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Stalling EV sales in Europe could mean plug-in hybrids will be around for longer

Ford and Volkswagen may extend the life of combustion-engine models

For business; Thomas Schäfer

Both Ford and Volkswagen have mooted stretching out the lives of their respective combustion-engine models as consumers, especially in Europe, still seem reluctant to embrace fully-electric models.

Volkswagen has been one of the biggest names in electric motoring in the past four years, since it launched the original ID.3 hatchback. The ID.4 electric crossover has been the bestselling electric car in Ireland for the past couple of years, and the brand’s electric line-up has recently expanded with the new ID.7 saloon and estate, and the announcement of more sporty GTX electric models.

However, Thomas Schäfer the head of the VW brand (and someone who commutes across Europe from his home in Wicklow) has said the company will extend the lives of its plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) models for those consumers for whom fully electric is still a step too far.

In an interview with Autocar magazine, Schäfer said “within the last six months, all of a sudden everyone wants hybrids” and that while hybrid tech is still considered a transitional technology, that transition might now take a bit longer than was originally envisaged.


The fact that hybrids, and plug-in hybrids, have increased in popularity recently comes at a propitious time for VW, as it’s just rolling out a new generation of plug-in hybrid models across the Volkswagen, Cupra, Skoda and Audi brands.

Previous VW plug-in hybrid models used an older 1.4-litre turbocharged engine design, and a relatively compact battery that struggled to provide 50km of real-world electric-only range. The new system is based around the more modern 1.5-litre turbo petrol engine, and gets a bigger 19kWh battery that comes with a claimed WLTP electric-only range of up to 120km.

Volkswagen Tiguan

The Irish Times has provisionally tested the new system in the third-generation Tiguan and found the 100km electric-only claim is a realistic one in real-world conditions.

That opens up a great deal more potential for plug-in hybrids, as now consumers who charge them up regularly (and it helps that the new VW Group system can be charged form high-speed DC charging points too) can achieve significant electric mileage with much less effort. The same plug-in hybrid system is also being launched later this year in the new Skoda Superb, Kodiaq and Octavia, and will also feature in updated models from Cupra and Audi.

Although it seems unlikely, from what Schäfer has said, that VW will develop another generation of entirely new plug-in hybrid engines, it does seem as if such models might now be kept on sale for longer than was originally envisaged, rolling back on previous assertions of fully-electric model line-ups before the end of the decade.

Although that might seem like a sensible decision in the face of continuing electric car aversion from consumers, critics say that it’s a disastrous plan to rely on plug-in hybrids.

Anna Krajinska, from eco think tank Transport & Environment (T&E), said: “Delaying electric car investments to focus on PHEVs is a very risky strategy. At best, it might bolster short-term profits but more certainly it will jeopardise European carmakers’ future. Chinese carmakers are entering the European mass market with affordable, good quality and competitive BEVs [battery electric vehicles]. It is naive to think that expensive PHEVs can compete, leaving the European market wide open to Chinese competition. This year Chinese brands could reach 11 per cent of European BEV sales and 20 per cent in 2027.”

Worse still, PHEVs have just been slammed by a European Commission report that found few were being charged up as much as they ought to be, and that owners were too often driving them around relying on the petrol engine.

“Strikingly, this shift coincided with the publication of the first set of real-world emissions data by the European Commission,” said Krajinska. “It shows that PHEVs consume, on average, 3.5 times the official fuel consumption, meaning a PHEV like the BMW 3 series will cost its owner €950 more a year on petrol than what is advertised. While PHEV proponents argue that this is due to drivers not charging, PHEVs’ limited electric range, around 60km on average, combined with an inability to fast-charge makes electric driving difficult on anything but short trips. It also means they emit an extra 100g of CO2 per kilometre, putting Europe’s climate targets at risk.”

To be fair to PHEVs, though, both T&E’s criticisms and the EU Commission’s report are focused on previous-generation models, with curtailed electric range and no fast-charging options.

Volkswagen is not alone in its plans to keep combustion alive a while longer. Ford has also said that, in spite of big recent investments to launch the new Explorer EV and its anticipated “coupe” sibling (which is likely to be badged Capri), as well as an all-electric version of the popular Puma crossover, that it is looking at keeping petrol power on sale past its previous deadline of 2030.

“If we see strong demand, for instance for plug-in hybrid vehicles, we will offer them,” Martin Sander head of Ford’s passenger cars business in Europe, told the recent Financial Times The Future Of The Car conference in London. Ford has recently announced that its electric car unit, Ford Model E, lost more than $4 billion (€3.6 billion) last year, and was propped up by profits from the company’s combustion-engine and commercial vehicle divisions.

It could mean that Ford’s plans for smaller, more compact EV models may be delayed, even though there is apparently no option to keep light, frugal cars such as the current Ford Focus on sale beyond its intended 2025 end-of-sale date.

Where Ford in particular is concerned, there are also some muddy waters where its EV sales are concerned. While the company is as worried as any other about potential slowdowns in electric car sales, in April its current electric line-up saw significant increases in sales in the US market, with the Mustang Mach-E electric crossover posting a 205 per cent jump in sales, albeit from a relatively low base. If nothing else, the numbers show that the current EV sales slump is not a blanket effect, and this is more about a turbulent market than an across-the-board fall.

T&E’s Krajinska is in no doubt, however, that indecision on electric cars now does only one thing – it opens the door to more competition from Chinese brands. “Chinese EVs already have better technology because European carmakers were betting on PHEVs and diesel in the 2010s while Chinese carmakers were developing fully electric models,” she said.

“Now Europe’s carmakers are making the same mistake again. PHEVs are not a stepping stone to better EVs later. Cars which require an engine and are built on existing combustion or mixed platforms will not help carmakers develop, launch and improve the dedicated EV platforms needed to sharply cut EV costs and remain competitive.

“Chinese carmakers are already on their second-generation EV platforms, learning as they go. BMW is not launching its dedicated platform until 2025. Chinese carmakers have also managed to cut the timeline for EV development to just two years compared to the four-plus years needed by most European carmakers. This means that they can rapidly develop cars based on the latest technology and market demand. Renault, which appears to be devoting more focus to BEVs, is down to three years for the Renault 5 EV and hoping for two with the electric Twingo.”

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring