My old English teacher, Mrs. Fraser, used to tell me that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Electrification strategies follow the same line of reasoning -- instead of jamming as many battery-electric vehicles into dealerships as fast as humanly possible, consumers appreciate approaching new technologies with baby steps.
In that sense, a plug-in hybrid is a great middle ground, offering some electric-only operation without constantly needing to be within range of a plug. Audi already has its all-electric E-Tron at dealerships, but if you're not yet ready to take the plunge, its 2020 plug-in hybrid lineup is a great introduction to electrons.
What's in the box?
Us Yankees will get three flavors of Audi PHEVs: The A7, A8 and Q5.
The Q5 and A7 share the same plug-in powertrain. It starts with a 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4, which combines with an integrated 143-horsepower electric motor to produce a net 367 hp and 369 pound-feet of torque, although it's worth noting that the official SAE measurements for the US may differ slightly than the figures advertised in Europe. All-wheel drive is standard, as is a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission.
The larger A8 that will also land Stateside needs just a little more get-up-and-go given its heftier presence. Thus, it ditches the four-pot in favor of a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6, boosting net output to 449 hp and 516 lb-ft. Its electric motor still lives between the engine and transmission, but the cog-swapper in this case is an eight-speed automatic, and the electric motor's output is slightly lower at 134 hp.
Both powertrains draw their electrons from a 14.1-kilowatt-hour battery located under the body. By European WLTP-cycle estimates, it should generate more than 25 miles of electric range. The EPA hasn't weighed in yet, but given its more conservative assessments, I think US range should fall around 21 or 22 miles, and perhaps a little lower for the bigger A8. Given the battery's relatively small dimensions, it doesn't leave some awkward lump in the cargo area, leaving the load floor nice and flat.
2020 Audi Q5 plug-in hybrid is a greener SQ5 alternativeSee all photos
It's pretty hard to tell the difference between Audi's PHEVs and its non-electrified models. There are some slight adjustments to the bumpers, but not in a way that would stand out to anyone but the most ardent Audiphile. That is, of course, except for the big ol' charging port cover on the side, but it looks just like a gas flap.
The story is the same inside, where you'd be hard-pressed to find the few minor changes on the vehicles I'm driving. The biggest giveaways come from the screens, whether it's the centrally mounted infotainment screen or the Virtual Cockpit gauge display, because both are capable of showing the remaining range rather prominently. There's also an EV mode button that doesn't exist on any other Audi (I wonder why), but otherwise, I'm staring at a normal Q5 and A8. That's definitely intentional, as Audi wants its PHEVs to look and feel like regular ol' Audis as much as possible. This idea, I find out, has its ups and downs.
On the road
The first part of my day in Munich is spent behind the wheel of Audi's electrified Q5 crossover. I am already a huge fan of this car, as it offers a solid amount of luxury and technology wrapped in an attractive shell that isn't uncomfortable on longer journeys. Adding a healthy dose of electricity doesn't change that, aside from the lack of noise upon pressing the start button and the hushed cabin as I set off on a swell of instantly available torque.
In fact, I spend the first few minutes wondering whether or not I slid into some weird, electric SQ5. The Q5 PHEV's output is actually higher than the hi-po utility vehicle, and given the sizable tax incentive that comes with a battery of this size, it's a surprisingly affordable way to go green without sacrificing sport.
Then again, perhaps some sport should be sacrificed. The Q5 in my command wears a positively monstrous set of 22-inch wheels, which in conjunction with surprisingly thin tires conveys a little more movement into the cabin than I'd prefer. US-spec PHEVs may have different shoes on, and I'm hoping that there's an option along those lines, because it would make the crossover even smoother.
Even though it can go like a bat out of hell, the Q5 PHEV is a smooth operator. The car's navigation system has the route programmed in, which means the hybrid system can take the road types, topography and other variables into account, and determine the best time to discharge or preserve the battery. The engine takes command on stretches of highway, where electric motors are less efficient, saving that juice for use on low-speed city streets. The system works so well that I never once feel the need to interject with my own mode selection. European PHEVs will get an additional little helper that recommends when to coast with an increase in throttle feedback, but that system won't make it to the US, because Americans don't exactly enjoy being told what to do.
The A8 packs all that same background-mode-shifting tech as the Q5, but it's wrapped in an even larger and more luxurious shell. In this car, the highway miles disappear on a cloud of air suspension and insulated glass. The acceleration is just as impressive, but it all feels a bit more... adult than the Q5, likely owing to the car's increased mass acting as a damper for some of the forces in play. But since the battery is the same size in both cars, the Q5 makes it back from the drive route with a handful of range to spare, while the A8 had to rely on engine thrust some 3.7 miles before reaching the finish line. Both cars produce surprisingly smooth transitions between gas and electric power, though, which will be a boon for buyers switching from petrol propulsion alone.
Both cars carry barely any difference in the driving experience when compared to their gas counterparts. This is lovely in so many ways, but when it comes to the brakes, it's frustrating. An Audi spokesperson told me the automaker purposefully designed its regenerative braking system to more closely resemble a gas car's brake feel, but to me, it feels nonexistent. Most coasting situations trigger no regeneration, only beginning to harvest energy upon a press of the pedal, running counter to how many other automakers do it. Again, it's to "preserve the experience," and not slap new buyers with something unusual, but all I see is efficiency being left on the table. Audi should at least offer a more aggressive setting buried in a menu somewhere for those of us who enjoy the gamification of efficiency in new hybrids and PHEVs.
But then again, there's not a whole lot of gamification here, either. The infotainment systems -- the old MMI on the Q5, and MMI Touch Response on the A8 -- both bury the efficiency-oriented screens in places that aren't the easiest to find. I can't be the only person who enjoys having a little map on my screen (or gauge cluster) showing me how the system is delivering power. Both cars are smooth and quiet enough that it's not always easy to tell which half is providing motive force.
2020 Audi A8 plug-in hybrid is seriously smoothSee all photos
Down to brass tacks
Some Audi dealers might receive a few 2020 A8 and Q5 plug-in hybrids before 2019 is up, but the PHEV onslaught will begin in earnest in the next calendar year, and pricing is still TBA.
Not only do Audi's new plug-in hybrids make for an excellent stopgap between gas-powered and battery-electric vehicles, but they do so with a damn good tax incentive attached. Given the PHEVs wield a 14.1-kWh battery, that means buyers will be eligible for about $6,700 in federal tax incentives. While that's a tax-liability reduction and not a dollar-for-dollar discount on the window sticker, it could help soften the blow of what will likely be a decent price tag -- until so many people buy them that the automaker runs out of credits to give.
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