Which Is Better, Plug In Hybrid or Diesel?

Plug in Hybrid or Diesel, That Is The Question.

In the auto world, there is an ongoing  debate about plug in hybrid or diesel or even a true EV.  Now that I have owned all three and done some research, the results might not be what you expect.  Especially when it comes to plug in Hybrids.  .It goes without saying that there are benefits to each of them. The biggest question is which one will win out in the long run? Now that all three have been in mass production for a few years with full tracking, the reality isn’t the dream we expected.


Of course there is VW’s diesel gate where VW tweaked the systems to be aware when they were being tested on a machine.  Burning “cleaner” meant lower MPG’s.  VW figured this out and only burned clean on a test machine.  When they got caught, everyone did a quick self check.  VW wasn’t the only one cheating.

Since then, there has been a general consensus that a plug in hybrid is more “green” than a diesel.  An EV is considered by many to be even more “green”, but is it?  We need to start by separating electric cars with a generator like the Chevy Volt, BMW i3 and i8 from Plug in Hybrids.  Plug in Hybrids are gasoline powered cars that have additional battery power.  While they can run on pure electric at low speeds for short distances, they are not electric cars.  The Jeep Wrangler, Range Rover and Plug in Prius are among the more popular plug in hybrids.

The Electric Road

However, what most people do not know is how electric cars really work. The battery pack stores electrical energy to drive the car.  It can also collect energy when you are slowing the car.  This is called regenerative braking and takes some getting used to.  Google “hypermile EV’s” and you’ll get all kinds of tips on how to use only regenerative braking and never actually using the brakes.  Do and and other drivers will hate you.  Ask me how I know.

Getting all of that power into the battery uses more power than you think.  When a power company makes power and sends it to your house a big portion never gets there.  This is called line loss.  Converting AC power into DC for the battery uses more power.  Cooling the battery packs even more power.  Depending on your situation, charging a 20Kwh battery pack could take 30 to 40 Kwh of generated power.  Having solar on your roof reduces much of this loss.

The Myth Of The Plug In

The idea behind the plug in Hybrid is that most trips are short.  In a perfect world most of your driving in a plug in hybrid would be on electric only power.  When I had the first generation Chevy Volt, I ran about 80% electric, 20% gas.  With the second generation Chevy Volt I used only 10 gallons of gasoline in three years.  But a Volt is not a plug in hybrid, it is an EV with a back up generator.

Now that plug in hybrids have been around a few years, we know how people really use them.  Most never plug in.  This means they are using the gas engine to charge the batteries and haul around all that extra weight.  Yes Virginia, batteries are heavy.  Even if you plugged in every day, if you drive 50 miles round trip, the “mild hybrid” Jeep Wrangler will use less fuel than the plug in hybrid version.  If you don’t ‘plug in it is way worse.

 The Electric Challenge

A major benefit of an electric car is the simplicity.  Fewer moving parts, and no internal combustion mean less maintenance and generally better reliability. If you need to travel long distances many newer electric models have quick charge capability.  Tesla has quite the charging system around the country to help out their customers.  Charging isn’t as quick as a fill up, but your hands don’t smell funny afterwards, and charging at home is much easier than filling up at home.

My wife had “range anxiety”.  That is why we went with the Volt in addition to the Diesel Jaguar F-pace.   Even on long drives we were able to use mostly electric.  But unlike most plug in hybrids the Volt could go 50-65 miles on a single charge before the gas generator kicked in.  For me that was easily one way to the office and many times round trip.

Some of the manufacturers are claiming that the initial cost of an electric vehicle is less expensive than a gasoline powered vehicle. This is true in some cased due to government kickback programs, maybe. However, most consumers agree that the price of fuel is very high right now. Even more, when the price of oil rises, electric vehicles are still on par with gas-powered cars. In other words, electric vehicles are a long term investment.  If you have solar power on your home as I do, your operating costs might be tire wear.

The Diesel Advantage

Diesel Gate left a lot of people thinking that they should not get a diesel.  My wife is on her third and she has loved every one.  The extremely long range between fill ups and the ability to use bio-diesel is a big plus for her.  We are both right wing tree huggers.  Being a surfer, I am very happy with how much cleaner SoCal beaches are today compared to the tar on the beach from drilling in my childhood.

Recent studies have shows us two things about plug in hybrids.  First, most don’t plug in.  Second because the gas engines are used more sporadically, the actual pollution output may be five or even six time greater than published, and several time that of a normal gasoline powered car.  With that in mind, why does anyone make them?

The Bottom Line

Although plug in hybrids are the relative newcomer, most manufactures have already moved on to an electric version of their hybrid cars.  Even Porsche is exploring electric racing with the Mission R. The first plug in hybrid model was released in Japan in 1993. Since then the category grew at a respectable pace, but improvements in both diesel and pure electric EV’s have just leapfrogged the Plug In Hybrid.

My bet is that in the very near future our choices will be limited to a few select gasoline engines, diesel and pure electric.  The plug in hybrid will soon go the way of the do do bird.