off road capability (that a vehicle like the Jeep PHEV offers), many people would otherwise be just fine with a different AWD SUV that plugs in and uses far less energy (gasoline and or electricity). While I am certain availability and style preferences are a significant factor in why people chose the Jeep PHEV as often as they did, we should not be encouraging people to do so with government subsidies since it fails to accomplish the primary function of a plug-in hybrid (significantly reduce emissions). The real world efficiency the Jeep PHEV has, unless one only drives within the range of the battery for the vast majority of trips, is not significantly better than any run of the mill gas powered or non-plug in hybrid SUV. There should be a clause in our subsidies that excludes “weak” PHEVs (i.e. PHEVs that get less than about 40 miles of range) and or PHEVs that do not get over 30 mpg in gas only mode.

What do you think? Am I being too critical of this especially weak Jeep PHEV? Do you have a counter argument? Please leave your comments or questions below.

Images courtesy of Jeep and Justin Hart.

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.

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Bob (not verified)    January 23, 2023 - 9:23PM

200k wranglers sell a year. It is a specific vehicle that does specific things. It has solid axles and it is a convertible. People buy them and will continue to do so. Gas mileage is not a leading factor in the purchase decision. The comparison would be to its non-hybrid version. Does the 4xe use less gas(and emissions) than its non-hybrid version? Yes. And yes, every crossover, hybrid or non-hybrid is more efficient. Could have inserted any crossover and got the same conclusion. Wranglers will still sell and some people just won’t get it.

JustinHart (not verified)    January 24, 2023 - 3:40AM

I am sure you are right Bob, they will keep buying it as long as they don’t have too much competition in the equivalent off road space (for example if Ford makes a PHEV Bronco, or Toyota and FJ like PHEV). My point is that just like with pick ups, lots of people buy them not because they need them, not because they really use them for the purposes they were designed for, but because they look cool/project an image, or they just like the idea of owning the capability. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that it is grossly wasteful and should absolutely NOT be encouraged by the government subsidies that are supposed to be accelerating the transition away from fossil fuel dependency. I have no issue whatsoever that this car is an option for people, as I do believe some people really need it for what it is designed for. But no way in heck should we be allowing people to claim a $7,500 tax rebate for this gas (and electricity) guzzling rig.