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The Plug-In Hybrid that works

Plug-in hybrids, a blessing or a curse? That's always the big question when considering the halfway-house between combustion engine cars and full EVs.

In this review, we want to talk about a hybrid that works in the real world. Not only as a manner to improve efficiency, but also to (literally) boost the performance figures. The culprit is the new Audi Q5 in plug-in hybrid form, or more precisely the Audi Q5 Sportback 55 TFSIe S-line. That's a full 27 characters for a name that just describes the basic components of the car.

Let's start this review by deciphering the entire 27 characters. Q5 Sportback means that it's a mid-size family SUV that takes on the looks of a Coupé to look more sporty. It has been quite the trend to slope the back end of tall crossovers to give them a more premium look and sporty edge. Everyone seems to do it nowadays. The 55 are just random numbers describing the trim level in the Q5 powertrain lineup, and it's the highest number! But the important part is yet to come; TFSIe means that the Q5 gets a turbocharged 2.0l four-cylinder engine coupled to an electric motor. In total it produces 367 horsepower and an astonishing 500nm of torque. The time has come when regular family SUVs stroll around with more than 500nm. Audi claims the sprint from 0 - 100km/h to be undertaken in under 5.3 seconds.

And as always, the battery figures and claimed electric range. The full battery capacity stands at just over 14 kWh and should take you around 40km on electric power alone. In that sense, most hybrids are pretty similar. A small electric range coupled with a small and efficient engine with a limited electric range. What could be different about this one then? The answer lies in how the Q5 Hybrid manages the balance between electric and gas-driven propulsion.

First of all, the Q5 Hybrid seems to utilize all of the components as efficiently as possible under acceleration. The second you put your foot down, the entire car squats backward due to the high torque figure, and what comes next is a continuous powerband that takes you closer to jail time as the numbers go up. Apart from the Polestar 1 (that has 1000nm), we have never felt this kind of acceleration in a hybrid; you feel like the electric motors are overpowering the regular combustion engine, in a good way.

The in-built computer also always seems to know what kind of propulsion you want at any given moment. There are three basic modes on how the battery is managed in a hybrid: hold, charge, and hybrid. In hold, only the combustion engine is used to save electricity for later use, thus the battery is not being drained. During charge, the combustion engine is used to charge up the battery during operation, but in return, the economy is worsened due to higher fuel consumption to charge the battery. The most favorable setting is hybrid, where the combustion engine and electric motor work in harmony to give you the optimal fuel economy. Most of the time, you want the two components to operate at their most optimal speed; the electric motor is most efficient at speeds of 50-60 km/h and the combustion engine is most efficient at 100-120km/h. In short, this means that you want to use electricity during in-town driving and gas during motorway driving.

In other hybrids, you constantly have to change driving modes to suit the current conditions but the Q5 Hybrid just does it for you. We very rarely had to manually interfere. Most manufacturers say that the computer will do it for you, but please: if you're on the motorway doing 120km/h and the computer decides that electric power is best, some things are not adding up. In a sense, this is the most annoying part about hybrids, the whole fuzzing around with the buttons just to tell your car which engine it should be using. For most commutes, this is not a problem. For most of us, a run to the shops or work lies entirely within the electric range of most hybrids. But 40km (in the case of the Q5) isn't much. Even for regular commutes, the battery will be drained quickly and you'll have to plug it in again. So if you have a longer commute, you want both components to be used as efficiently as possible. In the case of the Q5 Hybrid, Audi has succeeded.

Another thing Audi has done well is the styling. In general, Audi takes effort to put style and functionality in the same basket. For example (for the Sportback model) small fins around the back window to improve aerodynamic efficiency but just the slightest amount. With the S-line trim, the whole look of the car is spiced up with red performance brakes, black accents, larger wheels, and a rear deck spoiler. The appearance of the car is enhanced but still discreet. Coupled with district-green metallic paint, the Q5 becomes a whole lot sexier!

Our most preferred environment didn't include the motorway, busy city streets, or the open countryside, it was the snow. Luckily for us, it was the end of November when we picked up our press car. So that meant a lot of fun in the snow! The S-line package also includes air suspension, which can alternate the ride height according to which drive mode is selected. This is very handy in deep snow to clear the underside of the car. The Q5 was an absolute blast in the snow, with the hybrid components helping to keep traction. Also, the added weight of the low-mounted batteries helped to keep the car on track in slippery conditions. Dynamically, the Q5 was very easy to maneuver in the snow.

In summary, the Q5 Sportback 55 TFSIe is an excellent hybrid that turns the normally would-be drawbacks of a hybrid into an opportunity to differentiate itself from other hybrids in its class. A drawback that remains is the slow charging speed. Charging is limited to 3.7kW, thus charging overnight will be the fastest way to put juice back into the battery. One other thing that might shy away potential customers is the price. Our press car, which didn't have a panoramic sunroof or electronically adjustable seats, still sets you back 106k CHF. WOW! The choice is yours.


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