An alphabet soup of ‘electrified’ vehicles awaits new car buyers as EV sales stall

GM launched ‘EV Live,’ a free online platform that connects electric vehicle owners or consumers who have questions about zero-emissions cars and trucks with an expert who can answer them.

Courtesy: GM

DETROIT — Purchasing a vehicle has never been that easy. But shoppers entering traditional dealer showrooms for the foreseeable future may have a new challenge: An alphabet soup of “electrified” vehicle offerings.

As all-electric vehicle adoption crawls along in the U.S., automakers are increasingly releasing various hybrid vehicles as alternative options to EVs and traditional gas-powered engines. A variety of models means more customer choice, but also more complexity for automakers and consumers, many of whom are returning to the new vehicle market for the first time in years following unprecedented supply chain shortages and record used vehicle prices.   

“More choice in the marketplace is good for consumers, but only if they understand the differences,” said Paul Waatti, director of industry analysis at AutoPacific. “There needs to be more clarity on what the terms and acronyms actually mean, and what the potential benefits and drawbacks are.”

A car shopper today has their pick of traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles; mild-hybrid electric vehicles (MHEVs); hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs); plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs); fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), also commonly known as EVs. Also coming later this year from Stellantis: range-extended electric vehicles (REEVs) that are similar to plug-in hybrid vehicles but can exclusively function as an EV, with its electric motors powered by a gas engine.

Each type of vehicle may be better for a different kind of customer. All except EVs and fuel-cell vehicles continue to offer a traditional internal combustion engine combined with “electrified” technologies such as a battery or motor to assist in performance or fuel economy.

Heather Seymour, of St. Johns, Florida, said she did quite a bit of research prior to purchasing a 2022 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, known as a 4xe model.

“I knew I wanted to kind of dip my toe in the water of the hybrids. I wasn’t ready to go full electric, so the plug-in was definitely of interest to me,” said Seymour, who said she typically uses the all-electric range of the SUV, except on longer trips. “The more we learned about it, the more we figured out what we wanted.”

EV naming

While consumers may not need to know every acronym or technology to find their right model, automakers aren’t exactly helping the situation with their consumer-facing naming.

For example, Hyundai’s Genesis brand calls its all-electric vehicles “electrified,” while many others reserve that term for hybrids. Chrysler’s Pacifica minivan is a plug-in hybrid labeled as a regular “hybrid,” and Toyota markets some of its traditional hybrids as “hybrid EVs.” Stellantis says its REEV vehicles are not PHEVs, despite operating similarly.

“Every automaker is using different terms. There’s no standardization, and that causes some confusion on the consumer side,” Waatti said.

GM’s 2024 Chevrolet Equinox EV (right) next to a gas-powered Chevy Equinox on May 16, 2024 in Detroit.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

Some automakers such as General Motors also use traditional nameplates such as the Chevrolet Blazer and Equinox for new EVs that share little to nothing with their gas-powered counterparts other than the name.

Stellantis’ Jeep also uses the “Wagoneer” moniker for two large gas-powered SUVs as well as a smaller, all-electric Wagoneer “S” SUV.

Jeep CEO Antonio Filosa has said he isn’t worried about any confusion, as the brand has a strong naming heritage and customers can decide which vehicle is best for their needs.

“I believe that we need education, but after education we have a lot of choices for the consumer,” he said during a recent interview. “It’s all for the benefit of the consumer. They will have a lot of flexibility.”

Education is key

One thing automotive executives from Japan and South Korea to Detroit and Germany can agree on is the need for consumer education.

Whether vehicles are electrified or all-electric, they’re critical for automakers to meet tightening emissions and fuel economy targets as well as to build production scale, reduce prices and increase profits.

“We don’t want to force a customer to do something they’re not ready for,” Kia America VP of Marketing Russell Wager told CNBC earlier this year. “We’re trying our best to educate them.”

2024 Jeep Wagoneer S EV


Kia and its dealers have put out myth-busting pages online to answer concerns or frequently asked questions about EVs and hybrids. They range from technical questions about batteries to practical questions like whether you can go through a car wash in an EV (you can).

GM has taken it a step further. The Detroit automaker launched “EV Live” in 2022. It’s an online video platform, now known as “GM Energy Live,” that allows participants to interact one-on-one with EV specialists and learn about electric vehicles and charging.

Ford Motor recently launched its own video-based training program, geared toward its more than 3,000 U.S. franchised dealers to improve customer service, better engage employees and provide dealers and the company with more data to help in selling the vehicles.

Auto executives say it’s up to the companies as well as their dealers to be trained and educated about the benefits of the vehicles, whatever they may be.

“Each customer, in the end, is very different,” said Jérémie Papin, chair of Nissan Americas, earlier this year. “I think it’s what the vehicle can do for them,” not necessarily how the technology works, he said.

Automotive alphabet soup

The automotive industry has more powertrain and “propulsion” options than ever before. Here’s a breakdown:

  • Internal combustion engine (ICE): A “traditional” vehicle with an engine that’s fueled with gasoline or diesel.
  • Mild-hybrid electric vehicle (MHEV): An ICE vehicle that functions largely like a non=hybrid vehicle but may include minimal electrified features such as a small battery, regenerative braking or electric motor.
  • Hybrid electric vehicle (HEV): Think of the Toyota Prius, a vehicle that has a hybrid powertrain system combined with an engine.
  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV): These vehicles feature an internal combustion engine combined with a hybrid system, including a larger battery than traditional hybrid vehicles as well as a plug to recharge the vehicle’s battery. They typically allow drivers to travel a certain number of miles using the battery before the engine is needed to power the car or truck.
  • Battery-electric vehicle (BEV): These all-electric vehicles do not feature an internal combustion engine. Instead, they contain an electric motor that’s powered by a large battery. They need to be recharged using an electrical outlet and charging port or charging station.
  • Fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV): Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles and equipment operate much like BEVs but are powered by electricity generated from hydrogen and oxygen instead of pure batteries, which commonly include lithium. They’re filled up with a nozzle, similar to traditional gas and diesel vehicles.
  • Range-extended electric vehicles (REEV): These are an emerging technology that largely function as a PHEV, however after the battery runs out of energy to power the vehicle, an engine works as a generator to exclusively power electric motors. The vehicle still drives like an EV instead of having the engine directly power the vehicle’s motion.

Consumer adoption

According to Cox Automotive, 96% of those intending to buy a vehicle in the next 24 months could be enticed to consider an EV earlier than a three- to five-year window if they had greater knowledge of how EV ownership works.

That was true for Florida resident Seymour as well as Kevin Storimans, of Winnipeg, Canada, who leased a Jeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in. He said he wasn’t ready for an all-electric vehicle so he decided to lease the plug-in as a way to save money on fuel and as a potential stepping stone to an EV.

“It’s the best of both worlds. You got your gas engine. You got some electric range,” said Storimans, who previously drove a V-8-powered Jeep. “Do your research. There’s so much information and misinformation out there on PHEVs and electric vehicles.”

Consumers spend more time researching EVs on average than they do traditional gas-powered vehicles, according to Cox Automotive. The company found roughly 9 out of 10 EV buyers already have a vehicle in mind for purchase before they visit a dealership or order online.

“There’s a lot of information out there. It’s hard to explain,” said Stephanie Valdez Streaty, Cox Automotive director of industry insights. “The education is so critical. It’s the awareness, the education and the engagement for consumers.”

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