Somewhere along the road from Prius to Tesla, most Americans lost the plot regarding hybrids. Everyone knows what a Prius is: It’s that ducklike creature with the Coexist bumper sticker driving slowly down the road. That’s the Prius life. Or was. The original Prius dates to 1997 and for ages was the poster child for what only some of us wanted to embrace: burning less fossil fuel in a car that had an Al Gore-approved design aesthetic.
Then, one day, the practical, boring hybrid got lost in the rise of Tesla — a greener, sexier, faster car. Few looked back at the hybrid life even as they continued to innovate — getting more efficient, sleeker, and, yes, even faster. It’s time to look again at hybrids. Case and point: The Toyota RAV4 Prime and Kia Sportage Hybrid SX Prestige. These are standout examples of why a hybrid is an excellent way to beat the now and future gas crunch.
The Plug-In Advantage
When the Prius came to be in 1997, Toyota showed us that a very big battery and brakes that charged that battery was a combo that made for some astronomical gas mileage. This technology improved for 10 years, but incrementally so. Then, in 2008, the plug-in hybrid was announced — by Chinese car manufacturer BYD and soon after Chevrolet and Toyota. These cars — the SE RAV4 Prime and Kia Sportage Hybrid among them — can charge their batteries off a wall socket and run on electric power alone. This technology has some big advantages.
For one, you’ll save gas dollars. Because a plug-in hybrid is usually able to roll on EV power alone, and because electricity in almost all of the nation costs about half or less per mile than the equivalent cost of gasoline, over time, operating a plug-in hybrid will pay you back.
Second, today a plug-in hybrid will open up most people for tax rebates. This can either be federal (see below) or from one of 43 states that offer further tax credits or direct discounts, like lower sales taxes on purchasing a PHEV.
In this instance, some math is required. The $40,300 sticker for the SE RAV4 Prime is more expensive than the $36,940 of the Kia Sportage Hybrid, but if you qualify (meaning, you owe the feds taxes), you could get up to $7,500 back on the Toyota. The standard Kia Sportage Hybrid doesn’t qualify for any federal tax incentives, yet the 2023 plug-in version (which will be available in August and we expect will cost about $1,500 more than the standard hybrid model) should qualify for up to $4,500 in tax breaks from the feds.
Finally, the plug-in hybrid has one thing that electric vehicles do not: the ability to skip the charging station. As electric vehicles flood the roads — and the flood is going to be a tidal wave if the Inflation Reduction Act gets passed — manufacturers are having trouble keeping up with charging stations. This means a lot of waiting and a renewed wave of range anxiety. Not so with plug-in hybrids. Don’t have time to charge? Lean on the gas. Have some time and a free charging station? Save some big bucks. Right now, it really is the best of both worlds.
The Faceoff: Test Drive In The Catskills
In the Catskills, on both paved roads and on some mild dirt two-laners, we took both cars for a proper test of handling and their AWD capabilities. While we didn’t quite drive them through mud bogs, we gave them a fair shake on and off the road. They’re close on weight — both around 4,200 pounds — and have nearly the same length and footprint, but the Toyota’s just a more engaging vehicle to drive, with more precise steering feel. Neither of these family crossovers will light your hair on fire with performance, but the Toyota’s combined 302 horsepower enables it to get up and run, chasing down 60 mph in under 6 seconds. The combined system output of 261 horsepower from the Sportage offers plenty of power as well, but the experience behind the wheel is more isolating. For a long road trip, the Sportage is probably the better ride because it has a bit of that grandpa’s Cadillac cruise-worthiness, but the Toyota’s more tractable and quicker on its toes around town.
As for what you’ll use every day, the interior tech is a mixed bag for each car.
While Kia gives you a bigger touchscreen display, at 12.3 inches vs. 8 inches for the SE RAV4 Prime (you can get a larger one but have to pay more), the Kia’s controls for features are more convoluted. Switching between radio stations and the A/C requires tapping a separate mode button first, which then alters the inputs from climate to audio and back. On the Toyota, you get dedicated knobs for both audio and climate functions, and for that reason, it’s preferable because you get to keep your eyes on the road rather than constantly hunting and pecking. You’ll learn Kia’s system over time, but the point is, why is that necessary?
Then again, Kia includes both heating (Toyota has this) and cooling (Toyota doesn’t give it to you standard) for front seat passengers.
Both get five ways to charge devices, with two USBs in the second row and both wireless and dual USBs up front.
The Kia Sportage gets IIHS’s second-highest rating, a Top Safety Pick. The RAV4 gets a Top Safety Pick+ rating, the agency’s highest score.
However, the two vehicles differ in terms of active assist features. Toyota wants you to pay more for their $43,625 XSE version, which then adds Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. With this, you get pedestrian detection, cruise control that adapts to the vehicle in front of you, slowing your car along the way, lane keeping that prevents you from steering into the car in your blind spot, and steering assistance (aka lane keeping), as well as high beams that dim and brighten automatically.
Kia includes all of those goodies and more in their SX Prestige tier (including on the forthcoming PHEV): It comes standard with adaptive cruise control; lane departure warning and prevention; blind spot collision avoidance; a warning to prevent your kid from stepping out of the car into the path of an approaching vehicle or cyclist; and a system that will alert you if you fail to follow the car in front of you at a light change. Say (just maybe), if that light has turned from red to green exactly as your grom is having a meltdown in his car seat and you didn’t quite notice it was time to go back to driving, tabling parenting duties for a heartbeat. You also get around-view cameras that give you a bird’s-eye perspective of the car (as if from above), making it way easier to park in tight spaces.
View From the Backseat
But what will the kids think? The Kia edges ahead for rear seat knee room, where it’s just a tad less cramped if you’re seating teen or adult passengers. The Toyota’s 37.8 inches of rear seat legroom trails Kia’s 41.3 inches. And the Sportage gets props for a slot with a rubber grip on the backs of the front seats, which is ideal for anchoring grocery bags. Kia also puts the rear USBs on the sides of the driver and passenger seat, where they can more easily be reached from the second row.
For cargo, the Kia also out-jousts the Toyota. Its 34.5 cubic feet of storage with the rear seats upright and 65.5 cubic feet with them folded slightly bests the Toyota’s 33.5/ 63.1 cubic feet.
When gas was cheaper, several studies showed that PHEV buyers weren’t bothering to plug in their plug-in hybrids. The reason: It takes some amount of effort to do so. However, because their batteries are relatively small, the recharge time is very quick. If you plug in to a standard wall outlet at night, your PHEV can travel entirely on electric juice for whatever its range the next morning. And especially if you now have the option to only commute to work some of the time, 30-40 miles of EV-only range could save you a bundle since most people don’t even drive that far per day. Plus, you won’t need a special Level 2 home charger, saving you that install cash.
If you’re waiting for the “downside” to this downside entry, it’s that you’ll still be buying gas occasionally, which you may hope to avoid entirely. Then again, for the average household, the combo of owning both an EV and a plug-in hybrid seems pretty perfect. The latter doesn’t need to be charged during a road trip, and the former never needs gas.
The Bottom Line
There are many more plug-in hybrids on the market than just these two. And even if you opt to forgo the plug portion (because, yes, they cost more upfront, and also, you may not owe enough in federal taxes to fully benefit from a tax credit), you’ll likely save 50% or more on fuel costs by going hybrid. It’s a part-way step toward weaning your family off fossil fuel and one that requires very little adaptation in your lifestyle, but in the long run, it’s way better for your wallet and for the future of our planet.