Buying a car was hard enough when you only had to choose between compact, intermediate, and full-size models. Today’s shoppers have to select from a shrinking assortment of passenger cars and a surging tide of S.U.V.’s in sizes large, extra-large, and whatever’s bigger than that—now they’re also confronted with a confounding additional question: What sort of motor (or motors) do they want hauling them and their loved ones around?
And the nominees are: gas (or I.C.E., as we say in the trade, for internal-combustion engine); hybrid (two motors—one I.C.E., one electric—working in tandem); or B.E.V., for battery electric vehicle, which is the gasless option. Suddenly, last century’s hours spent agonizing over whether to select durable vinyl seating or the posh, imitation-velour alternative, the so-called convenience group (including cigar lighter and electric door mirrors) or the inconvenience group (seat belts for rear-seat passengers), seem like child’s play.
And that’s to say nothing of a fourth category: hydrogen-powered cars, which are zero-emissions vehicles—but widespread adoption would require trillions in infrastructure investment. These types of vehicles are as few and far between as hydrogen-filling stations, making this decision easier—there are only roughly 60 such stations in the U.S., with nearly all of them in California.
Lately, B.E.V.’s seem to be all the rage, with an increasing number of models and lavish government tax incentives on offer. Oil-company hooey aside, there’s no argument that, over the course of a B.E.V.’s lifetime, it will result in fewer carbon emissions—30 to 50 percent fewer—than those of an I.C.E. car, depending on how the power used to manufacture and charge your car is generated.
The only problem for potential buyers is the charging infrastructure, especially for non-Tesla models. Presently, it’s somewhere between fair and poor. Despite the speed with which they can build charging stations, there are still too few, and even fewer are kept in reliable working order. Nothing is more annoying than showing up at a charging station to find broken chargers—other than finding a New York City street charger occupied by a ginormous gas-fired pickup truck, illegally parked overnight. Many apartment buildings, even those with garages, lack charging facilities, much less the high-speed ones that turn what might be a 36-hour charge into a 20-minute affair.
For someone like me, used to driving 50-year-old cars that could break down at any moment, the inconvenience of locating charging stations is relatively easy to surmount. Coasting safely to the soft shoulder after losing power at 65 m.p.h. is a specialité perfected over years, and one I’m particularly proud of. But most people aren’t me. And having spent the better part of the last two months in three new hybrid models—the Toyota Prius Prime Limited, the Volvo V60 Polestar wagon, and the BMW XM—I am here to enthusiastically promote the hybrid, which can earn those who buy or lease the same tax breaks that B.E.V.’s do.
We start with the reimagined Prius from Toyota, the people who’ve done more for hybrids than any car-maker extant, starting with the original 1997 model. A lot has changed since then—for one, Toyota has sold more than 5 million Priuses and 23 million hybrids overall. It remains the market leader, though Korea’s Hyundai and Kia offer a wide range of popularly priced competitors, too, and for those wanting a pickup, Ford’s spartan Maverick hybrid is good enough that it’s perpetually sold out.
Like all hybrids, the Toyota and its computer brain toggle between gasoline and battery power, capturing energy from engine deceleration and the act of braking to recharge its battery pack. A comparatively ancient technology dating back to late-19th-century locomotives, only in recent decades has the gas-electric duo become accessible to automobilists.
Hybrids offer dramatic fuel-economy improvements over regular full-time I.C.E. machines, but a newer development—the plug-in hybrid (or P.H.E.V.)—can offer significantly greater ones. Namely, with a battery that can be charged quickly at home and supply, in Prius’s case, 44 miles of all-electric range, much of one’s daily driving may be done without gasoline, rewarding 2023 Toyota Prius owners with an E.P.A. estimated 114 MPGe (miles-per-gallon equivalent being the way hybrid and electric cars’ efficiency is measured by the government). Moreover, the smaller battery pack of a hybrid can easily be recharged overnight or during the workday from a wall socket, or at a charging station when far from home. Many plug-in-hybrid owners boast they buy just two tanks of gas a year.
Such figures will be compelling not only to the cheapskate in you but the environmentalist. Toyota, which has received quite a bit of guff for coming late to the fully-electric-car party, with no memorable entry into the field as yet (they say that’s coming), calculated a few years back that the number of batteries they were capable of making could power 28,000 B.E.V.’s, or, with their smaller battery packs, 1.5 million hybrids. The latter volume would actually reduce carbon emissions more than B.E.V.’s by one-third, according to Toyota.
In the long run, B.E.V.’s will be the carbon-reducing winner, but until the battery-production infrastructure is improved, hybrids are more of a help than a hindrance.
The latest Prius, which has recently been reborn as a quick and sporty number, now looks handsome rather than awkward and self-consciously odd as it did for decades. With the price of the average electric car running about $53,500 as of this summer, the Prius Prime is attractive at a starting price of more than $33,000.
Many plug-in-hybrid owners boast they buy just two tanks of gas a year.
A big step up the price ladder buys you an outstanding new Volvo plug-in hybrid wagon with an unnervingly long name: the V60 Cross Country Polestar Engineered T8 eAWD. Starting at $72,345, it’s probably not for recent college grads, but it combines traditional Volvo virtues such as safety and solidity with new ones like stylish good looks, outrageous performance, and commendable fuel economy. Plus, it’s a wagon, which is increasingly a rarity nowadays.
Despite the elevated price, it’s hard to quibble. What is one to make of a car that features 455 combined-gas-and-electric horsepower and goes from zero to 60 in a brisk 4.3 seconds, yet returns 74 MPGe? Sadly, Volvo won’t market them aggressively (remember, it’s S.U.V. time all the time), but it is guaranteed to be a collector’s item, and, we predict, a future classic. Tenured department chairs, take note.
If a Volvo wagon isn’t commanding or expensive enough for you, the BMW XM might appeal. More than twice the price, starting at around $160,000 (as tested), it’s the first hybrid from BMW’s fabled M performance division, with an electric motor and a weighty battery pack complemented by a twin-turbo V8. Though it tips the scales at 6,000 pounds plus, it carries its heft well, and while the BMW is only marginally quicker than the Volvo at 4.1 seconds to 60 (just this side of nausea-inducing for all but the hardiest drivers), with 644 horsepower, it’s no slouch.
An undeniably commanding presence and obscenely large grille aperture will delight owners and some aspirational types while offending others to their core, which might prove a selling point in itself. Hardly the Ultimate Driving Machine that BMWs once claimed to be, but, with spacious rows of seats and 46 MPGe, it’s the ultimate something.
So many choices, but unlike when they were slightly frivolous—CD changer in the trunk, anyone?—this time it’s for the planet.
Jamie Kitman is a car columnist at AIR MAIL