New Audi A3 TFSIe and Volkswagen Golf GTE vs Mercedes A250e
These plug-in hybrid family hatchbacks may be upmarket, but they promise bargain-basement running costs. Let’s see which is the best buy...
NEW Audi A3 40 TFSIe S line
List price £34,960
Target Price £33,333
In its latest incarnation, Audi’s plug-in family hatch gets a new name and an improved electric-only range; we’re testing it in the cheaper of the two available guises.
Mercedes A-Class A250e AMG Line Premium
List price £35,980
Target Price £34,133
One of our favourite plug-in hybrids, with the longest official electric range here and a striking interior. The car to beat.
NEW Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI GTE
List price £36,010
Target Price £35,304
Plug-in version of the latest Golf is the most powerful car here and matches its Audi A3 stablemate for official electric-only range.
When you get towards the end of your mobile phone contract, you’ll no doubt start perusing replacements, marvelling at their dazzling displays, crystal-clear cameras and the promise of increased battery life. The smartphone market certainly seems to move at a much faster rate than the car world, which usually offers only incremental improvements to performance, fuel economy and space.
However, with their far greater reliance on the kind of tech that makes your iPhone tick, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) are relevant to a greater number of people with each passing generation, using a combination of a small petrol engine, an electric motor and a battery that can be topped up via mains electricity to eke out potentially incredible fuel economy and drastically reduce running costs.
Take the Volkswagen Golf GTE, for instance: when it was introduced back in 2014, its official electric-only range was 31 miles. Skip forward seven years and that’s now 40 miles – enough to not only cut your fuel bills but also drop the GTE into the tempting 6% tax bracket for company car drivers.
The 241bhp GTE previously had a pricier sibling in the shape of the Audi A3 e-tron, but because the ‘e-tron’ moniker is now reserved for fully electric models, the latest plug-in version of Audi’s family hatch goes by the name of TFSIe. It also has an all-electric range of 40 miles, provided you stick to 17in wheels (standard on Sport and a no-cost option on S line), but there’s a choice of power outputs. We’re testing the 201bhp 40 TFSIe, rather than the 242bhp 45 TFSIe.
Although Mercedes joined the PHEV hatchback game later than its rivals, it’s certainly made up for lost time with the A250e version of the A-Class. In fact, it has a longer official electric range than the others, promising up to 45 miles on a charge. It isn’t as powerful as the Golf, but, with 215bhp, it has the measure of the A3. Of course, numbers don’t paint the whole picture, so it’s a good thing we’re here to put the trio through their paces.
Performance, ride, handling, refinement
Seeing as we’ve just rattled off a load of horsepower ratings, let’s start with performance. All three have electric motors with more than 100bhp, so even when you’re running in electric mode, acceleration is adequate in most situations and they’re reasonably nippy away from the lights. You can easily hit the motorway speed limit on electricity alone in all three, too, although high-speed driving is one of the quickest ways to drain the batteries.
With both power sources working together, the Golf proved quickest, clocking up a 0-60mph time of 6.8sec in wet conditions, despite being hampered by either overly intrusive electronic intervention or wheelspin. Of course, the Golf would have been quicker in the dry, but even then it’s surprisingly easy to spin the front wheels if, say, you need to pull out of an intersection briskly.
The A3 and A-Class weren’t too far behind, managing 0-60mph in 7.2sec and 7.3sec respectively, although in most situations the latter is the quicker of the two. That’s because while the A3 finds impressive traction away from the mark, the A-Class delivers stronger acceleration above 30mph; it isn’t too far behind the Golf once the tyres find some bite.
We suspect, though, that you’re more curious about real-world battery range than performance. Unfortunately, temperatures on the day of our test were close to freezing – far from ideal for battery performance, especially with the cars’ interiors heated to a toasty 21deg C. The Golf’s battery was fully depleted after just 19.3 miles, followed by the A3’s at 20.8 miles and A-Class’s at 22.2 miles. You’ll get farther on a warm, sunny day, but don’t expect to achieve anything like the official figures.
While you’ll find the A3 and Golf easy to drive smoothly whether you’re in electric mode or the petrol engine is running, the A-Class requires you to put in extra effort to avoid jerkiness, due to its inconsistent brake pedal feel and the way the electric motor and petrol engine interact with the automatic gearbox. The A-Class also has the rowdiest engine, sounding like a demented hand drier under hard acceleration, although the car does settle down to the quietest motorway cruise, with the other cars generating, in particular, more road noise.
So, what about comfort? The A-Class is the softest-riding car here, something that’s a boon on the motorway, where it lopes along gently. At lower speeds, it cushions you well from undulations, albeit with the loosest body control, but sharper shocks such as potholes aren’t rounded off as adroitly as in the other two.
The A3 has firmer suspension, so you always feel more of the road’s surface. However, you won’t get any nasty surprises thumping up at you and it controls unwanted body movements far better than the A-Class while staying composed on the motorway.
With optional DCC adaptive dampers (£785) fitted, the Golf’s suspension can be slackened off to be almost as soft as the A-Class yet actually more comfortable; it deals with sharp shocks better and gives you the option of stiffening things up for better body control.
Not that the Golf dominates in corners. Regardless of which driving mode (and therefore steering weight) you’ve selected, the steering suddenly gets a lot quicker as you approach a quarter of a turn. That’s great when you’re parking but takes some getting used to at higher speeds. The A-Class has much slower steering, but it responds more naturally and gives you a better idea of what the front tyres are up to, while the A3 has the best steering of the lot, with the most natural weighting and predictable response.
Even with the Golf’s suspension firmed right up, it’s the A3 that proves the most agile, thanks in part to it having the most grip but also because there isn’t much body lean. The Golf is more prone to running wide of your chosen line through a corner, while the A-Class generates the least grip in the wet and is the least tidy during quick direction changes. It takes the longest to stop from 70mph, too.
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