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Toyota RAV4 Prime.

Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

My husband and I are looking at getting a Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid. Is it possible to drive it on battery power alone, without the gas ever kicking in? We’d like to use it as a pure electric car for all of our normal city driving, and only use gas when we drive to Ottawa to see our parents. We’ve heard that some hybrids use gas when in EV mode. We’re also wondering whether the range is enough for our daily driving. – Joanne, Toronto,

If you’re not at home with the range of pure electric cars, a plug-in hybrid might seem like the best of both worlds.

You can drive them as an electric vehicle (EV) until the battery runs out, and then it switches to gas.

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But on many plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), there are times where the gas engine kicks in while you’re in EV mode – even on a full battery.

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For instance, on the 2021 RAV4 Prime, which has a posted 68 km range, the gas engine will start at speeds over 135 km/h and when the outside temperature is under about minus ten degrees Celsius, Toyota said.

So, for at least three seasons in most of Canada, you can drive a RAV4 Prime without using any gas at all.

“It is possible to drive in pure EV mode when the battery is properly charged, and the gas engine will not kick in,” Romaric Lartilleux, Toyota Canada spokesman, said in an e-mail. “Actually, some Prius Prime and RAV4 Prime owners have put several thousand kilometres on them without using a single drop of fuel.”

Range may vary

On the RAV4 Prime, your pure electric range will vary depending on the outside temperature, how fast you drive and how quickly you accelerate.

Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

On the RAV4 Prime, you can choose a hybrid mode that uses both gas and electricity, or an EV mode that uses the battery alone.

Your pure electric range will vary depending on the outside temperature, how fast you drive and how quickly you accelerate. You might get more than 68 km of range – or a lot less.

“Some people have gotten 80 km or 85 km of range on the RAV4 Prime – it depends on how you drive,” said Yves Racette, a consultant who specializes in training technicians about EVs and hybrids. “If you push too much on the accelerator, you’ll lose range – that’s true with a gas car, too, but most people don’t worry about that.”

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To find out for myself, I drove the RAV4 Prime for a few days. In over 100 km of driving, the gas engine kicked in once for about two seconds – when I misread a label and held down a button that lets you use the engine to recharge the battery.

I charged once overnight when the range got down to 13 km. Overall, I got 74 km of range, on average, and the gas tank stayed full.

Electric only?

On the RAV4 Prime, you can choose a hybrid mode that uses both gas and electricity, or an EV mode that uses the battery alone.

Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

What’s the difference between a conventional hybrid, a PHEV and an EV? Conventional hybrids have a smaller battery charged by the gas motor.

An electric motor kicks in to help get you better gas mileage, so you’re often using both battery and gas power.

Some have an EV mode but you can’t drive purely on electric power for very long. Depending on the car, you may only get a few hundred metres.

PHEVs have a battery that you charge by plugging it in. They have more electric range than hybrids, but less than EVs.

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Of the 38 PHEV models sold in Canada, the posted electric range varies from 98 km in a 2021 Karma Revero to 24 km in a 2021 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S E-hybrid.

On some PHEVs, the car may switch from EV to hybrid mode more often. That means you’re still using gas and emitting carbon dioxide, even if it’s just for a few seconds.

For instance, Honda’s Clarity sedan, which was discontinued this year, runs on electric power for 76 km. But the Clarity’s gas engine will kick in if you push the gas pedal past 75 per cent, Honda Canada said.

Subaru’s Crosstrek PHEV has a 24 km battery-only range, but the gas engine might start if you hit the throttle or blast the heat or air conditioner.

Even if you’re easy on the gas pedal, the Crosstrek’s engine will kick in anyway – it’s designed to slowly use up the gas in the tank so stale gas fuel isn’t sitting in the system, Subaru Canada said.

Substitute for an EV?

So, should you consider a PHEV if you want to drive electric most of the time, but you still have range anxiety?

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These days, 400 km of EV range is increasingly common. But if you want to drive further than that without having to stop to charge, or you’re looking for a bigger SUV, a PHEV might make sense.

Plus, since they have an electric motor for extra oomph, most PHEVs have more horsepower than their gas-only counterparts.

But, realistically, in most of Canada, you’ll likely end up using at least some gas in the winter.

“PHEVs are really built for using the gasoline engine in the wintertime,” Racette said. “But for people who aren’t ready to go full electric, I think it’s a good step.”

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. Emails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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