First Drive: Audi A3 Plug-in Hybrid Shows VW’s Commitment to Plug-In Cars

By · November 25, 2013

2015 Audi A3 e-tron Plug-in Hybrid

My brief spin in the 2015 Audi A3 e-tron Plug-in Hybrid, during the media days of the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show.

It’s been nearly a year since Dr. Rudolph Krebs, Volkswagen’s chief of electrification, told me that VW wants to be the industry leader in EVs and perhaps even more so on plug-in hybrids. Last week, at the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show, he reiterated that commitment. “We decided on the most comprehensive strategy for the e-market,” he said. “We spent a lot of money on developing completely new powertrains.”

Dr. Krebs talked about Volkswagen’s investment in developing in-house electric car competencies; manufacturing and software development, the hiring of “400 top specialists,” and “training about 70,000 employees to cope with electric traction systems.”

The all-electric Volkswagen E-Golf, coming in 2014, will be the company’s first EV available in the U.S. market. But the VW electrification roadmap includes only two pure EVs: the E-Golf, and for Europe, the E-Up! Meanwhile, there are at least nine plug-in hybrids coming in the next few years: limited production vehicles (at first) such as Porsche 918 Spyder; Porsche Panamera; and and the ultra-exotic VW XL1. Those will be followed by more mainstream models such as the Audi A3 wagon; Audi A6; Audi A8; Audi Q7,and plug-in hybrid versions of the Golf and Passat.

Benchmark: 30 Miles of EV

Krebs showed a slide indicating that the bulk of those VW-produced plug-in hybrids will be available “from 2014.” That’s vague—but my conversations with VW officials indicate that the A3 e-tron PHEV is coming in 2015, followed by the Q7 plug-in hybrid soon after. (Maybe the Q7 will stack up against the Tesla Model X?)

All of these models appear to follow the same script: 31 miles of all-electric capability via a 8.8 kilowatt-hour battery pack—with support from Audi’s capable and powerful gas-powered engines. Styling will remain unchanged from conventional versions. Considering the design language of Audi vehicles, that’s a good thing.

2015 Audi A3 e-tron Plug-in Hybrid

Interior of 2015 Audi A3 e-tron Plug-in Hybrid.

I only had about 20 minutes behind the wheel of the A3 e-tron in LA. The combined 203 horsepower from gas and electricity was more than enough for the crowded streets of Los Angeles. When stomping on the accelerator in the pre-production model, the engine did come on once—but I was told that in the final product, no matter how far or fast the pedal gets pressed, provided that there’s adequate charge in the battery and the right mode is selected, the engine will stay dormant and the quick, smooth and quiet electric motor will provide all the propulsion.

Managing Transition

There are four different driver-selected modes—with pure EV as the default. Audi engineers view the vehicle, first and foremost, as an electric car. An “auto” hybrid mode allows for more blending of gas and electric; a “hold” mode uses more gasoline to reserve electric power; and a “charging” mode turns on the gas engine explicitly to recharge batteries on the road. The vehicle is capable of “gliding” at high speeds—effectively removing any regen braking.

During my drive, the A3 plug-in hybrid ran nearly the whole time on electricity. Therefore, a typical driver will rarely experience the transition from electric to gas. In one brief moment, when I put the car into hybrid mode, there was a faint shudder as the gas engine came on. You have to really be searching for that vibration. I suspect that those traces will be nearly gone by 2015, when the car arrives on the market.

2015 Audi A3 e-tron Plug-in Hybrid

2015 Audi A3 e-tron Plug-in Hybrid, outside the South Hall of the L.A. Convention Center.

I admit that I’m a sucker for Audi styling and handling. The A3 e-tron's ample room for five passengers and high-utility wagon format, combined with 30 miles of all-electric range, makes for a compelling package. The winning touch could be Volkswagen’s corporate commitment to battery-powered cars.

Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche plug-ins will come with the full range of e-mobility solutions that are quickly becoming commonplace in the industry: free rental cars for several days a year; roadside assistance; 8-year/100k mile battery warranties; and a set of mobile apps.

Every Answer: Plug-in Hybrid

I asked Krebs about where hydrogen fuel cell cars fit into VW’s technology roadmap (mostly because I was finishing up an article for The New York Times about the re-emergence of fuel cell cars on the scene). “Hydrogen vehicles in bigger numbers will not happen before 2020. There is no infrastructure available, and the technology is extremely expensive and by far not as reliable,” said Dr. Rudolf Krebs. He added:

“ We still have the problem that hydrogen mobility only makes sense if you use green energy. Green energy means that you have to use green electricity, then convert it from electric to hydrogen with low efficiencies, so you lose about 40 percent of the initial energy. And then you have to compress the hydrogen to 700 bar to store it in the vehicle, and that costs more efficiency.


“Then you have to convert the hydrogen back to electricity through the fuel cell with another efficiency loss. So the end, from your 100 percent of electric energy, you end up with 30 to 40 percent so that the best hydrogen vehicle is a plug-in hydrogen vehicle.


“The best would be to go as often as possible with a fuel cell vehicle in a plug-in mode. So you enlarge the battery. You commute back and forth, and only if you really want to go long distance, you have to use the hydrogen…In terms of energy saving, this is the only way to have a hydrogen vehicle that makes sense.”

When asked by another journalist about compressed natural gas, he said the cleanest car he could imagine would be a CNG plug-in hybrid.

VW Electrification Roadmap

Crossing the dotted line, required to meet future emissions standards, means EVs and plug-in hybrids.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of Krebs’s commitment was a slide he showed indicating that the only way to meet Europe’s stringent environmental goals for 2020 is via electrification.

VW won’t stop working to improve the efficiency of gas and diesel engines. “But still there is a gap that we have to fill with electrified powertrains,” said Krebs. “That means pure electric vehicles and that means plug-in hybrids so a combination of conventional combustion engine and an electric motor and a battery that gives you a range of about 50 kilometers.”

Comments

· · 20 weeks ago

Ew, only 30 miles? If there's one thing I'd want on my volt, it's another 10-15 miles of range. Oh, and power seats, hopefully Audi has that one nailed.

· · 20 weeks ago

@Brad, Rudolph Krebs said "leader in electrification", which includes even non-plug-in, mild hybrids. A far cry from "leader in EVs", which so far VW hasn't shown a lot of love for.

· · 20 weeks ago

I appreciate Dr. Krebs viewpoint on hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen seems like a Rube Goldberg method for bypassing BEVs. Plus it is explosive! As the next iteration of lithium batteries come online, and vehicles lighten up through use of CFRP, I want to know what can be done with compressed air (not compressed hydrogen). If a compressed gas is to be used as a range extender, why not make a hybrid using air like the Peugeot HybridAir. Except, instead of using an ICE and compressed air, use a BEV with an air tank. Air compressors are a legacy technology; they are safer, and readily available for home use. The same cannot be said about hydrogen.

· · 20 weeks ago

...from your 100 percent of electric energy, you end up with 30 to 40 percent so that the best hydrogen vehicle is a plug-in hydrogen vehicle.

While stated in neutral language, Krebs' dissection of H2FC is one of the most succinct and clarifying that I've encountered. H2FC advocates myopically focus on improvements in the price/performance of FCs themselves while ignoring the important "well to wheels" story that Krebs nails to the wall so thoroughly here. Worth cutting and keeping that one quotation block alone.

· · 20 weeks ago

@Mr.O - I'm not seeing many non-plug hybrids in VW's roadmap. Almost everything is plug-in hybrid. They are not there YET. But I'd keep my eye on them. I'm seeing a serious program in the making--even if it's been anemic in the past.

· · 20 weeks ago

@Brad Berman: Excellent article at NYT (your link), btw; I encourage those interested in a quick overview of the current state of play in H2FCEVs to give it a read. While not overly skeptical, the piece does keep things in perspective, consistent with Steven Chu's measured assessment: "I think automakers are saying, ‘Look, hydrogen could be a long shot. But we’re going to put a little bet on it, and we’ll see.’"

I'd add that I think that car makers like GM and Toyota do more than "put a little bet on it" in their public comments. To hear them tell it, H2FC is just around the corner, less than subtly implying that we should back off ZEV requirements for a while instead of forcing them to invest in "dead end" BEV technology. In light of Krebs' analysis above, that just stands common sense on its head.

Kudos to CARB for telling the "BEVs don't work" crew to kiss off this time. Watching those Teslas whirring by surely helps, and I don't imagine it's taken more than an occasional quick replay of EV1 crushing videos to remind them what happened the last time they cut those jokers some slack.

· · 20 weeks ago

Brawndo, those are some big claims on hydrogen explosions and safety issues. Would be nice if you could back those claims up with some facts on unsafe hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Vike, when doing a well to wheels comparison let's remember that only a fraction of electricity generated by a distant power plant sent through a complex set of transmission lines actually arrives at the destination. Hydrogen is considered an excellent medium for energy storage by renewable generation.

· · 20 weeks ago

Why would VW provide free rental cars for plug ins?
For battery electric you need it, but not for a PHEV.

As for those using VW's comments to diss FCEVs once again, perhaps they should cast their minds back to when VW did not have it in immediate prospect to sell PHEVs and BEVs.
They were equally dismissive.
That is what VW do about technologies they have not got on hand to sell.

No doubt they were just as dismissive about Toyota and the Prius.
Toyota called that one right and I think they have called fuel cells right too.

· · 20 weeks ago

For those not committed to the triumph of hope over reason, I re-share these links, courtesy of electric-car-insider.com:

Queen of Carbon Science Mildred Dresselhaus details the problems inherent in the storage and handling of this "excellent medium for energy storage":

http://techtv.mit.edu/videos/16203-the-hydrogen-initiative-the-hydrogen-...

Chemist Donald Sadoway on the brutal realities of H2FC vs. batteries:

http://techtv.mit.edu/videos/16088-fuel-cells-and-portable-power-solutions

To the true H2 believers, I can only say I sympathize, as I too share the dream of driving an electric car with 300 mile range that can be recharged/refueled in 5 minutes at stations on every other street corner, all with miniscule carbon footprint at prices in the same ballpark as ICEVs and petro-fuels. I just don't happen to agree that H2 FCEVs and infrastructure can achieve this, though I used to think/hope so. I don't know if the 5 minute recharging thing is going to happen (only BetterPlace battery-swapping seemed able to offer that), but I think batteries can eventually get the rest of the way there.

Time will tell which of us is closer to being right. I certainly hope one of us is.

· · 20 weeks ago

All the H2 stuff aside, I should note I like the idea of an e-tron A3 wagon. But does "high-utility wagon format" mean that the production version of the A3 wagon will stow the batteries somewhere other than a huge bulge impinging on cargo space? Berman never mentions whether or not this is the case in the preview vehicle he saw, but if cargo space isn't compromised as in all the other PHEVs so far (apart from the short-ev-range PriusPI), then I LOVE the idea.

More broadly, I sure hope VW's picture of a pipeline full o' PHEVs headed for VW & Audi dealer lots over the next 24-36 months is real and not just a lot of GM-talk.

· · 20 weeks ago

@Fuel Cells are the future (and have been for decades): "only a fraction of electricity generated by a distant power plant ... arrives at the destination"

In the US, this "fraction", as you call it, is 93 to 94%. http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=105&t=3
(and this doesn't take into account local generation like non-utility-owned PV systems, which plug-ins drivers seem quite fond of, see e.g. http://energycenter.org/programs/clean-vehicle-rebate-project/vehicle-ow...).

I think that 93+% compares quite favorably to the numbers given above for hydrogen, which, unless it's generated right by a power plant, will include electricity transmission losses just as well anyway.

· · 20 weeks ago

Vike, the links you provided are from 2006. I'm sure I can find some links about BEV's from 2006 that have very outdated information in them. But that would not support a conversation about current technology.

· · 20 weeks ago

"Time will tell which of us is closer to being right. I certainly hope one of us is."

I certainly hope we both are. I have said this before, I don't think BEV's and FCEV's will see a winner and a loser, I think both technologies will thrive. The only loser is ICE.

· · 20 weeks ago

@FCatf: As far as I can tell, the only significant thing that's changed since 2006 is the declining price of FCs themselves; new designs with reduced platinum needs and other improvements have gotten them closer to economic viability (though still far dearer than batteries, especially considering that FCEVs require a hefty battery component in addition to the FC stack).

That leaves production and handling of H2, and none of that has changed a whit. The litany of issues reviewed by Sadoway and Dresselhaus remain just as relevant today as then. Electrolysis is a waste of energy, refactoring generates CO2, H2 makes nearly any feasible containment or transport system "leaky".

You're right to point out that much has changed since 2006 - batteries have improved a lot. It's the H2FC story that hasn't. And that's not news. As I've noted, I cherished the dream for quite a while before reality sank in, especially regarding the motivations of some of the people and institutions pushing hardest for the "hydrogen economy."

Make no mistake - if you're right about this, then I am wrong. BEVs won't have much of a niche in a world with affordable FCEVs and an extensive H2 infrastructure. That would suit me fine, as I'd be pleasantly surprised. Flying cars might be fun, too - I'm just not betting on having one.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. What Is An Electric Car?
    Before we get going, let's establish basic definitions.
  2. A Quick Guide to Plug-in Hybrids
    Some plug-in cars have back-up engines to extend driving range.
  3. Electric Cars Pros and Cons
    EVs are a great solution for most people. But not everybody.
  4. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  5. Federal and Local Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  6. Eight Factors Determining Total Cost of Ownership of an Electric Car
    EVs get bad rap as expensive. Until you look at TCO.
  7. Quick Guide to Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.
  8. Electric Car Utility Rate Plans: Top Five Rules
    With the right utility plan, electric fuel can be dirt cheap.
  9. The Ultimate Guide to Electric Car Charging Networks
    If you plan to charge in public, you'll want to sign up for charging network membership (or two).
  10. Eight Rules of Electric Vehicle Charging Etiquette
    Thou shalt charge only when necessary. And other rules to live by.