Audi wants you to stop talking about diesels and look at its electric plans

Be glad you’re not an executive at Volkswagen Group right now. This week they’ll face down reporters at the Los Angeles International Auto Show who only want to talk about one thing: diesel. But Audi, for one, is determined to talk about something else — electric cars, an area where it’s never really led. There’s not even a hybrid in the brand’s current portfolio.

That’s going to change. This week, I am privately told, Audi will announce that 25 percent of its fleet will be electrified by 2025. That’s a big shift for the luxury automaker.

If so, they’d better get a move on — so it is fortuitous timing that Audi’s first-ever plug-in hybrid model, the A3 Sportback e-tron, is going on sale in the US this month. Two SUVs, a plug-in hybrid and a full-on EV, are slated to arrive in 2017 and 2018. I flew to Europe last week to get a sneak peek into the company’s electrification plans before the LA show, and also to drive both the A3 and the Q7 plug-in hybrids.

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

audi e-tron

You’d be forgiven for thinking Audi’s timing is calculated; crass, even. Audi is owned by the VW Group, and it has been swept up in the diesel scandal, with its 2.0-liter TDI engines found to have the same cheating software found on models like the VW Golf TDI. Diesel has always seemed to be the company’s primary focus when it comes to efficiency, and the pivot certainly feels reactive. But development of any car takes a long time, and the A3 and Q7 e-tron models have been in the pipeline for at least three years. Audi was already moving toward greater electrification plans, but the scandal has necessitated a heavier emphasis and more resources.

Audi’s first-ever battery electric vehicle was shown as a concept at the Frankfurt auto show in September. Currently named the e-tron Quattro, it will also get a fair amount of play in LA this week, too. The SUV won’t arrive until 2018, but it’s the kind of green halo vehicle that Audi desperately needs right now, and also serves as a riposte to Tesla’s Model X.

The Quattro is a full-size SUV that seats five, and it’s a seriously good-looking concept, both lean and sleek in the flesh. The concept has trick LED / laser headlights and side cameras rather than side mirrors. (Neither feature is likely to make it to market in the US.) It could get a "Q" designation such as the Q6 e-tron, or earn a new naming convention all of its own. Either way, it will be the first vehicle from Audi designed ground-up for an electric powertrain. Promised range is more than 300 miles. The 95 kWh lithium-ion battery pack will be integrated into the floor rather than shunted in a mass behind the seats, improving balance and promoting a low center of gravity. Audi says the powertrain will comprise three separate electric motors: one powering the front axle and the other two separately motivating each rear wheel. That means not only will it be all-wheel drive, but will have genuine torque vectoring, a technology that helps a big vehicle corner like a smaller and lighter car. The company currently quotes power as 320 kW (approximately 430 hp equivalent) and 590 pound-feet of torque, which would get it to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds — numbers will surely shift as development continues.

If the Quattro is still very much a concept in process, my very early drive of the Q7 e-tron showed a vehicle that it is already fully baked. A plug-in hybrid, this Q7 variant will go on sale next year in Europe at a price of 80,500 euro (about $85,800). The States will get it the year after.

audi e-tron

I tested the Q7 and the A3 e-tron on highways and winding secondary roads outside of Madrid, Spain. Pulling out of a parking lot, the heavy SUV assuredly glided away in all-electric mode, the default setting. It is remarkably silent for a vehicle of its size. Even when the gas engine is engaged, combining tire and wind noise, the vehicle is nearly as quiet as a luxury sedan.

Consumers expecting to get anything near a Tesla’s range will be disappointed. This isn’t mind-blowing, super innovative stuff. Audi says the Q7 gets up to 34.8 miles of electric range using the European measurement cycle, but EPA numbers will be less, and real world driving probably turns up closer to the mid 20s.

The exact powertrain that we will get in the US is still very much in question; the pre-production model that I drove had a 3.0-liter, V-6 diesel engine, with a combined power output of 373 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. It’s hard to imagine Audi launching a diesel engine anytime soon, and even less so on a low-volume vehicle, so it’s more likely we’ll get the gas TFSI engine.

It’s hard to imagine Audi launching a diesel engine anytime soon, and even less so on a low-volume vehicle

The 17.3 kWh lithium pack sits in the rear of the vehicle underneath the luggage compartment, like a small crate, partly impacting cargo space and negating any chance for an optional third row. The added weight over the rear axle makes the vehicle feel planted and stable, and helps the rear wheels gain instant traction when you ask for straight-line acceleration. You can choose modes, from "EV" to "Battery Charge," but it’s easiest and most efficient to simply leave it in "Hybrid." In that scenario, the Q7’s systems try to maximize the time spent under electric power, but without discharging the battery unnecessarily.

Plug a destination into the navigation system and the predictive efficiency assistant will pre-plan the modes, taking into account stuff like current traffic, intersections and speed limits. The downside? It can’t account for real world behavior, such as speeding or, you know, having fun on the curves. An Audi engineer told me they are hoping to "teach" the public how to drive most efficiently. (Best of luck on that.) I was most impressed by the seamless interchange of the engines. Press hard on the accelerator, even in EV mode, and the gas engine awakens to blend power. Both motors will shut down as you coast down a hill or slow for a red light. Even so, there’s no slackness, shudders, or odd hesitations that I’ve so often encountered with other hybrids. (The worst was the ill-fated Fisker Karma, a jittery mess.)

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Audi's e-tron Quattro concept.

There is nearly no downside to the powertrain except one: added weight. A lot of it. Nearly 1,000 pounds. And additional weight is the enemy of efficiency. And yet on a 100-mile loop, in which I drove hard on the highway, switched into sport and dynamic modes on switchbacks, and crept through towns under all-electric power, I still saw an average of 35 mpg. If I’d driven more gently, I would have got at least another 10 mpg.

The A3 e-tron, meanwhile, is a mixed bag. There’s a lot to like about its peppy nature and throw-back form. It’s the only A3 now available as a five-door wagon, since the current generation has turned into sedan-only. I miss the wagon, and it makes me happy to have it back.

So too is the idea of a plug-in A3 highly appealing — at least until you hear the miserly electric range of 17 miles. The e-tron model starts at $37,900, versus some $31,000 for the regular base, and the Prestige hybrid with additional standard equipment stretches to $46,800. There’s still the federal income tax credits of about $4,000, but the price point and range will give true believers a definite pause. The latest Chevy Volt, by comparison, starts at $33,170 and has an electric range of more than 50 miles.

The A3 is Audi’s base model, and the interior shows it. Even less impressive is the plug-in process: the port for the charging cord is hidden behind the Audi logo on the grille. Release a plastic nut and the four rings slide to the side. You need both hands to close and lock it, and it feels like it would break in months. Less than luxurious.

While the A3 isn’t really that quick to 60 mph (7.6 seconds), the 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder is feisty and fun — and even better when you smash the gas and demand that the electric motor (a 76-kW unit) chime in. Total output is 204 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. In particular, the electric motor’s torque makes it snappy up to about 35 mph, so you bullet away from green stoplights. Since the 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery pack sits in the rear, initial traction is good and there’s very little torque steer.

Will the A3 turn the discussion away from diesel? Not a chance

All of which encouraged me drive it like a hooligan, catapulting around traffic circles and treating it like the happy sport wagon that it really wants to be.

Will the A3 change the public’s current perception of Audi, turning the discussion away from diesel? Not a chance. The release of the Q7 hybrid and all-electric SUV simply can’t come soon enough.

But as Audi executives say, it’s a start — and a promised shift to a new, electrified future for the brand.


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