The Zeitgeist has moved on. We commute by bike, shop for hybrid cars, and will soon be taking holidays in space. Motor sport is accelerating with a new breed of racers, Formula E; BMW has electric saloons; Tesla’s sporty lines conceal just batteries; and The New Yorker online carries ads for the Cadillac ELR Coupe. Cadillac! Gas Guzzlers are Go(ne)!
Environmental legislation is demanding we change from petrol power to friendlier technology. California may be leading the way but Zermatt, in Switzerland, is now the world’s first pollution-free town. Electric vehicles and skis only, thank you.
California may be leading the way but Zermatt, in Switzerland, is now the world’s first pollution-free town
The new Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is basically a standard saloon base, with the addition of some heavy batteries and a very quiet electric motor concealed inside the gearbox. During my test drive a petrolhead called Jason tried to engage me in conversation about the power of regenerative braking. Unfortunately it coincided with the moment I remembered some kittens I’d seen that morning on YouTube. Really cute they were.
More interesting was the very glamorous PR lady bemoaning the absence of female motoring correspondents. Cars are no longer about blokes, she declared, as evidenced by one of Audi’s chief racing engineers being a young lady from Harrow. Women buy cars, drive them, and care about the environment. Wake up, Grazia!
The A3 e-tron hybrid has all manner of modern snaffoofery for auto or manual switching between batteries and petrol engine, or a combo of both. A dashboard screen tells you what to do. It’s idiotproof. You can trust me on that.
Jason – who wasn’t really just a petrolhead but a grown-up proper motoring journalist – managed a staggering 83% saving on carbon emissions during his test drive in the countryside, meaning I think, he’d only poisoned 17 out of every 100 farmers we’d driven past. Pah! Take that, Jason: when I drove through the local shopping malls I saved 100%, not killing a single European hipster. I cheated, of course, keeping the car entirely on “EV”, which is secret code for Electronic Vehicle. It was at that moment that I had my epiphany, courtesy of a charming, well educated Dutch engineer whose baby the e-tron is.
OK if you’re just using your £40K runabout to pop down to Aldi for some cheap champagne, but a bit of a problem if you’re headed on holiday to John O’Groats or Nice
All-electric cars have one big drawback. They’re clean as whistles, obviously, but when you’ve run out of power – say, after fifty miles or so – you have to recharge the batteries overnight. Which is OK if you’re just using your £40K runabout to pop down to Aldi for some cheap champagne, but a bit of a problem if you’re headed on holiday to John O’Groats or Nice. “Superchargers” are currently being strategically installed at motorway services, to allow quick top-ups en route – and, in the future, when some geek has invented a battery the size of a SIM card, that problem will be solved. But for the moment it remains a barrier to motoring happiness.
The hybrid, however, is smart enough to take you long distances by deft use of battery and petrol, switching silently between one and other, combining the two for unheard of fuel efficiency, charging the batteries from the various power sources (such as the brakes – that’s where regenerative braking comes in. Do try to keep up). But here’s the rub. Most people only do long-distance trips once or twice a year. The majority drive to work or the shops each day, which means that in a hybrid they could do the daily grind without using any petrol at all – 50 weeks a year. No more queuing at Tesco for your 5p a litre off, no more environmental guilt. Drive to work every day for the equivalent of boiling a kettle. (A large kettle, mind, one with a regenerative braking system and 125kg of batteries)
So what was it like to actually drive? A bit like London’s DLR or Edinburgh’s new tram: you know you’re moving, but it’s so quiet that you’re just not really sure why. In EV mode, the e-tron is near-silent, a bit unreal to be honest, until you remember that it’s your foot on the pedal controlling it all. Of course, what that means to the average pedestrian, long grown accustomed to the noise of the internal combustion engine, is another matter entirely. Maybe we all shout loudly at each other at pelican crossings. I’ll put that to the good folks at Audi and get back to you. C
The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron launches in the UK in January 2015