Article by Robert Sixto. Photography by Nick Kouris.
Vollkswagen and Audi have created new excitement in the electric/hybrid arena with their latest entries in the category—the VW e-Golf and the Audi A3 e-tron. Nearly every automotive manufacturer today has an extensive program aimed at developing the new future of technology. Like it or not, electric power is here to stay, and the amount of money and research pouring into the segment is higher than ever before. We openly admit our personal bias regarding the old standard: big, powerful V8s, small-displacement turbocharged rockets, but we cannot deny that there is some novelty to the electric car. If you have ever driven one lately, it does make you smile. It does not even have to be something on the level of a Tesla Model S to have that certain novelty. It is so different—the silence, the lack of start-up noise other than a light indicating "we’re ready to roll,” the instant torque that even in lower amounts feels bizarre the way it takes off, and the silence! Honestly, we defy you to drive one and not have at least a slight grin on your face.
These cars are important because they represent yet another push toward renewable/cleaner propulsion and a drive to make this something more mainstream. Many will speculate that there will come a time when every car on the market is either a hybrid or pure electric vehicle, and indeed this could be yet another step in that direction. What does this mean to the automotive enthusiast? As enthusiasts for high-performance machinery, for some time the only appropriate reaction was dread for that kind of future, but we are truly at a crossroads of sorts. Electric technology is becoming much more widespread and creeping into different segments of the automotive market that you just did not see even a few years ago. We believe this creep into the mainstream should fill us with excitement, not dread!
Volkswagen and Audi’s latest offerings both delve into the electric vehicle future in their own unique way. The e-Golf offers a purely electric drive experience like that of the Nissan Leaf, meaning there is no gas engine to be found, while the A3 e-tron provides a comfortable package with space and versatility. It is a genuine "car,” not an impractically small or overly compromised package. It does, however, bring this package with a serious compromise in performance. The sprint to 60 mph, and this term is used generously here, will take you around 10 seconds! That would hardly compare favorably with even the ancient relative of today’s Golf—the MK1 GTI. A hot hatch the e-Golf most certainly is not. In fact, it is hard to see any silver lining at all here. To a performance enthusiast and lover of things that go fast, it would seem to be a lost cause. Upgrading a pure electric drivetrain to increase power output and speed would seem a monumental task compared with what we are already familiar with—bolting on high-flow exhaust or even reflashing an ECU. These electric systems can be extremely complicated and even dangerous to work on to some extent. The greatest benefit a purely green car like this provides is that it moves the ball further down the field for electric tech and satisfies the increasingly stringent regulations that manufacturers must follow. By making and selling green cars, VW can continue making the cars we as enthusiasts already know and love (referring to the 2016 CAFÉ standards requiring an average of 38.5 MPG over a manufacturer’s entire fleet). Perhaps the e-Golf prolongs the life of the GTI in that sense.
The Audi A3 e-tron, however, is a slightly different creature, but that slight difference should at least pique the interest of the average enthusiast. With its electric-leaning hybrid setup, it can deliver the instant torque off the line but still offer the grunt of a gas engine when it really needs to get going. As a result, out of the box performance, while not scorching, is much more reasonable. The A3 platform has its potential as it is, and a surprising fact of the e-tron version is its better balance of weight distribution of 55/45 versus the standard model being 60/40; so, although electric lends to a heavier car, the potential for balanced handling is there as well. To boot, it is still an Audi, so it is quite a pleasant car to live with.
This is where things get interesting. The latest hybrid designs create a "have it all” situation—a silent, smooth driving experience with maximum fuel economy when putting through traffic but with the benefit of a familiar piston propulsion when we need it. We also know how to wring more power out of that old tech in a much more cost-effective way at this stage (and we should, as we are nearly 100 years into its evolution). If you need evidence of the possibilities, just look at the latest exotic offerings taking advantage of the instant torque of electric and mating it with a perhaps more lag prone turbocharged setup, i.e., McClaren P1. Granted the A3 will never be mistaken for an exotic, but the same theory can be applied here and potentially with some truly remarkable results. If you can virtually tune the turbo lag out of the equation with an electric-drive motor, it can change the whole dynamic of the car.
Ultimately, efforts like VW and Audi’s latest models really do serve to advance the movement of electric power, and as they become more prolific and more popular, technology will undoubtedly continue to improve exponentially. Like gas engines before them, tuners, shops, and weekend garage warriors can get more of these drivetrains and find ways to coax more performance from them. As electrics become more commonplace, someone will eventually "crack the code” (in reality, we already have) and find ways to extract more power from a motor, making them faster and stronger. Someone in a Tesla will eventually want more and be willing to find a way or spend enough to make it more. This is what we want. As enthusiasts, we have always embraced innovation and advancement. In fact, at its core, it is what drives us, to make it better, faster, and stronger than the manufacturer had ever intended or desired to make it. The more widespread the electric motor becomes, the more it opens possibilities and more opportunities for innovation. We need to realize it is something that should be embraced and explored. Think about it. Perhaps one day you will be able to shoehorn the more powerful motor from the all-electric 2019 Q7 into your now older 2015 e-Golf. Maybe that e-Golf is not so hopeless after all!