Are plug-in hybrids better than regular hybrids?

Operating Costs of Plug-ins and Hybrids

The Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid demonstration program vehicle
The Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid demonstration program vehicle
Courtesy of Toyota

Like any new technology, costs are typically higher at first and then slowly go down over time. Plug-in hybrid vehicles are no exception. Although PHEVs already have all the existing technology they need to be mass produced and sold, one main factor causes them to be more expensive than traditional hybrids: the batteries.

There are two types of batteries that are typically used for standard and plug-in hybrids: nickel-metal hydride (NiMH), and lithium-ion (Li-ion). Li-ion, are the most efficient and can hold more electricity, but they are also the most expensive. Many hybrids, like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, use nickel-metal hydride batteries because of their charge capacity and cost effectiveness. Even though these popular hybrids both use NiMH batteries now, Toyota's 2012 Prius will be a plug-in hybrid with Li-ion batteries [source: Borroz].

With plug-in hybrids, the price of the car goes up because there are more batteries in the vehicle than in a traditional hybrid. A compact PHEV out of the box will cost about 10 to 20 percent more than a standard hybrid. For instance, a sedan will cost about $2,000 or $3,000 more and an SUV will cost about $5,000 more than a traditional hybrid [source: CalCars]. After the initial price, however, the PHEVs begin saving money on gasoline from day one. More batteries mean that the range of driving on fully electric power is extended, with most PHEVs getting around 20 to 40 miles (32.2 to 64.4 kilometers) on a single charge.

And while 40 miles (64.4 kilometers) may not sound like a lot, remember that the average driver commutes about 29 miles (46.7 kilometers) every day [source: Siegel]. That means that a driver could run the car all day, plug it in at night and be ready for his or her commute again the next morning. Battery prices are expected to fall as the technology improves and more car manufacturers buy batteries en masse. As gasoline prices steadily increase over time, PHEVs offer a good alternative and possibly even a cost-savings.

Go on to the next page to find out about the environmental impact of PHEVs and hybrids.