Audi A3 E-Tron: Step One

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The Audi A3 e-tron gives the premium German marque an entry point to electric motoring. Based on the previous generation Sportback wagon, it combines a 150-horsepower 1.4-liter gas engine with a 102-horsepower 75 kW electric motor to make a combined 204 horsepower drivetrain. With 258 lb.-ft. of torque, it pulls the compact wagon from 0-60 in 7.6 seconds.

Electric vehicles, even half-electric ones, use the MPGe rating, which offers an efficiency standard that you can use to compare competing vehicles. For example, you can measure the A3 against the plug-in Prius or the Chevrolet Volt. The A3 e-tron earns an 86 MPGe rating using electricity and gasoline, and a 39 MPG with gasoline only. I averaged 96.4 MPGe during my test week. The window sticker claims I’ll save $3,750 a year in fuel costs over the average new vehicle.

EPA fuel economy ratings are 8 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas. The 138 grams per mile of CO2 is lower than most cars, but, of course, higher than an all-electric car.

One way to compare plug-in hybrids is by the range they can drive on electricity alone. The A3 claims 17 miles, and in my 18-mile commute, I found that to be accurate. Just before I arrived at my office, the gauge indicated the switchover. So, I plugged in and had enough to get almost home, and so it went. By charging at both ends, I used very little gas for commuting.

Charging is simple. Plug in to standard 240-Volt (level 2) chargers at work or in other public places, or use your own household current, which is 120 Volts (level 1).  It’s an eight-hour process at home, comfortably overnight. On a level 2 charger, it’s just two and a quarter hours. You won’t be hogging the chargers while others wait. They’ll appreciate that.

The A3 is on the lower end of the range listing for plug-ins, but it still makes a big difference. The Chevy Volt offers an honest 53 miles of charge before switching over to its gas engine, which generates electricity to run the electric motor. The Audi is typical of a hybrid, using the gas engine and electric motor interchangeably as needed.

The A3 e-tron offers four driving modes, which you select on the dash. EV mode uses the electric motor only. In Hybrid mode the car’s computer picks the most efficient power source for the driving conditions—EV, gasoline, or both. In Hold Battery mode, the car is a hybrid only, saving the battery charge for driving all-electric later. The Charge Battery mode uses the engine to charge the battery while you’re driving at freeway speeds.

I ended up taking a six-hour round-trip to an exciting but farther away than I thought microbrewery, so for that trip, the A3 behaved like a normal hybrid car. And that’s what distinguishes a plug-in from an all-electric car. You can pretty much go wherever you want to, but drive hyper efficiently when you stay local.

The 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery pack sits under the rear seat, and because it doesn’t take up any cargo space, the wagon is fully usable to carry your stuff. Other plug-ins like the Prius and Volt are hatchbacks, so the A3 has an advantage with a lower sill for easier placement of, say, a bass, in my case.

The A3 Sportback wears a new name: e-tron, which Audi will use to identify other, future electric and hybrid models, too. For now, it looks and feels like an A3, which is a good thing. The premium craftsmanship inside, simply presented at this level, is pleasant and feels substantial and carefully thought out. My Misano Red Pearl Effect test car greeted me with a sweet leather aroma when I opened the door for the first time. The switchgear works nicely, the eyeball vents swivel satisfyingly, and the it’s a pleasant place to be.

The A3 e-tron comes in three levels: Premium, Premium Plus, and Prestige. Base price is $37,900. My tester was a Premium Plus, which added $4,100 to the tab. That got me extras like 17-inch, 15-spoke alloy wheels, 3-D optic inlays, the Audi music interface, heated front seats, and aluminum window surrounds. The $2,600 Technology package added a navigation system, Audi Connect online services, and more. They charged $575 for the fancy red paint (a typical Audi upsell). The bottom line came to $46,100.

If you’re an Audiphile, this is your high-efficiency choice. An all-electric e-tron model should be here soon.

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Volkswagen e-Golf Delivers

2016_e-golf_5254The Volkswagen Golf has been sold around the world for 40 years. A mainstream model in Europe, it’s less central to VW’s model mix in the U.S. However, with a major redesign for 2015 came Volkswagen’s first all-electric car, the e-Golf, and it was worth the wait.

The e-Golf is aimed at pure electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf. There is no sacrifice in driving enjoyment or practicality in choosing the electric option. In fact, it boasts the same 95 cubic feet of capacity as the gas version, with its battery tucked away out of sight.

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The e-Golf’s motor puts out 115 horsepower and 199 lb.-ft. of torque through a single-speed automatic transmission. This electric Golf still delivers the same fine road feel as the sporty GTI, and at 3,391 pounds, doesn’t feel sluggish. Although it didn’t rocket ahead like a GTI, at 10 seconds from zero to 60, the feel of electric motor-driven acceleration is instant and exciting.

Naturally, the driving range of an all-electric vehicle is at the top of any driver’s mind. The e-Golf gets an official rating of 83 miles, but when I charged the car up, I saw a reading as high as 98 miles on the instrument panel gauge. How you drive, what kinds of roads you drive on, and how you program the car’s adjustable settings make some difference, but this car didn’t feel like it would leave you in the lurch.

The official EPA numbers are 126 and 105 highway. That’s MPGe – miles per gallon equivalent. Use these numbers to compare electric vehicles. Pretty impressive.

To ease your range anxiety, VW provides a roadside assistance program. If you run out of charge within 100 miles of home, they will take your car to a charging station and to get you home via taxi or other transportation method on their dime.

To maximize your e-Golf’s efficiency, there are three driving profiles: Normal, Eco and Eco +. The latter two progressively lower the horsepower and top speed, change the accelerator action, and in the case of the Eco + setting, turn off the climate control, to reduce energy consumption. You can also program the amount of regenerative braking to generate a small amount of juice in the normal setting or produce progressively more in two other settings.

VW provides the VW Car-Net app, so you can keep track of your charging, turn the climate control on or off remotely, and monitor performance data for your car. Part of owning an electric is the science project aspect, where you are thinking about what your car is doing rather than just sitting in it and going. It’s important and fun, too.

The VW Golf was all-new for 2015. It’s a two- or four-door hatchback, but also, in 2015 it took on the wagon role from the Jetta. Numerous engines and trim levels are available, but you can tell the e-Golf by its blue accents.

VW originally sent the e-Golf to market as the loaded SEL Premium model. That means full climate control, heated seats, leather steering wheel and shift knob, alloy wheels, heated mirrors, and the like. Now, VW also offers the SE, which shaves thousands of dollars off the price by swapping out the alloy wheels for steel, LED headlamps for standard halogen, and cloth seats in place of leatherette. Federal and state tax rebates help mitigate some of that cost as well.

Charging is simple. However, using household 110/120 volt current, it could take you 20 hours to fill the battery from empty. A 220/240 volt charger, which you’d install at your house if you owned the car, can do it in less than 4 hours. The e-Golf SEL or SE with the optional Quick Charge package has the SAE combined quick charge socket, so you can get an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes in a pinch.

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It’s particularly quiet inside the e-Golf because when VW removed the vibration-causing gas engine, they went after the little sounds that could annoy you, which were suddenly exposed. The car emits a little sound at low speeds, so oblivious pedestrians are warned of your approach.

Part of owning an electric is the knowledge that you’re reducing your carbon footprint and helping the planet. In that spirit, VW has teamed up with 3Degrees, a renewable energy service provider, to offset the e-Golfs greenhouse gas emissions from its production, distribution, and 36,000 miles of charging.

The SE starts at $28,995 with the SEL at $35,595. The SEL earns its extra price with things like Driver Assistance, Navigation, leatherette upholstery, quick charging, and more. The SE with the quick charge option is probably the sweet spot. Leasing remains the way to get into one of these cars surprisingly affordably.

My Pacific Blue tester was a delight. Electric motoring is smooth and pleasant. With an 11-mile commute at the time I tested it, I had plenty of charge left over at the end of the day. This is an ideal commute vehicle, with its quiet, spacious interior and gasoline-free ways, but as with any other electric car (except a Tesla), you’ll need another car for long trips.

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Chevrolet Volt – The Perfect Compromise

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The all-new Chevrolet Volt may be the best solution today for moving to greener driving to reduce CO2 emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. It’s an electric vehicle (EV) without the drawbacks.

The many advantages of driving an EV include smooth, quiet motoring, minimal service requirements, and the feeling that you’re part of the solution and not the problem.

The downsides of EVs include limited range and the long time it takes to recharge the batteries.

Regular hybrid vehicles combine gas engines with electric motors to extend your fuel out over more miles, but you never plug in. Plug-in hybrids provide a small all-electric range before becoming regular hybrids.

The Chevrolet Volt, which debuted for 2011, was designed as an electric car with a range extender: The Voltec electric drive system. You could charge it up, drive about 35 miles, and then its small gasoline engine kicked in to generate electricity to keep the motor moving the car along.

The totally redesigned 2016 Volt continues on this path, with huge upgrades. Generation one owners gave GM plenty of feedback. Gone are the hard plastic panels with haptic touch controls. The styling is in line with current Chevy gasoline vehicles, like the midsize Malibu. The new car looks great inside and out, with colors and metallic trim befitting a fancier vehicle.

What’s most important, though, is that the new Volt offers an electric range of 53 miles. In a week with my Mosaic Black Metallic test car, I drove in silent, serene full-electric mode for all of my commuting (18 miles each way to work and home), and all of my normal errands. On only two occasions did I need the extended range. The combined range for gas and electric is 420 miles.

When my Volt switched over to gasoline, the instrument panel indicated I had moved from battery power. I could hardly hear the engine when it engaged, and even when the battery was depleted, the car sometimes used it with power generated from braking.

An electric car is rated for MPGe. MPGe assigns a comparative value to the efficiency of different EVs, but it also stands alongside MPG. My week with the Volt generated 118.1 MPGe. The EPA’s ratings are 106 MPGe for electric mode and 42 MPG for gasoline (combined city/highway numbers). Green scores are 8 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas.

Compare that to a standard Prius, which gets 52 combined MPG. The Chevrolet Cruze, the Volt’s gasoline cousin, earns 35 MPG combined, itself a laudable number.

The electric motor puts out 149 horsepower (111 kW), and a strong 294 lb.-ft. of torque. The gas engine generates only 75 horsepower, but it’s meant to charge the car rather than drive it. Chevy claims an 8.4-second 0-60 time. I felt confident in it driving uphill on a winding road in the rain.

The Volt comes in LT and Premier levels. My Premier tester flaunted attractive two-tone interior with tan inserts and silvery trim winding around the dash. The center screen is nicely rendered and there’s a jaunty blue plastic top on the “shift” knob. The rear seat now offers a center position, but there’s not a whole lot of legroom for that person. The hatchback is convenient, although it’s a high liftover.

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The Drive Mode switch lets you configure the Voltec system. Use Normal mode for maximum efficiency, Sport mode to take advantage of the bountiful electric motor torque, or Mountain mode for maximum power on steep upgrades. The fourth mode, Hold, lets you preserve your battery charge and use only gasoline.

Regenerative braking is crucial for hybrids and EVs, but the Volt lets you prime the pump with a paddle on the left side of the steering wheel for “Regen on Demand.” Use it like a brake, while banking charge. With practice, you can drive almost without using the brake pedal at all.

The Volt has its own personality, with a greeting sound and a “wind down” tone it makes when you turn it off. Because the electric motor is silent when you start the car, the blue Power button is more like turning on your iPhone than turning over your engine.

The LT starts at $34,820 and the Premier, with heated leather seats, a Bose stereo system, and more, starts at $39,270. My tester listed for $39,850. Various leasing options, plus some Federal and State rebates, can make these cars easier to drive home.

While an all-electric car may be the ideal way to go, it’s not practical for everyone today. But if you want a compact car that’ll do pretty much everything and let you drive electric most of the time, the Volt is a great solution.

Fiat 500e – The Cutest EV in Town

[Note: This article will appear in the San Leandro Times and Tri-City Voice newspapers soon. It’s exactly the size and style of car reviews I’ve written weekly since early 1992 (more than 1,150 of them). But this little car was special to me, both because I kept it so much longer than the others but also because I loved almost everything about it, from the color to the design to the carrying capacity to the total avoidance of gas stations.]

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Most people understand that we are facing a climate crisis. Much of global warming comes from burning carbon, which creates CO2, which accumulates and, thanks to the greenhouse effect, keeps more of the Earth’s heat in, leading to rising temperatures, and all the consequences.

Driving an electric car is a positive response to this crisis. The Fiat 500e is one of the most affordable ones, and it’s a joy to drive.

It’s certainly the cutest electric car out there. The retro design is based on the 1957-1975 500, which served as Italy’s VW Beetle or Mini—an affordable and beloved people’s car. The gasoline model arrived 2011, and in 2013, the all-electric version debuted.

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Fiat graciously sent me the Celeste Blue model with the black and steam (white) interior I ordered for a three-month test. When the car was delivered, I photographed it, and a rainbow came out. That was a good omen.

The driving experience has been wonderful. With 600 extra pounds of batteries over the gas version, the 500e sits firm and stable on the road.

The old-fashioned dash panel brings a smile. Chrome circles surround the gauges and controls, and the white plastic panels emulate the original car’s painted metal surfaces.

But this is no retro ride. It’s got full climate control, loads of airbags, heated seats, a navigation system, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, Bluetooth, and much more. The white leather steering wheel gives an upscale look and feel, like something from Coach.

The 83 kW motor puts out 111 horsepower and 147 lb.-ft. of torque. It moves the nearly 3,000-pound 500e along like a mini rocket.

The standard gasoline version has more horsepower (135) but much less torque (97), so the 500e is more fun. The one-speed transmission (no shifting needed with electric motors) is a set of four push buttons on the console.

The 500e’s 24 kWh lithium-ion battery is rated at 84 miles per charge, although with careful driving, I often charged it up to a reading of as much as 109 miles. The battery comes with an 8 year, 100,000-mile warranty.

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For electrics, the EPA uses the MPGe calculation in place of MPG (no gallons). The 500e earns 121 City, 103 Highway, and 112 Combined. I averaged 138.2 MPGe driving 2,829 miles. The Smog and Greenhouse Gas numbers are both top-score 10’s.

I took my little Fiat everywhere, except on longer trips. I didn’t want to risk running out of charge. It easily handled my 18-mile-each-way commute every day and went on a variety of errands around town.

Thanks to the folding rear seats and hatchback, I carried my upright bass to orchestra rehearsals and concerts. I schlepped Blues band gear to shows. I hauled loads of groceries.

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I did most of my charging at work, on a nice set of six ChargePoint units. I plugged in when I arrived, and by late morning, the ChargePoint charger sent me a text that the battery was full. I went down and unplugged, so another EV driver could charge up.

We have an informal community of EV drivers at work, and people are excited about their cars and want to talk about them.

Charging at 240 volts (Level 2) at work takes only a few hours. At home, at 120 volts (Level 1), it takes overnight and then some. If you own an EV, you should look into installing your own Level 2 charger.

Driving is blissfully silent, with minimal road or wind noise, which means great music listening.

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The simple instrument panel features a center round gauge that prominently displays digital speed and range. On the left, there’s a graphical and numerical display of battery charge. On the right, you can monitor driving behavior with colors on a curved bar. Eco—green—is normal driving. Power—red—is when you’re accelerating hard for passing or entering the freeway. Charge—blue—indicates regenerative braking, which helps recharge the battery without plugging in.

My daily charge at work cost about $2 to $2.50. Electricity would be cheaper at night at home. The window sticker states that the estimated annual fuel cost is $600, a $6,000 savings over the average car. And maintenance costs are very low for EVs, with no oil changes and fewer moving parts to break.

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My car retailed at $33,190. However, most of these cars are leased, and some amazing deals are available. Federal and State rebates help make it affordable. Gas-powered 500s start at just $18,490.

I fell for my baby blue Fiat 500e, and named him Fidelio. I’ll truly miss having him around. He was totally charming, relaxing to commute in, and handled all my normal driving needs. And for longer trips, we just took the family car.

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Goodby to Fidelio, My Fiat 500e

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April 22 wasn’t a day I was looking forward to. After just over three months, it was time to turn in my test Fiat 500e, Fidelio. But, I did what I had to do, and handed over the keys.

I’ll publish the article that will appear in my newpaper venues and their websites in my next blog post. All of these blogs have been part of my day-to-day life with an all-electric car.

Fidelio performed just as he had to, and took care of all of my needs, except one. His range, at 84 official miles and a little more in reality, was perfect for commuting and errands, but just not enough to make him a car for all reasons. Would that be enough to keep me from running out and buying a twin of this sweet little car? Maybe. For now, I have lots of happy memories. He was completely charming and ran flawlessly.

Stevegoesgreen.com will continue to cover electric and hybrid (and alternative fuel) vehicles. Stay tuned!

His last photo.

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The Electric Car Club

When I started testing my little blue Fiat 500e a couple of months ago, I thought, that as part of my EV awareness, I’d attend meetings of some electric car enthusiast organization.I pictured meeting in a place like an old Hof Brau, and standing in the parking lot before going inside for beers and roast beef, looking over each others’ cars in the fading sun.

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What I was picturing was the car club of the past. I met the Corvair owners club years ago that way.

Today, the action is in three places, for me. The first is at work, where I’ve created the Electriccars channel on Slack–our company instant messenger application. We have 12 members–most of the electric car drivers in the company. We post photos, talk about range and what we want to buy someday, and we’re pretty well represented. We have drivers of Teslas, Leafs, Volts, A Ford Focus Electric and a Fusion Hybrid, BMW i3s, and a couple of us with Fiats. Here’s our charging array. Fidelio, my blue Fiat 500e, is at the top of the picture, because my battery is full, and I’ve moved aside to let another driver charge up. With 15 EVs and 6 spots, it’s the only way to make it work.

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I’ve had numerous conversations in the hallway and in our “Cantina” food and party area. One guy proudly showed me his Volt app, where he could get lots of stats on his mileage and driving efficiency. Another wanted to talk about the differences between the different EVs on the market–or the difference between living with a plug-in hybrid versus a pure electric. Another is eagerly awaiting his opportunity to put money down on a Tesla Model 3–that he’ll receive in two years. That’s patience.

The second way I meet EV drivers is at charging stations. While most of my charging happens at home or at my six-slot office charger, I had a fine conversation with two Leaf drivers in front of the Whole Foods recently. A fellow auto journalist drove to meet me for lunch in his EV test car, and showed me where he went to plug it in while we were eating.

There’s lots of EV action online. I belong to the Fiat 500e group on Facebook. For now, I have a car to show photos of, and stories to relate. So do they. There are proud new car photos, oddball charging shots, and interesting customizations. One guy installed new, more powerful, but less energy-consuming, headlamps. Another posted a shot of his little Fiat next to a giant Chevy Suburban. I had recently taken a very similar shot of my colleague’s orange 500e next to the same kind of behemoth, and posted it in reply. We have fun.

Of course there are numerous websites to visit, too. And on Twitter, I post links to this blog, and have picked up a bunch of folks to follow–and who follow me–by going there.

I was expecting more camaraderie between EV drivers on the road, but so far, no-one has waved to me from their car. I, of course notice all of them. Maybe they just like not buying or burning gas and aren’t the social type. More (electric) power to them.

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I did look around for an actual car club, and found the Electric Auto Association. They have various chapters, but from what I can tell, they are the old-fashioned kind of organization. These are the techie guys who used to install dozens of regular car batteries in an old Honda Civic years ago. They are hands-on, and less of a purely consumer group–although I bet that’s changing.

If it were September, I could participate in National Drive Electric Week, but who knows what I’ll be driving by then? I may own my own EV by the time any local events start on September 10.

I love the social part of  being an EV driver. Perhaps it’s the excitement about doing something special that brings some folks together like this. When you drive an electric car, you fit right into the flow of traffic, and especially if you own a model that also has a gas version, you may be invisible to the other drivers. But YOU know you’re battery powered, and that it all makes a difference. Someday, it’ll be the norm.

What’s MPGe? Why Should I Care?

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When the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began measuring the fuel economy of cars decades ago, they created a miles-per-gallon (MPG) rating. It was designed to be posted on the Monroney (window) sticker, so consumers could compare different cars when they were shopping.

However, what happens when you have a car powered completely or partially by electricity? How do you measure a “gallon” of volts? The agency had to find a way to measure all energy, as a “measure of the average distance traveled per unit of energy consumed.”

So, in 2010, in response to the arrival of the new Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and the Nissan Leaf all-electric vehicle, the EPA came up with the MPGe rating–miles-per-gallon-equivalent. See this Wikikpedia entry for more detailed information.

I went to my favorite comparison/information hangout online–fueleconomy.gov–and set up a comparison between four kinds of cars, including my Fiat 500e. The Fiat represented a pure electric vehicle, I listed the Chevrolet Volt as a plug-in hybrid, the Toyota Prius as a regular hybrid, and the popular Honda Civic sedan as an efficient “regular” internal combustion engine (ICE) car.

Here’s what I got. Check it out for yourself. There are lots of numbers there, but here’s what I take away from it all.

  1. Electric cars have only the MPGe/MPG score, and it’s much higher than the MPG scores. The Fiat was tops in this comparison, with the Volt just below, with the two non-plugin cars way below. Use this number to compare all-electric cars to each other (and check the range, too).
  2. Hybrids are much more fuel efficient than regular cars. Keep in mind that the Prius has the best fuel economy of any hybrid car, and the Civic is one of the most fuel-efficient ICE cars.
  3. Driving the Volt in electric mode–keeping your trips within the battery range and recharging regularly–delivers nearly as good a rating as the Fiat. Driving it long distances using only gasoline isn’t much better than the ICE Civic. But if you’re the typical driver, and make sure to charge up regularly, and you’ll get the best of both worlds.
  4. Hybrids, like the regular Prius, don’t plug in (there is a plug-in version too). They’re given an MPG number based on overall performance, because they switch back and forth between gasoline and electricity, depending on driving conditions. The numbers look pretty good, though.
  5. The Prius, in this four-car comparison, saves the most per year compared to the average car. Remember, there are lots of other factors, though. Still interesting.
  6. Notice there’s a “per 100 miles” measurement in the same box that contains the MPGe and MPG number? That’s where the “equivalent” comes in. The Fiat, for example, shows 30 kWh per 100 miles while the Honda shows 2.9 gallons per 100 miles. The question then comes–how much does it cost for 2.9 gallons of gas or 30 kWh of electricity? My experience, using a public charger at work, is that I can get around 15 kWh (about 50 miles worth) for a couple of bucks. Gas, in California now, is currently running about $2.25 a gallon. Doing the math, the Honda costs roughly $3.50 for gas for the $2.00 the Fiat runs. Charging my car at home, at night, would likely run a bit less.

Are you enjoying that comparison chart? Good. Now, click the Energy and Environment tab and you’ll see where electric cars come out on top for greenhouse gas emissions. The Fiat gets a lovely zero grams per mile. The Volt is mighty good at 51. The Prius more than triples that to 170, while the Civic gets 256. Many larger cars can emit 400 or 500 grams per mile. So even downsizing from a large to a smaller ICE car is an improvement.

Yes, it’s true that an electric car must use electricity that’s generated someplace using some method that could cause an environmental impact. And there’s the fuel that went into the tank of the transporter truck that delivered your EV to the dealership. Ideally, you generate power from solar panels on your roof, although remember, some energy was consumed to produce the panels. If your power is generated using hydroelectric, wind, or a giant solar farm, you’re good. Natural gas–not as good. Coal–not good at all. Here in California, there are no  coal-powered plants (as far as I know), but PG&E, the utility, could  buy power from another company that used coal to generate it. We have some nuclear power generation here, too.

Still, at this point, there are many fine reasons to drive an electric car, if it fits your lifestyle. But even driving a Prius cuts your carbon footprint down significantly. If you work it right, a plug-in hybrid, like the Volt, would be even better than the Prius (the more you use the electric and the less you burn fuel). And if all else fails, you can still drive a Civic instead of a Cadillac and reduce your environmental impact a bit.

Until we have affordable electric cars with a 300-mile range, these other options–plug-in hybrids, hybrids, and highly efficient regular gas-burners, will have a place in the automotive market.