Consumers may have been misled about plug-in hybrid efficiency

A photo of an orange hybrid BMW 330e in Rotterdam.

A photo of an orange hybrid BMW 330e in Rotterdam.

If you don’t imagine it connected, is it also a hybrid?

If you’re on the hunt for a new car and feel like diving into electrification, then you may have considered a plug-in hybrid at one time or another. These cars combine the simplicity of a gas car with the fuel economy of an electric vehicle, it’s a win-win, right? Well, that may actually not be the case, as a new report in Europe suggests plug-ins may not be the climate solution we once thought.

On the surface, many plug-in hybrids promise miles and miles of emission-free driving thanks to on-board batteries and electric motors. Then, once the electricity runs out, they switch to an efficient gas engine to keep you going on longer journeys. Cars like the Kia Sorento and BMW 300e had previously convinced me that such a setup could be perfect.

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But a new report out of Europe suggests they may not be the miraculous midpoint between gas-powered cars and electric vehicles once thought. Indeed, this type of car may pollute “more than claimed” in city centers and commuters.

A photo of a light blue Renault Megane sedan.

A photo of a light blue Renault Megane sedan.

Find the blue detail that reveals it as a PHEV.

According to Transport & Environment, tests of three widely available plug-in hybrid models in Europe have found that they pollute far more than claimed on urban and commuter routes. He followed up on a similar study from the same site two years ago that found the same was true for PHEVs traveling longer routes as well. The site reports:

“Three recent PHEV models, a BMW 3 Series, a Peugeot 308 and a Renault Megane, emitted more CO2 than advertised when road tested even when starting with a charged battery. The BMW polluted its official rating three times when driven on a typical commuter route, according to tests by the Graz University of Technology, commissioned by T&E.

“The Peugeot 308 and Renault Megane plug-in hybrids performed better, but still polluted respectively 20% and 70% more than they claimed, despite the relatively short round trip distance (55km).”

In a commuter environment, the BMW tested was rated as producing 36 grams of CO2 per km (I refuse to convert that to ounces per foot, or whatever the US equivalent is), but actually produced 112 grams in testing . Renault was rated at 30g/km but produced 50g/km and Peugeot was closest to its rating with 33g/km emitted as opposed to 27g/km.

Things were equally alarming when it came to measuring the electric range of the three tested models. According to T&E, only Renault managed to reach its advertised all-electric range of 30 miles, while BMW achieved 74 percent of its 22-mile electric range. The Peugeot fared worse, achieving just over half of its claimed 37-mile range.

A photo of a white Peugeot 308 station wagon connected to the charge.

A photo of a white Peugeot 308 station wagon connected to the charge.

The Peugeot 308 Should cover 37 miles on battery power alone.

Of course, you can’t take the poor results of these three cars and say that means every plug-in hybrid model on sale today is worse than advertised. But, for the three cars tested, consistently underperforming their ratings is a concern, especially since the whole appeal of buying a PHEV is to reduce carbon emissions.

So what does a study like this really mean? Well, in the case of the three cars tested it means that automakers need to devise better means of calculating their emissions and electric range if they are to be honest with consumers.

According to T&E, it also means that such vehicles are taxed incorrectly in Europe. The site says the emissions of the models tested were so unacceptable that these cars should be taxed according to their “actual pollution” and no longer be subsidized across the European Union.

At present, PHEV buyers are eligible for up to €6,750 on their purchase in select markets.

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