The EV gateway drug: Plug-ins

A few points of order

WORDS ANDY ENRIGHT, BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS & CAMERON KIRBY

Every car in this EV Megatest is scored out of ten. The vehicles are not scored against each other, but instead the mark is representative of their functionality, which encompasses not only inherent fitness for purpose and competitiveness within their respective classes but also the state of their charging infrastructure. Those vehicles which rely on outdated charging standards are marked down, whereas those that take advantage of an established network of charging stations gain additional credit.

Audi Q7 E-Tron

Diesel-electric dreadnought fires a broadside

SPECS

Model Audi Q7 E-Tron

Engine 2967cc V6, dohc, 24v, turbo-diesel + electric motor

Battery 17.3kWh lithium-ion

Max power 300kW Max torque 664Nm

Transmission 8-speed automatic

L/W/H/WB 4901/1935/1629/2928mm

Weight 2445kg

0-100km/h 5.7sec (claimed)

Consumption 1.9L/100km (claimed)

Claimed electric range 54km

Plug standard CCS

Price $139,900

On sale January 2019

• Design; cabin; packaging; driveability; dynamics; quality

• No third row; no spare wheel; needs optional air springs

DEAN Martin ordering a martini at the Cal Neva Lodge was probably pretty smooth. A Scott Pendlebury no-look handpass in a busy centre circle is also silkily effortless, yet both pale into a lumpen clumsiness compared with the Audi Q7 E-Tron’s idle-stop system. It’s almost molten in the way the 48-volt electrics slur the diesel engine back into life, melding with the torrent of torque from the motors. There’s no audible impact, just a barely perceptible epidermal vibe on the steering wheel.

That’s the Q7 E-Tron in microcosm. Ingolstadt’s plug-in hybrid represents a masterclass in making the difficult things seem easy, to massage away any residual stresses you might harbour about the wisdom of a diesel-electric hybrid.

Those concerns are understandable. A petrol engine and an electric motor are a brilliant fit, the zero-rpm torque of the motor creating a lovely diversion from a petrol powerplant’s low-end Newton-metres deficit. A diesel engine doesn’t want for subsonic torque, and adding electrical hardware to an already expensive diesel powerplant contributes to a very costly drivetrain.

Naturally, you’ll need to be the judge of whether the $35K premium over a conventional 200kW 3.0-litre TDI Q7 represents an attractive return on your dollar, and the E-Tron does without either a third row of seats or a spare wheel, both casualties of battery packaging. The other side of the ledger includes 54km of electric range at speeds of up to 135km/h, a ludicrous claimed fuel economy figure of 1.9L/100km (we were averaging around 7.0 litres in mixed usage).

Enter a route into the MMI navigation system and Audi’s predictive efficiency assistant will not only handle the direction finding but will also figure out the most efficient way to use the charge in the battery for any given point on the journey.

If the route encounters traffic congestion or urban areas, the Q7 saves the 17.3kWh lithium-ion battery power for those sections of the journey where electric drive makes most sense. It’s genuinely useful fire-and-forget stuff.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a 19-inch tyre that’s any frumpier than the 255/55R19 Pirelli Scorpion Verde balloons fitted to the Q7 E-Tron, but the hybrid’s revised LED daytime running light signature, long roof spoiler and lack of tailpipes distinguish it. A combination of those big sidewalls, optional air suspension and active engine mounts combine to give the Q7 E-Tron an unruffled composure. It’s about as smooth as a diesel-engined SUV gets.

ANDY ENRIGHT

Pedal power

The Q7 E-Tron discourages lead-footed driving by using a haptic feedback system on the loud pedal. This pulsing of the pedal works to encourage a speeding driver to lift off the throttle slightly, the car then decelerating to the posted limit. The pedal feedback is supported with an icon on the head-up display to remind you when you’ve become a little over-enthusiastic.

Hyundai Ioniq Plug-in

A hybrid that provides an each-way bet, but is it worth the punt?

LIKE tethered skydiving and any ‘edited for content’ airline movie, the Ioniq Plug-in petrol-electric hybrid exudes more than a hint of entrée alongside its Electric sibling’s culinary smorgasbord. Why not just go for the main?

Hyundai’s head-first dive into low-to-zero emissions vehicles is ambitious, with a pair of ‘taster’ electrified Ioniqs for buyers uncertain and/or anxious about committing to the full Ioniq Electric EV experience.

And fair enough. As Hyundai’s Prius, the starter Hybrid from $33,990 brings a 77kW/147Nm 1.6 petrol/six-speed dual-clutch transmission internal combustion engine (ICE) combo with 32kW/170Nm electric motor and 1.56kWh battery assistants, for a 3.4L/100km average. It never runs electrically – unlike in the $41K Plug-in, using the same ICE powertrain but a larger (44kW/170Nm) electric motor and 8.9kWh battery, for up to 63km of EV driving, before switching to petrol (and just 1.1L/100km). Both have total system outputs of 104kW.

Mirroring the successful Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, it is possible to commute daily in pure-EV mode, as long as the Plug-in is fully charged (up to five hours on a household plug) at the outset. The ICE will kick in when the HEV button is selected or ‘Sport’ is accessed, helping recharge along the way.

All good so far, especially as the Plug-in’s EV performance is surprisingly eager given the modest output; additionally, the steering is responsive (if remote in feel), with similar handling and roadholding control to the related i30 hatch – further normalising the electrification experience. However, stiff suspension, an unsettled ride and omnipresent droning from the (multi-link) rear end erode the Ioniq’s refinement qualities.

Furthermore, spirited driving drains the volts pretty quickly, and when the ICE does kick in, there’s even more mechanical cacophony to assault ears hitherto lulled into an electric serenity – though the accompanying extra acceleration (and about 900km combined range) is appreciated.

The thing is, for only $4000 more, there’s the nearsilent, torquey smoothness of the potent Electric, while still offering 230km of real-world range; the EV is just as spacious and comfy inside, but brings a less mundane dash, gaining electronic transmission controls, flash instruments and stop-and-go adaptive cruise control capability, while ditching the Plug-in’s foot-operated park brake. It simply feels more special inside. And the (torsion beam) rear suspension seems both more absorbent and better-isolated.

The Plug-in, then, is a capable if flawed gateway EV of questionable value, lacking the charming and enjoyable Electric’s more rounded capabilities. Good as it is, if you’re this close, cut the ICE umbilical cord and savour the superior EV experience the allbattery Ioniq offers.

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

SPECS

Model Hyundai Ioniq plug-in

Engine 1580cc in-line 4cyl, dohc, 16v + electric motor

Battery 8.9kWh lithium-ion

Max power 104kW

Max torque 265Nm

Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch

L/W/H/WB 4470/1820/1450/2700mm

Weight 1495kg

0-100km/h 11.1sec (claimed)

Consumption 4.5L/100km (claimed)

Claimed electric range 63km

Plug standard CCS

Price $40,990

On sale Now

• Friendly design inside and out; huge range; pure EV capability

• Busy ride; noise/refinement issues; dull interior

Isn’t it Ioniq?

Created to rival the US-focused Prius Prime plug-in (unavailable in Oz), Ioniq Plug-in development trailed the Hybrid and Electric by a year, as Hyundai debated the need for it. While bettering its siblings with nearly 900km of combined range, the Plug-in is heaviest, has the smallest cargo capacity (at 341L versus 350 for Electric and 456L for Hybrid) and is slowest to 100km/h at 11.1s (versus 10.8s for Hybrid and 9.9s for Electric).

THERE’S a school of thought that plug-in hybrids are merely tech for ditherers. Drive one on battery power and it’s lugging a dead anvil under its bonnet. Likewise, drive it on liquid hydrocarbons and you’re hauling around a bilgeful of battery ballast. For the purist, a plug-in hybrid is a mealy-mouthed, worst of both worlds fudge. They’re right as well.

The annoying part of this – for those hooked on dogma at least – is that for a small percentage of Australians, they work. Sales of the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV have proven this fact. Yet enumerating the benefits of such cars – and the Outlander PHEV is a hefty $20K more than its solely petrol-powered counterpart – brings us back to intangibles to justify the purchase. Factor in fuel, residuals, insurance, servicing and everything else and Mitsubishi’s PHEV still can’t make the numbers.

So why should we buy them? There’s certainly a relaxing serenity to commuting on battery power alone, knowing that should charge drop to zero, a flatbed isn’t in your immediate future. Then there’s the addictive urge of battery plus petrol in a car like the Volvo XC60 T8. The subtle differences in how the tech is leveraged make plug-in hybrids fascinating. The purists may well rail against them, but if you’re prepared to pay for the privilege, cakes can be had as well as eaten.

Mercedes-Benz E350e

Electrified executive sedan plays placeholder before the EQ onslaught

THE MERCEDES-Benz E350e isn’t an obvious choice for customers wanting to transition from burning hydrocarbons to consuming electrons.

The problem lies with its battery pack. Of this group, it has the smallest capacity and the lowest claimed EV range, meaning it struggles to excel as a genuine halfway house between conventional internal combustion power and electric propulsion, despite the motor’s impressive 60kW and 440Nm outputs.

Perhaps, then, its best to think of it as a vehicle that caters to established mercedes-Benz buyers looking to slash their fuel bills.

The E350e is the most fuel-efficient E-Class available, with a claimed consumption of just 2.4L/100km. It achieves this with a combination of a 155kW/350Nm 2.0-litre four-pot turbo-petrol, and the aforementioned electric motor and battery. With combined outputs of 210kW and 550Nm, the E350e is capable of 0-100km/h of 6.2 seconds.

Mercedes claims the E350e can travel 30km on battery power alone, but during our testing, the trip computer estimated we would achieve only 23 kilometres of fully electric travel. Driving predominantly on the highway at 100km/h, while using climate control, we achieved just that, almost to the metre.

According to the ABS, the average Australian has a commute of 16km from home to work. Using this as a guide, and our real-world experience, a typical Aussie with an E350e will hear the Merc’s 2.0-litre turbo fire roughly nine kilometres from home.

With a $132,500 sticker price, the E350e isn’t cheap; that’s about $40K more than the entry E200 and $8K short of the twin-turbo V6 E400. If its main task is preparing customers for more electrified models, it’s a clever pricing strategy from Mercedes-Benz Australia.

Other than the boot space reduction to 400 litres (from 540L in non-hybrid variants) due to the lithium-ion battery, the E350e operates much in the same way as a regular E-Class sedan.

The nine-speed torque-converter auto sends power exclusively to the rear wheels, and is silky smooth on upshifts in both electric and conventional drive modes. However, the system can be puzzlingly abrupt on downshifts when using regenerative braking alone to scrub off speed.

With air suspension as standard, the ride in the E350e is composed and cosseting, and with the battery fully charged, highway driving is a comfortable, wafting experience.

The E350e is a fine way for Mercedes-Benz customers to dip their toes in the electrified pool without getting a shock. One that, with some bigger batteries from the EQ parts bin, could only become more compelling.

CAMERON KIRBY

SPECS

Model Mercedes-Benz E350e

Engine 1991cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo + electric motor

Battery 6.2kWh lithium-ion

Max power 210kW

Max torque 550Nm

Transmission 9-speed automatic

L/W/H/WB 4926/1852/1474/2939

Weight 1925kg

0-100km/h 6.2sec (claimed)

Consumption 2.4L/100km

Claimed electric range 30km

Plug Type 2

Price $132,500

On sale Now

• Comfortable ride on air suspension; affordable home charging system; typical E-Class luxury

• Limited electric range; clunky downshifts when using regenerative braking

Charging for home

When you buy an E350e, Mercedes-Benz supplies the plugs and adapters required to charge the car from a socket at home. However, for $1850 (not including installation), you can have a fast charging 2.5kWh wallbox, which is claimed to cut charging time from just over three hours to 90 minutes. The 48-volt system is stackable, with customers able to purchase additional units to create a 20kWh charger.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Australia’s plug-in poster child ... with good reason

ONE of capitalism’s more insidious assertions is that all that is popular is inherently worthy. The fact that ‘Call Me Maybe’ by Carly Rae Jepsen went nine times platinum here is all the evidence you need to torpedo that argument. Therefore, Mitsubishi’s claim that it shifts as many Outlander PHEVs as the rest of Australia’s plug-in market put together doesn’t, in and of itself, float our boats. If, during 2018, you had fifty-odd grand to spend on a plug-in hybrid with more space than a compact hatch, here’s the longlist: Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. That’s it.

Therefore it comes as a refreshing revelation to discover that the Outlander PHEV is not awful. In fact, it’s genuinely likeable. Talented even. When the battery is charged, it dips in and out judiciously in hybrid mode, making an agreeably alien noise in the process that certainly lets you know that you’re not just driving an internal combustion vehicle. The steering is better than any of the EVs we had in this test, offering crisp turnin which combines with sharp pick-up that’ll have you jinking through tight corners and jetting out the other side assisted by all-wheel drive electric torque. Six levels of regenerative braking are available via the paddles.

The 12kWh lithium-ion battery is bigger than you get in a $100K Volvo XC60 T8 and delivers more range. Mitsubishi reckons 54 kilometres; we managed 47 on test with a little to spare, so that’s not entirely outlandish. Recharging takes five hours on a standard household plug or 3.5 hours if you install a dedicated home charger.

Aside from the self-explanatory Pure EV mode, the Outlander PHEV can also be driven in Series Hybrid and Parallel Hybrid modes. Series Hybrid mode activates when the battery charge is low or when more power is required for a burst of acceleration. In this mode the engine runs to charge the battery, which then provides power to the wheels. In Parallel Hybrid mode the engine drives the wheels directly, coming to life when the battery is empty. Onboard software will automatically select the optimum drive mode – and it usually makes a good fist of things – but should you wish to override these modes there are mode buttons on the centre console.

Downsides? You’ll lose the third row of seats; that real estate now housing an on-board charger and the control unit for the rear motor. Then there’s the fact that when the battery is depleted the 2.0-litre lump can sound a bit gruff, and the interior isn’t the final word in elegant materials integration. But less than fifty grand for a sizeable dual electric motor SUV that’s decent to drive and comes with a five-year warranty? The Outlander PHEV deserves its popularity and then some.

ANDY ENRIGHT

SPECS

Model Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Engine 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v + 2 x electric motors

Battery 12kWh lithium-ion

Max power 120kW

Max torque 332Nm

Transmission single-speed reduction gear

L/W/H/WB 4695/1800/1710/2670mm

Weight 1860kg

0-100km/h 10.3sec (claimed)

Consumption 1.7L/100km (claimed)

Claimed electric range 54km

Plug standard CCS & CHAdeMO

Price $45,990 – $53,990

On sale Now

• Great value; loads of gear; drives well in hybrid mode

• Third row gets the chop; not sexy; unrefined engine

Remote control

Spring for the range-topping Exceed trim level and the Outlander PHEV can be marshalled via a smartphone app. This allows you to set up charging times at home to take advantage of low-cost off-peak electricity, and pre-condition the vehicle so that it’s air conditioned to perfection when you get in. It also informs you of the remaining charge time, so that if you’re charging the vehicle on a public charger, you’ll know whether you need to chug your flat white or kick back and order a refill.

Volvo XC60 T8

Polished performer that offers a light spritz of charge

THERE were some who disagreed with the XC60 winning last year’s Wheels Car of the Year. But then there are some who believe the earth is flat, that you can buy Ray Bans for $15 by sharing a Facebook ad and that vaccines rather than dud genes are responsible for their dullard kids. The most awarded car in the history of ever is at its most imperious in range-topping T8 plug-in hybrid guise. Fitted with the obligatory optional air suspension, it’s a car with plenty of strings to its bow.

Were we nitpicking, we’d probably like a little more pure EV range than the 35km maximum that the onboard computer shows which, like all batteries, gets better in warm weather. When the battery is depleted, you’re basically left with an XC60 T6 carrying 200kg of dead weight. Switching the XC60 into charge mode while you’re on the move will recharge the relatively small 10.4kWh lithium-ion battery in about an hour of suburban driving, but it does so at some cost, fuel consumption climbing to around 16L/100km in the process. In order to get anywhere near Volvo’s 2.1L/100km claim, you need to cover relatively short commutes and not tax the 2.0-litre four-pot too severely.

Fuel consumption is also dented on longer drives in Hybrid mode, where the battery depletes fairly quickly and the engine is left to pick up a proportionally higher percentage of the burden. We averaged around 8.5L/100km on longer drives, although editor Inwood’s six-month tenure with a T8 saw him average just under 5.0L/100km with diligent charging, a measured right boot and a commute that leaned more on volts than 98RON.

A full charge for the battery takes three hours when using a 16-amp mains electricity supply, four hours with a 10-amp supply or seven hours if using the standard six-amp plug. The battery is neatly housed in what would ordinarily be the transmission tunnel. Locating the battery along the centre line of the car and not under the floor means that neither ground clearance nor boot space are compromised. The fuel tank is a measly 50 litres, though.

Priced at just $14K more than the conventionally powered XC60 T6, the T8 will appeal to those who enjoy the idea of never seeing a servo during the week. It also offers a notable performance uptick, the T6’s outputs of 235kW/400Nm being trounced by the T8’s 300kW/640Nm. That in itself will be enough for some. The XC60 was always a class act, and the T8 adds a glittering array of intriguing facets yet brandishes its PHEV ability lightly.

ANDY ENRIGHT

SPECS

Model Volvo XC60 T8

Engine 1969cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo + supercharger + electric motor

Battery 10.4kWh lithium-ion

Max power 300kW

Max torque 640Nm

Transmission 8-speed automatic

L/W/H/WB 4688/1902/1658/2865mm

Weight 2174kg

0-100km/h 5.3sec (claimed)

Consumption 2.1L/100km (claimed)

Electric range 40km (claimed)

Plug standard CCS

Price $92,990

On sale Now

• Beautiful inside; good value; clever plug-in integration

• Needs air springs; tiny fuel tank; battery also too small

Generation B

Glance down at the XC60 T8’s stubby glass gear shifter and as well as the park button and the standard reverse, neutral and drive detents, there’s the somewhat cryptic ‘B’ setting at the base of the shift gate. This is, in effect, a modestly increased regen mode, although why it’s there and not in the menu screen alongside the Charge and Hold settings is anyone’s guess. It’s great on downslopes, giving a welcome shot of battery recharge, but it’s too mild to be a genuine one-pedal mode.