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When you're a busy working mom, sometimes things fall through the cracks. A school form goes unsigned. A phone gets left behind. A few weeks ago, I even drove to work without the plug for the electric car I was testing.

After a moment of panic, however, I remembered that my ride was equipped with a small gas engine, so there would be no need to scramble for bus fare.

Because my husband's car needs replacing, we've been hoping to find something with the latest green technology that also makes financial sense for us. I recently tested some all-electric vehicles, but the range limitations on the cars in our price range just didn't meet our driving demands.

So began phase two of my search, this time with plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). Over three weeks, I'd test the 2015 Toyota Prius Plug-in, Ford Fusion Energi and Chevrolet Volt.

Plug-in hybrids are designed for short battery-powered trips with a backup gas tank for longer drives. The Prius and Fusion Energi have small batteries and hybrid engines, while the Volt has a larger battery and a conventional gas engine.

Different drive modes allow you to select battery power or save it for later. During my first drive with the Prius, however, I was surprised to see the fuel gauge dropping in electric-driving mode. In fact, only 16 per cent of my driving was battery-powered that week.

I asked Peter Frise, scientific director and CEO of the AUTO21 Network of Centres of Excellence, why I wasn't getting the results. His answer: winter.

While you can drive a PHEV without much gas when it's mild, he said, in cold weather, even when the heater isn't on, the catalytic converter must be kept warm, so the engine runs. "People might think I'm just going to drive electric today," said Frise. "It's not like that. The car decides when you're going to drive electric."

Not having the choice to go all-electric annoyed me. Being able to idle guilt-free outside my kids' school on cold days was something I appreciated while testing other electric cars. However, having a gas engine as backup is a worthy trade off, especially if you find a snow bank blocking your charger, like my husband did when he drove the Volt to work.

While potential PHEV customers are attracted to the environmental benefits of emission-free driving, they pay a premium for battery power, so they should know what benefits they're getting in return.

Take the Fusion Energi, for example. My fully loaded test model, the Titanium Energi, sells for $40,599 and gets 2.7 Le (litres equivalent)/100 km of combined city and highway driving in EV mode. That's $5,800 more than the Titanium hybrid, which gets 5.6 litres/100 km combined, and $7,300 more than the gas-only version, which gets 8.9 litres/100 km combined.

For that extra money, how much will you save? According to Brian Millar, communications adviser at Plug'n Drive, to drive a Fusion 20,000 kilometres in Ontario with gas at $1 a litre would cost $1,680 in the gas model, $1,000 in the hybrid and $750 in the plug-in hybrid, assuming 34 out of every 100 km were battery-powered. Of course, those are just ballpark figures, says Millar.

True savings could be higher, depending on your driving and charging habits, and the long-term price of gas. You can do your own calculations using the CAA's Driving Cost Calculator and Electric Vehicle Cost Calculator.

My top choice of the three models I tested would be the Volt for its superior range. My husband also favoured the Volt for its design, and the kids loved the rear console with its storage bin and power outlet for their gadgets. The 2016 redesign will have an EV range of about 80 kilometres and will do away with the rear console in favour of a fifth seat (sorry, kids).

With the $8,500 Ontario government rebate, I estimate owning a Volt for 10 years would be cheaper for us than buying a similar-sized gas car, and produce less than a quarter of the carbon emissions, according to Plug'n Drive. Now those are savings to be proud of.

2015 Prius Plug-in

  • MSRP: $35,805-$41,040
  • EV range: 17 km
  • EV-mode efficiency: 2.6/2.3 Le/100 km city/hwy
  • Hybrid-mode efficiency: 4.7/4.8 litres/km city/hwy
  • Horsepower: 134
  • Time to charge: 1.5-3 hours
  • Government rebates: Ont. $5,000; Que. $500
  • What I liked: The most roomy of the three test models, with ample trunk space for groceries or a stroller. Best fuel efficiency as well.
  • What I wanted: More range – 17 km is not enough to justify the $9,600 price premium over the standard hybrid.

2015 Ford Fusion Energi

  • MSRP: $38,399-$40,599
  • EV range: 32 km
  • EV-mode efficiency: 2.7 Le/100 km
  • Hybrid-mode efficiency: 5.4/5.8 litres/100 km city/hwy
  • Horsepower: 188
  • Time to charge: 2.5-4 hours
  • Government rebates: Ont. $5,808; Que. $4,000
  • What I liked: Lots of luxurious feature choices, including park assist, seat cooling and heated steering wheel. Also, tons of safety options, such as inflating rear seat belts, blind-spot detection and lane-keeping alerts.
  • What I wanted: More space and a decent trunk. Also, better range – in cold weather, I couldn’t get it to rise above 20 km.

2015 Chevy Volt

  • MSRP: $37,195-$41,315
  • EV range: 61 km
  • EV-mode efficiency: 2.3/2.5 Le/100 km city/hwy
  • Gas efficiency: 6.7/5.9 litres/100 km city/hwy
  • Horsepower: 149
  • Time to charge: 4-11 hours
  • Government rebates: Ont. $8,500; Que. $8,000
  • What I liked: The best range of the models tested. Even in cold weather, I got a generous 50 km of range and averaged 2.7 litres/100 km.
  • What I wanted: While the backseat centre console is nice, I’d rather have a fifth seat. Also, I didn’t like paying extra for premium gas, which Chevy recommends for the Volt.

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