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Why would you buy a plug-in hybrid EV? Even the brands selling them say customers don't get it!

The Eclipse Cross Plug-in hybrid EV. Please consider not calling it a PHEV!

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles or PHEVs are just one part in a multifaceted solution for the future of cars, SUVs, utes and other forms of transport.

But Mitsubishi Motors Australia - the brand that pioneered with the technology with the Outlander PHEV, and has just added the Eclipse Cross Plug-in Hybrid EV - admits that customers don’t understand the benefits of the tech.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles typically allow you to recharge your car from a powerpoint and give you the ability to extract about 50km of electric range, depending on the model. That means you should theoretically be able to do your daily work commute or run to the school and the shops without having to use any petrol - depending on your living situation, of course.

PHEVs are definitely better suited to those who live urban or in the suburban areas of major cities - people with off-street parking, access to power near the car, and a use case that allows them to make the most of the part-electric, part-petrol powertrain of vehicles like the Eclipse Cross and upcoming second-generation Outlander Plug-in Hybrid EV. 

Mitsubishi Australia’s senior manager of product strategy, Owen Thomson, said the company had learned some lessons from its experience in selling PHEV models up to now, and that Australian customers haven’t yet come to terms with the tech which is considerably more widespread in places like Europe and China.

“We have had quite a learning experience over the past number of years. Our challenge is to educate the market on what a PHEV is, and with the state of the market now there’s a lot more acceptance,” he said, suggesting that the buyer consciousness around EVs or electric cars has changed significantly since the Outlander PHEV first launched in 2014. It, of course, was preceded by the i-MiEV hatch, a tiny, compromised runaround that cost almost fifty grand in 2011.

Obviously the likes of Tesla have brought EVs to the broader consciousness, but also Toyota’s play with the RAV4 hybrid in the highly competitive and price-conscious mid-size SUV market has brought electrified cars to the mainstream - even to a point of high desirability.

But “plug-in hybrid EVs” as Mitsubishi now insists on calling its PHEVs - hitting all those important recognition points along the way - are another ballgame entirely, according to the company.

“We’ve conducted research with customers over the past 18 months about customers and PHEVs, and there’s a lack of familiarity with what PHEVs are. There’s a very strong awareness about EVs in the marketplace, dominated by a range of EV and hybrid-EV manufacturers,” said Mr Thomson.

“Our challenge is to raise the awareness of the PHEV in the market,” he said. And so he would, with Mitsubishi not offering a ‘standard’ hybrid car, nor an EV models. There are none in the pipeline, either.

Mitsubishi Australia says these potential customers are very specific - typically they don’t have kids at home or never had children, are mainly female, are invested in the idea of “lower fuel costs and prepared to pay a little more initially get savings in the long run”.

The problem for Mitsubishi could be the premium being asked. The Eclipse Cross Plug-in hybrid EV model starts at $46,490 before on-road costs for the ES AWD. You can’t get an equivalent all-wheel-drive ES turbo-petrol, but you’d have to really, really want that plug-in hybrid tech as part of your life to justify the $16,200 jump from the 2WD ES turbo. Yep, it costs just $30,290.

The other models in the range include the Aspire PHEV at $49,990 MSRP compared with the Aspire 2WD turbo petrol model at $34,990 (yep, a $15,000 premium), while the Exceed PHEV is $53,990 vs the $40,790 for the AWD turbo model ($13,200 more).

That amount of money can buy you literally hundreds of thousands of kilometres of 91RON unleaded petrol, and indeed you must also consider the fact the PHEV models cost more to service - on average per year over the 10-year capped price plan, the PHEV is $558.90 versus $339 for the ‘standard’ Eclipse Cross. You also need to note the PHEV has an eight-year warranty on the battery pack, where the rest of the car is eligible for up to 10 years warranty cover if maintained with the brand.

But Mr Thomson says there are still selling points for PHEV tech, claiming it offers customers the “best of both worlds” for their first step towards full electric driving.

“Pure EVs are limited by range [and through our research] ... we’ve seen that owners change their behaviour, plug in daily and charge from home. We’re trying to democratize EV ownership for people,” he said.

There are some neat attributes of the PHEV powertrain used in the Eclipse Cross, which the brand calls “second-generation” compared to the outgoing Outlander. Yes, you bet the new-generation Outlander PHEV due in early 2022 will have this same powertrain.

It runs a 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine on the Atkinson cycle, which produces meager outputs of 94kW and 199Nm, but is paired to front and rear electric motors producing 60kW/137Nm and 70kW/195Nm respectively.

The powertrain can run in full electric mode, or with the electric motors and engine working in parallel, or with the petrol engine recharging the 13.8kWh battery pack. There are multiple drive modes available, including a Tarmac mode that Mr Thomson claims offers a more involving experience for those who want it.

You can also charge the car using multiple methods: a standard home plug should take seven hours, while a AC charging plug on the type 2 connector is said to do the job in 3.5 hours. Use a DC fast charge on the CHAdeMO plug and it should take just 25 minutes from 0-80 per cent.

The car itself will also be able to be used as a giant generator, with vehicle-to-X charging capability set to be available soon - not a bad consideration as the weather seemingly becomes less predictable and power supply increasingly questionable.

So is the PHEV - or as Mr Thomson corrected us, the Plug-in hybrid EV - version of the Eclipse Cross going to appeal to the same customers as the Outlander? Or is there a new appetite out there for a car like this?

“We’re not calling it PHEV,” he said, indicating the lesson had been learned there. “This is not the same customer as we were targeting even two years ago.”