OF ALL THE PLUG-IN HYBRIDS ON SALE, AUDI'S A3 E-TRON PRESENTS THE BEST CASE FOR EV MOTORING WITH A BIT OF FLAIR.
It challenges preconceived notions that hybrids are boring and doesn’t wave the “greenie” flag about by its styling. Technically, it doesn’t have any direct competitors, but there are others about (like the Outlander PHEV) that offer something similar under the bonnet, but fall short of the style and finish of the Audi.
Attractive looks, a beautiful interior, and hybrid-electric driving with small-car practicality means the A3 e-tron is entirely usable as everyday transport, but the price is what will keep most people at bay.
Vehicle Style: Small premium hatch
Price: $62,490 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 110kW/250Nm 1.4-litre 4cyl petrol, 70kW/330kW electric motor (150kW/350Nm combined) | 6spd DSG
Fuel Economy claimed: 1.6 l/100km | tested: 6.5 l/100km
Mention the word “hybrid” to most, and the Toyota Prius is the first car which comes to mind. And along with that image comes the stigma of soulless driving... the idea that you’ve bought your car as an appliance that helps clean up the world.
The A3 Sportback e-tron is here to set the record straight. It looks normal, is enjoyable to drive and still saves you money at the bowser. And for the tech-heads among us, there’s plenty of stuff to pore over.
It’s distinguished from the regular A3 Sportback by a unique grille, multi-spoke wheels and the same stepped accents in the outer bumper intakes (which are blanked off) as the S3 Sportback. In truth, it’s not a lot, and trainspotters will probably be the only ones to pick it from an A3.
But, at almost $26k more than the A3 1.4 TFSI on which it’s based, are you going to save that much fuel? Or should you just spend $43,200 and buy the A3 2.0 diesel? We snuck behind the wheel of this silent runner for a week to see what "the go" is.
Quality: Audi has built this car. That’s pretty much all that needs to be said. And for a small hatch to cost the better part of $62K, you should expect a nice interior.
The e-tron builds on the already nice A3 interior, adding full leather and the full-fruit trimmings that you’d expect. With top-shelf plastics, soft-touch surfaces and a slick, stowable infotainment screen, the interior looks and feels excellent.
Comfort: If you’ve ever experienced a regular A3, then the e-tron’s seats will be familiar territory. Shaping and bolstering are all excellent, and even the back seat has enough room for most passengers, though three across can be a little squishy.
Equipment: As you’d expect for a car in this price range, there’s plenty of included standard equipment.
LED headlights are standard, as is reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, self-parking steering, Bluetooth audio and telephony, USB charging and iPod connection.
Audi’s MMI interface brings sat-nav, digital radio, DVD player with MP3 playback, two SD-card readers, voice control, customisable vehicle settings and driving info.
Dual-zone climate is standard, as is rain-sensing wipers, auto headlights, cruise control, keyless entry and start.There are two “fuel” gauges as well – one for your petrol level and the other how much charge you have stored.
You’ll also get a charging point installed at your house (though connection to mains costs extra) meaning you can keep the other charger in the car for using at work or at charge points around the city.
Storage: The e-tron is a carbon copy of the A3 Sportback inside, so you’ll still get the same uncovered cupholders in the centre console, angled door bins for the front and very small door pockets in the back. The back seat also has a drop-down section revealing two more cupholders.
Under the boot you won’t find the usual spare, as the fuel tank has been shifted from under the seats (to make way for the batteries) to under the boot floor.
What this has done is raise the boot floor, so you lose out on 100 litres of space compared with the standard A3. Still, the 280 litres on offer allows for bags of shopping and even a suitcase if need be.
ON THE ROAD
Driveability: After fully charging the A3 e-tron, starting it is as simple as pressing the start button. In every respect, operating it is exactly like a standard car.
Put it into drive, release the electric park break and enjoy the silence of running on no petrol.
In pure electric mode, you’re limited to a top speed of 130kmh, but call on the petrol engine and that raises to 222kmh.
There are four driving modes to choose from, all activated from the EV button on the dash.
Hybrid Auto acts like a regular hybrid, switching between petrol and electric modes depending on load conditions. Hybrid Hold maintains the amount of electric charge in the battery by running mostly in petrol mode.
Hybrid Charge does what the name suggests and more aggressively utilises the petrol motor’s torque and regenerative braking to charge up the battery system, while EV mode runs the car purely as an electric vehicle.
Audi claims a range of 920km from a combined full charge and full tank of juice. In pure EV mode, you’ll scrape in at 50km range (we found about 48km was the limit), but you have to drive fairly conservatively and even have a few downhill runs to realistically achieve this.
The strong acceleration in full EV mode is unnerving, mainly due to the silence.
The only clue to the electric workings underneath is a faint whine as the engines spool up. And with 330Nm on tap, there’s heaps of torque to get you threading through city streets.
Thankfully, the system runs through the six-speed dual-clutch transmission and maintains stepped changes, feeling so much more like a standard passenger car, just without the engine noise.
Run it with the petrol engine (such as Hybrid Charge mode) and everything feels completely normal, even down to the stop-start at traffic lights. But you will need to utilise the petrol engine to get its fastest turn of speed.
Under normal acceleration, it’s happy to amble along using electric power, but at a certain point at the end of the pedal travel you can feel a click, and the petrol engine will kick in, hitting triple digits in 7.6 seconds from rest.
This combines both the petrol and electric motors for a combined output of 150kW and 350Nm. Not bad for something that doesn't claim to be a hot hatch.
But is it economical? The sticker figures say it is, with a combined average consumption on the ADR cycle of 1.6L/100km. But what about in the real world? And what if you're not disciplined enough to keep plugging it in every night? Well, that’s why we ran this test.
It’s very simple to practice “good plug-in” each time you arrive home at night. And given you don't work more than 25km from home (the round trip taking you up to your 50km limit), conceivably you could leave the charge cable in one location instead of taking it with you.
Work a bit further away, or forget to plug in at home and you'lll be dipping into your petrol for backup. Either that, or you need to remember to pack up your charger each time, and that can be a real nuisance.
So, we decided to see what the worst case scenario was. Start the week on a full charge and simply let the system take care of the rest. It required a few flicks between various modes, mostly between EV and Hybrid Charge, and it also required a little bit of planning ahead. Knowing the terrain and the traffic conditions.
Still, even with a few hundred kilometres of running around in exclusively city conditions, we still managed to get 6.5-litres/100km. Not bad, considering it weighs a lot more than a standard A3 Sportback and was driven fairly hard.
But here’s the kicker – remember to plug it in each night and you could theoretically not have to pay for fuel at all. However, if you’re taking in long journeys on a regular basis, then perhaps the diesel A3 will be a better fit.
Refinement: With large wheels, there’s still a bit of road noise on rougher tarmac, but in city driving, the silence of the electric drive means it’s literally whisper quiet.
Even when the petrol engine comes in, it’s never rough, however acceleration can be a bit snatchier as the swap between two drivelines happens. On the whole, though, the e-tron is smooth and very quiet.
Ride and Handling: Carrying an extra couple of hundred kilos over the donor car is clearly going to have an effect, but with the battery packs being mounted low, the balance is still there.
It’s happy to be shown a corner, as its firm ride attests, but it’s not unpleasant - just solid.
The steering is light, but fairly muted in feel, however it is accurate and you can easily pick tight lines if giving things a bit of (ahem) "urgency" up a winding road.
Braking: With regenerative braking, it certainly feels different to most cars through the pedal. You can feel the drag from the system as soon as you start applying the brakes, but after a few stops you learn to modulate your pressure to account for it.
Really stomp on it and it’ll have the blood rushing to your eyeballs, pulling up very quickly indeed. Its extra weight does count against it however with several hard stops bringing a slightly softer pedal.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - This model scored 36.41 out of a possible 37 points.
Safety features: The A3 e-tron has dual frontal, side-chest and side-head curtain airbags and a driver knee airbag as standard. ABS, EBD and ESC is also standard. The reversing camera and parking sensors also help.
You can opt for the Assistance Package, which brings autonomous braking, radar cruise control, lane assist and blind spot warnings for $1990.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Audi’s standard three year/unlimited kilometre warranty applies, as well as three years roadside assistance included.
Service costs: With the Audi’s service plan, the cost is the same across the A3 range. At $1680, the first three years of scheduled services are taken care of.
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY
BMW i3 plus RE ($69,900) – With a cleverly packaged and very well built city car, BMW has the e-tron directly in its sights in the i3.
Its chassis is high tech, it has a greater range and has a far more modern interior. Add that to double (sometimes triple) the electric range and the e-tron is starting to look a bit left behind.
Audi counters by being cheaper as well as blending into the crowd more. (see i3 reviews)
Lexus CT200H Sports Luxury ($54,990) – The most popular car in terms of pure hybrid configuration is a Prius, and with Lexus using it as the basis for the CT200H, you get reliable transport with a far nicer interior. Unlike the i3, e-tron and Leaf, there’s no plug-in option, meaning you’ll never get it to a zero consumption figure, (see CT200H reviews)
Nissan Leaf ($39,990) – Nissan’s EV is a pure electric vehicle, which means that without charge points, it will never have the range of the e-tron. It’s definitely cheaper, though and will never cost you a drop of fuel. (see Leaf reviews)
Note: all prices are Manufacturer’s List Price and do not include dealer delivery or on-road costs.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
As a demonstration of how PHEVs can be practical, luxurious and technologically advanced, the A3 e-tron is superb. But you have to be dedicated to charging it up each day if you are to reach its economy claims.
However, as a city runabout that doesn’t ram its economy and green credentials down everyone’s throat (like the styling of some hybrids), this is a neat little unit.
As soon as it starts dipping in to its petrol tank, it’s not any more efficient than a standard A3, and indeed, if you’re doing a lot of country runs to visit the family and require some overtaking grunt, then the A3 Sportback e-tron isn’t going to fit your lifestyle.
We’d suggest pocketing the $20k difference and look at a diesel A3 instead.
It’s torquey, efficient, and, counting that money in your wallet, and rising electricity prices, the diesel option will pay for a lot of power, or fuel – whichever way you look at it.
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