Plugin Hybrid Test Drives: Electric Boogaloo

In my last post, I discussed the BMW i3 and why I’d never buy one. And while I really enjoyed that car, I bemoaned the oddly large-ish sizing of battery capacity to the thimble-sized petrol tank (in the range extender model).

Since I’m still looking for a vehicle that can do short commute/school run jobs cheaply and cleanly (are you listening VW?), I still want something with more electric capability than my middle-aged non-plugin Prius.

So, I set off to test some popular PHEVs (Plug-in Electic Hybrid Vehicles) including the Golf GTE, Audi A3 e-tron, and the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. To try to keep some level of objectivity, I test-drove all three of them on the same day, with broadly the same mixture of driving conditions.

VW Golf GTE

Let’s start with the Golf GTE. It looks like a Golf which I find off-putting since Golfs have a less than benign reputation. Also Golf itself is a dull game. Not a great start. VW’s design aesthetic definitely seems to be that the future looks a lot like the past – maybe Theresa May was a design consultant. Anyway…

The Golf GTE is a quick vehicle. It has an all-electric mode (quoted 30 mile range), an auto hybrid mode, and a power mode that mixes electrical and petrol motors for antisocial driving thrills (I’m not a fan). My test-drive was mostly on petrol because the dealer (VW Guildford) seemingly couldn’t be bothered to charge the battery before the test drive.

VW Golf GTE

Top tip for showrooms: when someone is looking at dropping £30k + finance on a car, not charging the battery and failing to demonstrate a key selling point is a sure way to alienate the customer.

Testament to the car’s low-speed power, at my first junction I caused a wheel-spin. I hadn’t done that since I was 17 in a battered Ford Fiesta. Rather than be impressed with the power that can be sent to the front wheels, I was surprised at the poor traction control. The Golf made me drive like a Golf driver. The machines have already won.

Anyway, off we set mixing A-road and residential conditions and the car was quite satisfactory (as any new vehicle tends to feel). But the retro, rotary, analogue dials on the car didn’t please me at all. I don’t want to have to study a dial to figure out my speed because that’s a distraction from the road. I think VW have made quite an error in not emphasising the car’s modernity. My middle-aged Prius has digital speedometer and GPS in a heads-up display like a jet fighter. A car 5 years newer could at least manage parity.

Remarkably VW thinks it’s essential to fit a CD player in a car in 2015, in an electric vehicle. That kerb weight isn’t needed for the kind of buyer that buys electric: we carry phones for that task in the early 21st century. The Phil Collins brigade are much happier, I suspect, with dirty diesels and ironed jeans. I rapidly came to the conclusion that the VW Golf GTE isn’t for me.

Audi A3 e-tron

The first thing to know about the Audi setup is that getting a test drive is like pulling teeth. My wife and I both had numerous attempts to get a test drive from a local (and not so local) showroom and were thwarted, ignored, fobbed off, lied to and variously dropped by the Audi call centre team. Audi showrooms are being let down terribly by their call centre.

The second thing to know is that the Audi brand is practically as toxic as Golf. As a cyclist, I know that if someone is going going to overtake me dangerously, it’s going to be an Audi. As a motorist, I know that the impatient man behind me is driving an Audi. They are the Stella Artois of car brands: needlessly costly and consumed by yobs.

Audi A3 e-tronThe third thing you should know about the Audi A3 e-tron (which should be the main thing if it wasn’t for the poor customer service and branding) is that it’s the same powertrain as the Golf GTE, thanks to VW being Audi’s parent company.

Like the Golf it has a quoted 30 mile range on electric power only, plenty for the daily commute or school run. But the car feels qualitatively different. The aesthetics are similar to any other A3 that you might see through your rear-view mirror far too close to your bumper: reasonably inoffensive. Handling is nice, with tuneable settings for ride/handling and a helpful  feature that automatically stiffens things up as you drive faster. Front and back the ride and interior space are comfortable and pleasant to be in. Despite my reservations about Audi, it really was a car I generally cared for.

The downside is that it’s quite a large vehicle for my purposes as a second car, approaching the size of my family-friendly Prius. Great if we did need to go on longer journeys, slightly less good for pottering around town though it would be unfair to label it un-agile. Ultimately I was left rather impressed with the vehicle, but desperately underwhelmed by Audi pre-sales service. Still, all things considered it was a strong a contender.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

The Mitsubishi is a real outlier in my cohort. It’s an SUV for a start (and I’m looking for a city car) with two electric motors and a single petrol engine arranged in parallel rather than the sequential drive train in the Golf and A3. Unlike the other cars I’ve tried it doesn’t have an all electric mode that a user can engage, instead power sources are selected for you by the drive computer which means in practice most situations are battery-powered unless you really floor it. The one caveat is that the driver can choose not to use battery power, for example when driving on motorways where petrol power is relatively efficient.

The driving experience wasn’t at all bad. The electric motors felt punchy at low speeds, and the handling was on a par for similarly sized SUVs (I owned an X-Trail ages back, it felt similar: a little soft). The gadgets were great: 360 degree parking cameras makes reversing like a video game, and I can’t help be impressed by the software that joins the camera feeds.Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

On the downside, the cabin is far more spartan and workaday than the other vehicles, even on the more expensive models. The backseat area is downright plain with no real attention to comfort being lavished there (not even a charging point for a phone, or an AC vent). On the plus side, the boot space was enormous, and I could imagine storing all my family’s kit in there without running out of space.

Bu the big negative is that we already have a family car. And so what finally ruled out the Mitsubishi is that I didn’t want another big family car, but runaround for the city. Despite the fact that it’d be on electric power practically all of the time, it was the size of the Mitsubishi that ultimately counted against it.

So what did I opt for?

You made it this far in what has been the longest blog post I’ve written in ages. So let me recap:

  • the Golf GTE is unappealing;
  • the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is too big;
  • The Audi A3 e-tron is nice, but Audi provided shockingly poor service.

So what did I buy? I bought (ok, financed) the BMW i3 (REX).

Yup, I bought a glorified milk float with a motorbike engine instead of an alternator.

BMW i3“But you said it was all wrong with its batteries and petrol and what not!”

And I did. But since we have a petrol hybrid already for longer journeys, it’s really unlikely we’d need the i3 for motorway duty and as a city car it’s a real pleasure. I adore the science-project feel of the car and enjoy the handling. I’m not really into cars or driving, but I enjoyed rather than endured the test drive. That was quite unexpected.

Yes, the batteries are the wrong size, but it means I’ll charge it every couple of weeks rather than every couple of days. By the time the finance is finished on this car, the next version will have way better battery range and I might just opt into that one too.

I’ll take delivery soon, and I’ll post my thoughts as an owner.

Next challenge: learn how to ground-mount and wire more solar panels to fuel the car!

Posted in Electric Vehicles

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