New plug-in technology available in many 2016 German models

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Various German luxury car models are offering new plug-in technology for driving efficiency in 2016. (KABC)

Various German luxury car models are offering new plug-in technology for driving efficiency in 2016.

For 2016, you can get a very efficient version of BMW's X5 SUV. No, it's not a diesel. Rather, it plugs in.

Its official name is the X5 xDrive 40e, a gas-electric hybrid that can also run on pure battery power. Part of a growing trend in the German auto industry, this is a vehicle that can behave like a pure electric car (or EV) for short distances but has an engine for longer driving range.

BMW and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say the xDrive40e is good for 14 miles of pure electric travel, and the overall MPGe figure is 56. "MPGe" is an EPA standard for adding the regular gasoline mileage with the range of pure electric driving.

Audi is in this game too for 2016 with the new A3 Sportback e-tron. It uses a 1.4-liter gasoline engine with a hybrid system, and plug-in capability.

It's all wrapped up in a small 5-door hatchback design. Electric driving range for the Audi is 17 miles, and the MPGe figure is 86 (with the Ultra version). I charged the vehicle several times, and the range estimator was actually showing 22-23 miles each time, so the EPA estimates could be a bit on the conservative side.

Mercedes-Benz is getting on board with trend too by offering a plug-in hybrid version of their big S-class sedan. Plug-in range for the S550e is 14 miles, and the MPGe figure is 58.

Generally, the plug-in driving range with these vehicles is around 20 miles, give or take a few. That may not seem like much compared to a pure electric vehicle, but for many people's lifestyles, it could be just enough for short trips as a way to save gasoline and reduce carbon output.

The brands that make these are investing in developing the technology as government-mandated fuel economy standards keep tightening.

In Southern California, some people like to boast that they bought some kind of car that plugs in and can run on electricity.

Of course, it's happening in Europe as well. Volkswagen sells the GTE model there; a sporty, compact car with plug-in technology. It's like VW's popular GTI model, but it's a plug-in hybrid, sharing components with the Audi e-tron.

There was no official word from VW as to whether they might decide to sell it here, but after the diesel cheating scandal that began last fall, they're obviously looking into other solutions for increasing fuel economy.

The big picture is those MPGe figures. Automakers need to work their way toward much higher fuel economy standards in the coming years. Adding short-range battery power to a gasoline vehicle is one way to accomplish that.
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