Volkswagen Group's solution to the issue of carbon dioxide emissions is exactly what one would expect from a corporation as engineering-oriented as VW is. Its plan is utterly rational and makes perfect sense both for the consumer who buys and operates a car and for the global company that builds them.  Which could be just the reason why it might not pass muster with various of the world's environmental lobbies, many of which think that the only remedy for the release of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - something they assert is responsible for global climate change  -- is a wholesale switch from internal combustion-powered cars to pure electrics.  Hence the requirement by 10 states (Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont) led by California, to mandate the sale of zero-emission (read "electric") vehicles or else.  The "else" in this case being that those companies that don't comply will not be allowed to sell automobiles in the states previously mentioned.

VW sees small role of pure EVs

At the recent Frankfurt motor show (IAA), Volkswagen execs, including Volkswagen brand chief engineer Dr. Heinz-Jakob Neusser, made it abundantly clear that the company's future planning gives a small role to electric-only vehicles, while suggesting a much larger role for various types of plug-in hybrids.  Each of the hybrids will feature both the ability to drive in all-electric mode for reasonable distances, while offering owners the flexibility and virtually limitless driving range of an internal-combustion car.  One of the executives' frequent allusions was to this typical hybrid vehicle-use scenario: during the week the owner plugs the car in at home overnight, commutes to her or his urban center job in all-electric mode the following day, recharges the car while at work, and then commutes home in EV mode. Each weekday all driving is emission-free.  When the weekend comes, however, the owner can venture to the mountains or the seashore or on an extended bowling vacation without feeling hemmed in by the limited range of an electric-only vehicle, because when all-electric range is exhausted the car has an internal combustion engine to power it.  

What fuel the internal combustion engine uses - gasoline, diesel, ethanol or natural gas - will depend largely upon the infrastructure in the nation in which the buyer lives, but the vast majority of Volkswagens and Audis will burn a fuel and thus emit some CO2.  This hardly makes them polluters, and the fuel of choice can make a significant difference.  These days VW, long a proponent of diesel, seems equally high on the benefits of suddenly abundant natural gas, which emits far less carbon dioxide when burned in an internal combustion engine.

Driving e-up! and A3 Sportback e-tron

Which brings us to the twin subjects of this double driving impression.  In one corner we have the Volkswagen e-up!, a small pure-electric-drive vehicle about the size of a Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit. In the other corner we have the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, a plug-in hybrid vehicle in the premium compact-car class.  It's about the same size as a Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze or BMW 1-Series. After getting behind the wheels of both vehicles, we came away impressed not only with the cars themselves but also with the logic of VW's approach to the issue of electrification.

Driving the VW e-up! is simplicity itself. Because of its rather upright profile and high seating position it is easy to get into and quite easy to see out of. Ensconced behind a thin-section steering wheel, one is confronted by a very traditional instrument panel and a wide dash of unexpectedly glossy plastic.  With a turn of the ignition key - another unexpected touch - the e-up! is turned on and, after the conventional console-mounted shift lever is moved to the "D" position, ready to drive.  Pressure on the accelerator pedal brings immediate and brisk acceleration and the deeper you press the pedal the more power you have.  Its acceleration builds in a completely linear manner, while all you hear is wind and tire noise.  

e-up! feels substantial

As we executed a long loop through urban Frankfurt neighborhoods, we noted various aspects we have come to expect from electric cars.  The e-up! feels "heavy," not in the sense of being slow - it accelerates just fine - but in the sense of feeling substantial and having a low center of gravity.  It also offers the unmistakable feel of low-rolling-resistance tires that prioritize efficiency over ride comfort and road-holding.

As an urban runabout there is nothing not to like.  The e-up! is pleasant to drive, easy to park and can accommodate two adults with ease and four adults with virtually no pain.  We expect the acceleration would grow more leisurely with four adults aboard, but in the context of city driving who really cares?

Range on a full charge is limited to about 75-100 miles, depending on temperature and how hard you hold down the accelerator. Regenerative braking both helps keep the battery charged and mitigates wear on the conventional brakes. Arriving at a full charge takes nine hours using typical 230-volt charging methods.  

A3 e-tron offers distinct driving modes

After concluding our loop in the e-up!, we transitioned almost immediately to the Audi A3 e-tron, which is both from a premium brand and a size larger than the e-up!. Unlike the e-up! the e-tron offers push-button start, but pushing the button is more like turning on a home entertainment system than starting a car.  The well-tailored Audi-issue instrument panel lights up, but the engine remains unengaged.  We decided to begin our journey under electric power alone, and we were impressed that the A3 e-tron offers distinct driving modes, enabling you to tailor vehicle response to the conditions.

In EV mode the e-tron gives highest priority to electric drive, though the engine will kick in to keep the battery pack in a proper state of charge.  In Sporty "S" mode the electronic and engine mapping gives priority to performance while lessening the emphasis on fuel economy and low emissions. "Hybrid Hold" mode maintains electrical energy in the battery pack at a high level, so you can have maximum stored power for EV mode when you want it.  Using this mode you can top off your battery power while on the highway using the gasoline engine and have peak electrical power at your beck-and-call when you get into the city. Range in EV mode is 31 miles, enough for significant amounts of urban stop-and-go.

Ingenious melding of electric and gasoline power

We drove the A3 e-tron in all of its modes, and we found it to be as satisfying to drive as a current conventionally powered A3, and that's high praise since the A3 has long been one of our favorites. One reason we like the A3 e-tron so much is its ingenious ability to meld gasoline and electric power. The 1.4-liter TFSI (turbocharged) 4-cylinder engine delivers 150 peak horsepower and virtually even torque from 1,750 to 4,000 rpm. The flat torque curve is a key reason the hybrid system works so well.  Another is the advanced engineering that integrates the electric motor in the 6-speed e-S tronic dual clutch transmission that transfers the power to the front wheels. The liquid-cooled electric motor, which contributes 54 horsepower to the combination, starts the engine when needed, and the system waits until the engine is at the same speed as the electric motor before engaging it. That means the transitions are nearly seamless.

Audi engineers went to great lengths to keep the A3 Sportback e-tron as light as possible. Despite having topnotch ergonomics and a handsome information/entertainment system, the 5-passenger 5-door weighs less than 3,500 pounds, impressive given its battery capacity. Through "Audi connect" drivers can monitor and manipulate a broad range of functions via a smartphone. For instance, you can program the car to cool itself while still plugged in, maximizing electric-only range when you get underway.

A3 e-tron maintains the utility of the A3 Sportback

The 8.8 kWh battery pack and ancillary equipment weigh in at 275 pounds, and the pack is installed under the rear bench seat. A conventional 12-volt battery to power low-voltage accessories and the 10.6-gallon fuel tank are located over the rear axle. This means there is little intrusion into cargo space.  The A3 e-tron offers 9.9 cubic feet of luggage room with the rear seats in place and a commodious 39.6 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks lowered.  The bottomline is the A3 Sportback e-tron is as versatile as its conventionally powered doppelgangers, in addition to offering the fuel economy and environmental benefits of its plug-in hybrid system.  Audi says the fuel economy rating using U.S. standards is expected to be 156.8 mpg.

We can expect the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron to go on sale in the United States in 2015 after a European launch next year.  Volkswagen, however, says it has no current plans to market the e-up! in the United States, though that might change in light of zero-emission vehicle requirements in several states that grow increasingly stringent in proceeding years.    


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