The Juice

42 Percent of an Electric Car Revolution

I did the math, and that’s what I’m getting out of my plug-in Prius. Not bad.

hybrid electric vehicle Prius Plug-in Hybrid.

Visitors look at Toyota’s Prius Plug-in Hybrid during an auto show in Tokyo in 2011.

Kiyoshi Ota/Thinkstock

A year ago, I needed a relatively short-term mobility solution. A teenager in the house had started to drive and was beginning to monopolize the 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee I used for my limited automotive needs: commutes to and from the train; lightning raids on Whole Foods; car pools to the soccer fields of Fairfield County, Connecticut; and the occasional jaunt to New York.

Here was my opportunity to participate in the energy and mobility revolution I’ve been writing about. But the small number of all-electrics on the market weren’t appealing, thanks largely to range anxiety. I don’t make a lot of road trips, but I wanted the option of picking up and driving to Washington, D.C., or Boston or Maine. Like most of my fellow Americans, I was eager to use less gas and embrace a new technology but not so eager to inconvenience myself. I also wanted a two-year lease, since our teen driver will soon be leaving home.

The answer to my modest dream turned out to be a plug-in Prius hybrid—the cost wasn’t prohibitive, and it was available on a 24-month lease. Plus, it came with two tempting green-privilege bonuses that regular hybrids didn’t offer. At the time, Connecticut was offering a temporary rebate for people who bought or leased all-electrics or plug-ins. And my town’s government, in its wisdom, had set up four parking spots/charging stations right next to the train tracks for the exclusive use of plug-ins.

It’s been precisely a year. And what have I learned? For this driver, a plug-in is not an electric car. It’s not even half of one. But it is about 42 percent of an electric car. And that’s pretty good.

The plug-in Prius can go about 13 miles on battery power alone. And so the extent to which it is an electric car varies, depending on how you drive and where you drive. (Weather has an impact.) If you live in a warm climate and drive 5 miles to and from your job every day, then you have an all-electric. If you live in the Northeast and commute 50 miles each way to work at an office with no charging stations, you’re basically driving a regular hybrid with an extra battery kick.

My experience fell somewhere in the middle. In one year, I’ve driven 5728 miles. Of those, 2,391 miles were driven solely by electrical power stored in the battery, or 41.7 percent. The other 3,337 miles—58.3 percent—were powered by the gasoline engine.

With its lethargic pick-up, the Prius is much less fun to drive than my 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee. But I’ve also been liberated from the old kind of range anxiety. Because it only got about 13 miles per gallon, the Jeep required constant feeding. I used to visit a gas station once every 12 days or so. By contrast, the Prius’ small tank came full, and I’ve stopped to fill it up just 10 times in the past year. On those stops, I bought 75.5 gallons for about $205. The upshot: For me, the car gets about 72 miles per gallon of gasoline consumed. (The rest of the fuel came from electricity delivered from the grid via an outlet in my garage.)

Driving a quasi-electric car inconveniences you in some ways, enough to make you realize the challenges of driving a full-on electric that is not a Tesla. There’s the lack of pick-up. Charging stations can be hard to find and might be occupied by another electric car once you find them. If you want to drive in electric mode, you have to go very gentle on the gas pedal and travel at such a slow speed while going uphill that your spouse may yell at you.

But there are plenty of perks. Being able to park at the special spots at the train station saves me a lot of time and exposure to the elements. I’ve also found similarly convenient set-aside spots at LaGuardia Airport and other parking garages. And fueling up less isn’t just a relief on the wallet. I don’t like standing outside in the cold, breathing in fumes, and watching gas-pump TV content. By my calculations (seven minutes per fueling stop), the 20 trips to the gas station I’ve avoided in the past year have saved about two-and-a-half hours. Given my age and professional status, I value those two-and-a-half hours at about $500.

I’m not sure how to place a dollar value on the smugness associated with driving a 42-percent electric car. Sure, it sometimes feels like you’re maneuvering a golf cart onto the Merritt Parkway. But there’s also the pleasing silence at stop signs, the battery that regenerates when you hit the brakes or go downhill, the quiet whir when you accelerate gently, the lack of emissions when you idle.

Plug-in hybrids aren’t perfect. They still burn gasoline. The electricity on my grid isn’t that cheap and comes mostly from natural gas. But these cars do represent a significant improvement on the status quo. Given where the auto industry was just 10 years ago, the idea that you can have mobility without combustion, and with substantially lower emissions, is revolutionary. With plug-in hybrids, the risk-averse bourgeoisie can participate in this revolution—42 percent of the time.