posted: June 17, 2023
tl;dr: A gas-sipper with impressive performance that can go anywhere, all day...
I’ve never understood why plug-in hybrid vehicles aren’t more popular. My parents bought a hybrid Ford Fusion years ago when Ford also had a plug-in hybrid Fusion available, but they demurred. I think they were concerned about the interior space consumed by the somewhat bigger battery, plus the additional cost. Hybrids do improve gas mileage, but a plug-in hybrid that is able to run purely in electric mode can save even more gas.
Given the limited amount of lithium batteries and other metals available at present, there’s also an environmental argument in favor of hybrids over pure electric vehicles (EVs). If the battery material for one EV can instead be used to make five or ten hybrids, which have much smaller batteries, more gas overall will be saved. Put another way, one EV plus nine conventional gas vehicles will consume more gas than ten hybrids. Of course, given the environmental costs of mining to obtain the needed lithium and other metals, there’s an argument that the EVs and hybrids do not dramatically improve the impact of driving on the environment. Some of that impact depends upon how the electricity is generated, and alas, the U.S. has gone backwards on nuclear power during my lifetime.
So why did we get a plug-in hybrid? With my job having permanently changed to remote (a.k.a. work from home) because of the COVID-19 endemic, and with the addition of two Harleys, I wasn’t driving my Jeep much. My wife started driving it more often than her Acura RDX because she enjoyed the Jeep more. I toyed with the idea of getting rid of the RDX and replacing it with a small, short-range pure EV (basically a souped-up golf cart) just for putting around town. Moke America is one such brand that I occasionally see on the streets (never the highways) of Scottsdale. In Sun City and other retirement communities in the Valley, people literally do drive around in golf carts. We don’t need a long-range EV, which would be overkill for short-range driving and impractical for the kinds of long-distance trips we occasionally take.
We decided to look at a new Jeep Wrangler for my wife, get rid of the RDX, and figure out what to do with the other vehicles later. When we went to the local dealer, I was only vaguely aware that Jeep made some sort of electrified Wrangler. The salesman patiently explained what the 4xe Wrangler variant consisted of (the best-selling plug-in hybrid in the U.S., supposedly), and waved his arms at a large number of them on the lot. They do sell plenty of them in Scottsdale. The light bulb went on in my head: of course they do, because this is a great place to have a short-range EV for putting around town. The plug-in Wrangler 4xe with its 25-mile range is effectively a short-range EV inside of a gas-powered hybrid Wrangler, a 2-in-1 vehicle. The 25-mile range is enough for most days, because we are close to almost everything we need on a daily basis. The limited range keeps the battery small, the price lower, and it is able to be charged overnight from a standard 110V outlet. No need to put a charging station in the garage.
Then we drove one, and I was blown away. I’ve been in Teslas, which are high performance EVs, and I’ve been in Toyota Priuses, which I consider to be low-performance hybrids with weak engines. I was expecting the Wrangler 4xe to be more like a Prius than a Tesla. We started out in pure electric mode and almost immediately went on the highway at 70mph. I kept waiting for the gas engine to kick in and it never did: the electric engine by itself is plenty powerful enough to move a 4-door Wrangler at highway speeds. Whether in pure electric mode or hybrid mode, the Wrangler performed impressively. By the way there is one more operating mode, called “E-save”, which uses only the gas engine. E-save is for off-road enthusiasts who want to conserve the charge in the battery until they drive to where they are going off-road, so that they can use the high torque electric engine as long as possible while climbing hills and other obstacles.
After doing research, watching YouTube reviews, talking to people, and waiting for the specific color my wife wanted to appear on the lot, we bought one ten days ago. It has performed as-advertised in around-town driving in electric mode, and is boosting our overall gas mileage (it’s too early to say by how much). We took it offroad for about 60 miles of driving over dirt roads up in the mountains north of the Valley, and had some fun!
The hybrid engine is amazing: it has incredible torque and provides more power whenever needed. Once you get used to it, you can brake almost entirely with the hybrid engine and charge the battery. When going a long way downhill, the range will actually go up instead of down due to the battery charging. Overall, it performs better off-road than my 2014 gas-engine Wrangler. Even for those who don’t care about gas mileage, the added performance of the hybrid engine makes the 4xe appealing.
The downside of the Wrangler 4xe is likely to be decreased reliability (and more shop time and expense) over time due to the inherent complexity. A hybrid gas/electric engine is inherently more complex than an electric-only or gas-only engine. Plus the gas engine has a turbocharger for even more complexity. It violates my own stated bias towards “elegant simplicity”. Fortunately for the moment we have one simple Jeep and one complex one, just like I have one simple Harley (the Evolution engine Sportster) and one more complex one, the Milwaukee-8 engine Heritage Classic. The simpler vehicles are the ones that will hopefully survive the Apocalypse, should it arrive
We’ll see how well the Wrangler 4xe performs over time, but the initial impression is very positive.