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.”

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