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For those looking to optimize the environmental sustainability of their new SUV purchase without giving up on gas altogether, plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) seem to offer the perfect compromise. These cars combine a standard gas tank with a battery, meaning that you can run on electricity for short trips without worrying about finding a charging station.
In other words, PHEVs make it possible to take advantage of the efficiency of an electric motor without sacrificing your ability to fill up the fuel tank for longer drives. Best of all, these cars often have a lighter impact on the environment than standard choices and are eligible for the federal electric vehicle tax credit.
Why consider a plug-in hybrid SUV?
Why would you purchase a plug-in hybrid SUV over a standard hybrid? After all, both vehicles include gasoline engines paired with electric motors. You’ll also have more selection when shopping for a hybrid, and they tend to offer excellent fuel economy and lots of interior space.
The primary reason to consider a PHEV is that it gives you the flexibility to charge your car at home so you can take short trips without using any fuel whatsoever. Running the car’s engine will charge the battery, and regenerative braking (lifting off the accelerator or pushing the brakes) also sends energy into the battery.
City dwellers can take advantage of public electric chargers at work or on day trips, which might make it possible to drive without ever needing a gas refill. Most owners will also plug their car in once they are home for the day, thus ensuring it’s fully charged by the morning.
Today, there’s a range of plug-in hybrid SUVs on the market from popular brands, including Subaru, Kia, Toyota, and more. Comparing their stats to find which one will get you further can be confusing, so we broke down the decision process here.
How we ranked plug-in hybrid SUVs
When it comes to choosing your PHEV, the numbers you need to pay attention to are the following:
- Electric Vehicle (EV) Range: the average distance your vehicle can travel without gas on a full charge.
- Miles Per Gallon (MPG): your average gas efficiency, usually accounting for both city and highway driving.
- Miles Per Gallon of Gasoline Equivalent (MPGe): your car’s estimated efficiency when driving on both electric and gas power, calculated to show what the MPG would be if you were running on gas alone. (Learn more about MPGe here).
The most efficient cars will rank high in each category, meaning that they can travel far on just electricity while also efficiently burning gasoline when the battery gets depleted.
Now, let’s look at how some of the most popular plug-in hybrid SUVs compare to each other from an efficiency standpoint.
|Model||Electric Vehicle Range||Miles Per Gallon||Miles Per Gallon Equivalency|
|2020 Kia Niro PHEV||26 mi||46 mpg||105 MPGe|
|2020 Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid||37 mi||41 mpg||100 MPGe|
|2021 Toyota Rav4 Prime||42 mi||38 mpg||94 MPGe|
|2020 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid||17 mi||35 mpg||90 MPGe|
|2020 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV||22 mi||25 mpg||74 MPGe|
|2020 Mini Cooper Countryman SE AII4||17 mi||29 mpg||73 MPGe|
Highlights: The Rav4 Prime travels an industry-topping 42 miles on electricity alone, and it compares favorably to the rest of the Rav4 line.
Stats: 42 mi EV range, 38 mpg, 94 MPGe
Price: Starts at $38,000
Brand new to the popular RAV line, the 2021 RAV4 Prime is Toyota’s first foray into the plug-in hybrid SUV market. At 42 miles a charge, it offers the highest EV range of any plug-in SUV and also includes one of the most powerful electric motors. Combine that with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine for a total output of up to 302 horsepower. This means the Prime can reach up to 84 miles per hour on electric power alone.
Not only does this car deliver as a PHEV, but it’s also arguably the best RAV on the market, with bolder styling and quieter running than the standard version. Many people will appreciate that the 18.1 kWh lithium-ion battery is mounted under the floor—meaning there’s no loss of interior space for passengers.
This PHEV is well suited for long trips, as it contains a 14.5-gallon gas tank. This means you can travel up to 600 miles between stops. However, charging will take slightly longer than for its competitors. Plan on 12 hours for a 120-volt plug, or 4.5 hours with 240-volts.
For those who want a plug-in electric vehicle with near-identical functionality to a traditional SUV, the Rav4 Prime should top your list. Though the Niro and Escape offer slightly better fuel efficiency, the Prime wins points for its fast response time and roomy interior.
Highlights: A low price and exceptional fuel efficiency put the Kia Niro in a league of its own as a PHEV, though it suffers from slow pickup speeds.
Stats: 26 mi EV Range, 46 MPG, 105 MPGe
Price: Starts at $29,000
Kia has long been considered an economical car brand, and at under $30k, the Kia Niro is no exception. This compact crossover SUV first entered the market in 2018 and runs with a four-cylinder engine paired with an electric motor. Together, they provide 139 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque.
This budget-friendly car has the highest fuel efficiency on our list, boasting an impressive 105 MPGe while still delivering a respectable 26 miles of electric-only traveling per charge. Plan to charge it with a 120-volt household outlet (nine hours to full charge) or a 240-volt charge source (2 hours 15 minutes to charge). You can rely on the 11.4-gallon gas tank for backup on longer trips, which provides an estimated 560 miles of driving time between fuel-ups.
Though classified as an SUV, the Niro doesn’t offer all-wheel drive. You’ll also get less cargo space than traditional SUVs, and it’s relatively slow at picking up speed unless the gas engine is engaged.
Nonetheless, this vehicle is both the most affordable and most fuel-efficient PHEV on our list, which makes it a winner for your wallet and the environment. Just don’t expect it to perform many tricky maneuvers on the highway.
Highlights: Ford offers all-around value with the Escape PHEV, making it an efficient plug-in car that still lets you travel far when you need to rely on gas.
Stats: 37 EV Range, 41 mpg, 100 MPGe
Price: Starts at $33,000
Ford offers a highly efficient plug-in hybrid vehicle with the 2020 Ford Escape. It includes a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 198 horsepower and 209 lb-ft of torque. But where it really stands out is with electric driving range, which averages 37 miles a charge. This SUV also includes an 11.2-gallon gas tank that lets it travel around 500 miles between fuel stops.
When you plan to charge the 14.4 kWh battery, expect it to take ten hours with a 110-volt charger, and 3.5 hours with a 240-volt charger.
For those with a relatively short daily commute, the Escape is a hard PHEV to beat. However, it offers some limited functionality compared to traditional SUVs. For example, it will only tow 1,500 pounds (2,000 less than the standard Escape), and it only comes with front-wheel drive.
Highlights: While the Crosstrek Hybrid offers all-wheel drive, its mediocre electric-only travel distance makes it fall in our rankings.
Stats: 17 mi EV rating, 35 mpg, 90 MPGe
Price: Starts at $35,000
Subaru’s popular Crosstrek finds a new market with its plug-in option, and this SUV differentiates itself from the PHEV competition with high-grade features and options for all-wheel drive. However, it suffers from a speed and fuel efficiency standpoint.
The Crosstrek Hybrid comes with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder Boxer engine and an 8.8 kWh battery for a total system output of 148 horsepower and 134-lb-ft of torque. That’s less than half of the power of the Rav4 Prime, putting it more on pace with the Kia Niro.
This vehicle is also middle of the road regarding its electrical efficiency. You’ll go fewer than 20 miles on all-electric power, and its 13.2-gallon gas tank gives it a maximum drive range of just 480 miles. However, a smaller battery does lead to quicker charging times, as it takes only five hours to get a full charge on a 120-volt outlet, and two hours on a 240-volt.
You’ll also sacrifice some cargo capacity with this car compared to the standard Crosstrek, and it comes with a maximum towing capacity of just 1,000 lbs. Even so, this car’s branding as an adventure vehicle and its all-wheel-drive functionality make it a worthy contender for those who make short daily trips but also want the flexibility to venture into rugged terrain.
Highlights: The Outlander is a slow car electric car with a small gas tank. Brand loyalists may love it, but everyone else can find better options for a green vehicle.
Stats: 22 mi EV range, 25 mpg, 74 MPGe
Price: Starts at $36,000
Mitsubishi’s PHEV is visually indiscernible from its standard Outlander, though there are some significant differences under the hood. This plug-in hybrid contains a tamer four-cylinder that’s connected to two 60 kW electric motors for a combined 190 horsepower and 137 lb-ft of torque. Expect it to take up to nine seconds to reach 60 mph, making it one of the slowest hybrid SUVs in the industry.
Efficiency-wise, it offers little to make it stand apart. You can go about 22 miles on electricity alone, and the 11.3-gallon fuel tank will limit your travel distance to 282 miles between stops. This averages out to a middling fuel economy of 74 MPGe. The battery will charge in 13 hours at 120-volts, and 3.5 hours with 240-volts.
In many ways, there’s not a compelling reason to spend more for this PHEV compared to the standard Outlander. While you get more cargo space than the regular Outlander, this comes at the cost of an entire row of seats (the car will fit five people total). Both vehicles also have the same 1,500-lb towing capacity.
Mitsubishi fans who want to save on fuel will likely love this vehicle, but everyone else can do better with a different PHEV.
Highlights: Though a greener update on this quirky vehicle, the Mini Cooper Countryman underperforms compared to the other PHEVs in its class.
Stats: 17 mi EV range, 29 mpg, 73 MPGe
Price: Starts at $36,900
A battery-operated Mini Cooper may come off as a surprise, but the Countryman SE ALL4 can hold its own—so long as you’re okay with poor electric performance. This car offers only 17 miles of all-electric range, which means you’ll be relying on gas more than you might have anticipated.
On the positive side, the Countryman PHEV includes both a 7.7 kWh battery and a 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine for an impressive combined 221 horsepower and 284 lb-ft of torque. Unlike many other plug-in SUVs, this Cooper includes all-wheel drive functionality for a relatively responsive ride.
You also won’t spend long waiting for the battery to charge, as a standard 120-volt outlet will fill it up within five hours (and under three for 240-volts). This battery can also re-charge up to 90% while you’re driving if you put it in the ‘Save Battery’ mode.
Mini Cooper lovers who don’t mind spending more to have a car that’s more green than standard models should consider the Countryman SE ALL4. But everyone else? You’ll likely do better shopping around for a more efficient plug-in SUV.
The final word: is a PHEV an eco-friendly choice?
When car shopping, it’s easy to assume that electric cars are always more environmentally friendly than their gas-guzzling counterparts. The truth is far more nuanced.
To start, a 2011 German study from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Heidelberg, found that electric and standard vehicles have a similar carbon footprint. That’s due in part to the complexity of construction for an electric car, the large portion of rare earth minerals contained within their batteries (and their recycling difficulties), and the varying efficiency in how people are charging them.
One of the best ways to improve the environmental impact of your PHEV is to invest in an eco-friendly charger. Check out our rankings of the best electric vehicle chargers for 2020, so you can maximize energy efficiency for your car.
Finally, consider distancing yourself from the grid altogether by investing in solar panels paired with a lithium-ion battery for storing electricity. This lets you power your car from energy harvested from the sun, which makes a massive impact on how much you pollute on every road trip.