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The Volvo XC60 Recharge plug-in hybrid.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

We’re debating getting a plug-in hybrid SUV and we are stressed and confused about how much range we’ll need. It’s important to use to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and we want to drive it purely electric as much as we can. How much range do we really need for that? The one we’re looking at has about 30 km of range. Is that enough, or is more better? I think we need more, and my partner thinks we’d get by. We’d like a pure battery-electric vehicle eventually, but this makes sense for now because we want to go on longer trips. – Anita. Ottawa

There’s been a surge in electric options, so it’s easy to get a little, er, deranged when figuring out how much battery power you’ll need.

But to figure out your ideal range for a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), keep track of how much you’re driving now, experts say.

“If it was me, I would think about my typical daily drive – if your commute is 40 km round trip, you’d want at least that much range,” said Cara Clairman president and CEO at Plug n’ Drive, a not-for-profit that promotes electric vehicles. “You want it to cover what you’re driving around the city – you wouldn’t want to dip into gas for your commute or local errands.”

Unlike conventional hybrids, which may only let you run a block or two on pure electric power, PHEVs have a larger battery that you plug in.

While most new battery-electric vehicles offer at least 300 km in electric range, PHEVs deliver a lot less. But when a PHEV’s battery runs out, the gas engine kicks in.

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.

Looking at PHEV SUVs specifically, among the 15 listed on Natural Resources Canada’s website, only four offer more than 40 km of range. Toyota’s RAV4 Prime has the best range among PHEV SUVs – 68 km.

The average Canadian drives 30 or 40 km a day.

“A lot of PHEVs can do that,” said Jim Vanderwal, director of climate change programs with the Fraser Basin Council. “It does give people the flexibility for longer trips.”

The Volvo XC60 Recharge PHEV, which has a $66,650 MSRP and an 11 kWh battery, doesn’t qualify for any government incentives.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

Range may vary

That stated range could be more – or less – depending on how you drive.

Scorching and freezing weather, a heavy foot on the accelerator, and steep hills can sap range more quickly.

To test this out, I drove a 2021 Volvo XC60 Recharge PHEV for a week in Vancouver – which included a 128-km return trip to Squamish on the Sea to Sky highway.

The XC60′s stated range is 30 km, but I got about 35 km in town. I didn’t accelerate quickly, and drove it in B mode. That lets you essentially shift into a lower gear to maximize the regenerative braking – which gives power back to the battery – when slowing or stopping.

Driving around the city, the battery never got to zero. But it got close – down to about 5 km. I needed to plug it in at night to recharge. From 5 km to 35 km took about 3 hours at a normal 120-volt outlet.

Most PHEVs, including the XC60, have settings that let you recharge the battery from the engine while you drive. Many also let you set them to an engine-only mode that won’t drain the battery as much.

That’s useful if you’re on a long highway drive but want range left to use EV-mode when you get to your destination.

Pointless if not plugged in?

If you don’t plug in your PHEV regularly, you won’t get much electric-only range. You’ll be emitting CO2 – and it might be more than you think.

A 2020 study from Transport and Environment and Greenpeace found that, in real-world use, PHEVs emitted as much as two-and-a-half times more emissions than what car companies said they did in official tests.

“You’re not going to get the manufacturer’s claim if you don’t charge it,” Vanderwal said. “You can still use it as a hybrid.”

If you’re looking to produce the least amount of emissions while you drive, your best bet is still a pure BEV, Vanderwal said.

“But a PHEV could still make a significant reduction for somebody if 80 per cent of their driving is urban driving,” Vanderwal said. “That’s a big deal.”

Another thing to consider when shopping? PHEVs with bigger batteries and MSRP up to $55,000 for up to six seats or $60,000 for seven or more could qualify for the full $5,000 federal rebate.

On top of that, vehicles could also qualify for up to a $1,500 rebate in B.C. or up to $8,000 in Quebec.

That’s why it makes sense to compare vehicles, Clairman said.

For instance, a Toyota RAV4 Prime PHEV, which has a $44,990 MSRP and 18 kWh battery, qualifies for full federal and provincial rebates.

But the Volvo XC60 Recharge PHEV, which has a $66,650 MSRP and an 11 kWh battery, doesn’t qualify for any government incentives.

Plus, the Volvo uses premium gas, which will cost you more.

If you don’t regularly take cross-country trips and you can plug in at home, a BEV might make more sense for you than you think, Clairman said.

“I would recommend going with [a BEV] because you’ll end up saving a lot of money on fuel and maintenance,” Clairman said. “But PHEVs do have a role for people who really aren’t ready – they’ll either get a PHEV or a regular gas car.”

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