On the road with Audi’s new Q5 and A8 TFSI e plug-in hybrids

Audi provided two nights in a hotel and air travel from Washington, DC, to Munich for this story.

MUNICH—That we need to do something about the transportation sector’s carbon impact should be beyond clear by now. With luck, that means a lot more people walking, cycling, and taking public transport for the short trips that make up so much of our lives.

But America’s infrastructure and culture is heavily biased toward the personal automobile. And the need to make road trips, even if few drive more than 100 miles a day.

But even if we can’t get to a full battery EV fleet any time soon, there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit. Like the big and inefficient luxury vehicles bought by the upper-middle class—if there’s a way to make the short trips that people do in less actively damaging to the planet, I think that’s a positive. Which is where these two Audis come in.

I was in Munich to learn more about PPE, the modular electric-car architecture that Audi, Porsche, and perhaps Bentley and Lamborghini will use to build EVs to escape the massive fines looming for OEMs that can’t get their European fleet CO2 average down to below 95g/km. But not everyone can or will want a BEV as their next car. Fortunately for those with serious range anxiety, there’s always the option of a plug-in hybrid EV. So it was handy that the company had some of its new PHEVs on hand for us to try out.

Audi has offered a PHEV in the past but only in the diminutive (by US standards) A3 e-tron. That car is no longer available, but the company’s next PHEV push will be spearheaded by the Q5 TFSI e SUV—the e-tron name now being exclusive to Audi BEVs. Starting with this one makes sense—Americans love crossovers and SUVs, and they buy more Q5s each year than any other Audi model.

Two PHEV powertrains

The Q5 TFSI e uses a parallel hybrid powertrain with a 2.0L turbocharged direct-injection gasoline (TFSI) engine and an electric motor that work in concert to send torque to all four wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch (S-tronic in Audi lingo) transmission. The internal combustion engine provides 248hp (185kW) and 273lb-ft (370Nm), with the permanent synchronous magnet electric motor adding an additional 140hp (105kW) and 258lb-ft (350Nm) for a total of 362hp (270kW) and 368lb-ft (500Nm). The electric motor is fed by a 14.1kWh lithium-ion battery that provides 25 miles (40km) of electric range under the European WLTP test cycle—the EPA has yet to rate the US-spec PHEV, which will also do without the car’s ability to coast at cruising speed. (Americans apparently do not like the harshness of the engine cutting back in at freeway speeds, we were told; Americans need to get over that, IMO.)

Sometime later in 2020, PHEV versions of the A7 fastback and A8 limo will also make their way across the Atlantic. The A7 TFSI e gets the exact same powertrain as the Q5 TFSI e, but the larger, heavier A8 is slightly different. Audi’s PHEV flagship sedan instead makes use of a 3.0L TFSI V6 engine and a 100kW (135hp) permanent synchronous motor, this time driving all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission (Tiptronic in Audi-speak). Total output for the A8 TFSI e is 443hp (330kW) and 516lb-ft (700Nm). Meanwhile, the battery is the same 14.1kWh pack, which should confer roughly the same electric-only range.

Is it good or bad that driving a plug-in hybrid EV seems unremarkable now? Due to time constraints, we only got about an hour in either PHEV, in a mix of German suburbs, countryside, and the autobahn. Not long enough for a full review, but enough seat time to say that both powertrains seemed utterly normal at this point. When you start them up, they default to EV mode. As long as you have energy in the battery and you’re gentle with your right foot, the internal combustion engine will keep quiet.

One thing becomes immediately apparent—for the day-to-day grind, even in vehicles as big as these, ~100kW is plenty, even at freeway speeds, if you have the instant torque of an electric motor. Any braking below 0.3G deceleration is done regeneratively, and the motor can charge the battery at up to 80kW.

Push the accelerator pedal a little harder, past a detente in its travel, and the dinosaur juice beings to flow. The exact point this happens depends upon which drive mode you’re in—these being efficiency, normal, and dynamic. (In efficiency it will only fire up the engine under kickdown; in normal, it begins to feed in at around 60% throttle; and in dynamic, this starts earlier, at about 40%.)

It aims to get you there with as little battery left as possible

You can switch to hybrid mode via a button or by entering a route in to the navigation app in the MMI infotainment system. Do this, plus enable the Predictive Efficiency Assistant (a more location-aware version of Audi’s adaptive cruise control), and the PHEV’s electronic brains will do the work of deciding where and when to juggle electric and gas power, where to regen, and so on.

Audi told us that the assistant takes into account topography, drive route, driving style, weather conditions, and traffic to come up with most efficient strategy and the most electric driving. You should reach your destination with as empty a battery as possible to use as little gas as possible.

Finally, there’s also a battery hold mode that keeps the lithium-ion pack’s state of charge constant (at the level its at when you activate that mode), running the car on ICE alone.

There’s no DC fast charging—if you need more energy in a hurry and have a long way to go, you stop at a gas station. But connected to a 240V outlet, the onboard 7.7kW charger should take the battery from 0-100% SoC in 2 hours 25 min. (A 120V charge will take a bit longer at just over 16.5 hours.) Because the US versions won’t coast and my drive route included some stretches of derestricted autobahn, it would be premature for me to give a US mpg estimate for either the Q5 or A8 TFSI e. For the Q5, the official WLTP fuel consumption was rated at 2.4-2.1l/100km, which equates to 98-112mpg, although again I have to stress that the EPA and WLTP test cycles give very different results.

Pricing has yet to be revealed for any of the three PHEVs. Audi, however, says it’s confident that the pricing should be close to the equivalent ICE-only version once the $6,712 IRS tax credit is taken into account (i.e., a 2.0L TFSI Q5 and a 2.0 TFSI e Q5 will be about the same.) That feels like a bit of a missed trick to me—BMW decided not to charge a premium for its 530e PHEV sedan, which saw strong sales compared to the non-hybrid version as a result. But federal tax credits and local incentives, like access to California’s carpool lanes, should still see some soccer moms joining the plugin revolution. It might not quite get us to the transportation utopia I see when I close my eyes and wish really hard, but given the pickle we’re in, we should also not let perfect be the enemy of good.

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