Audi CEO Rupert Stadler confirmed to Auto Express recently that he sees plug-in hybrids as Audi’s future, and this Audi A3 e-tron is the firm’s first production car to use the tech. In 2015, there’ll be an A6 e-tron followed by a Q7 e-tron and many more after that, so how is Audi’s plug-in future shaping up?
Slotted into the A3 Sportback’s body – tweaked for e-tron duty with a slim-sparred chrome grille, S-line bumpers and bespoke 17-inch alloys – is a 1.4-litre turbocharged engine. It develops an unremarkable 148bhp, and a disappointingly strained engine note given this car costs about as much as an S3. The clever bit, though, is the addition of a 101bhp electric motor integrated into the car’s six-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Altogether, the system generates 350Nm of torque – the same as a standard VW Golf GTI.
That’s enough to haul the front-drive A3 e-tron to 62mph in a respectable 7.6sec, and 138mph flat out. At first glance, the unavoidable 125kg penalty of the mid-mounted, low-set battery pack looks like a fun-killer, but it actually gives the A3 e-tron more even weight distribution than a typical diesel version. Plus, the new A3’s MQB platform saves up to 90kg of weight versus the previous model, so the e-tron’s 1540kg kerbweight, while porky for an A3, is far from shameful.
No A3 model (S3 hot hatch aside) is a true entertainer, majoring on grip, refinement and safety understeer before driver engagement, so the A3 e-tron’s extra mass isn’t a deal-breaker on challenging roads, given the familiarly light and accurate but numb steering, and sure-footed chassis. That said, the low-set driving position is spot on and the gratifying torque hit up to 80mph does make the A3 e-tron one of the more entertaining A3s.
The real play value comes in maximising fuel-range, however. A button on the A3’s centre console allows selection of pure EV or hybrid-running modes, plus a ‘charge save’ setting which leaves the battery alone in anticipation of urban running later in your journey. A fourth mode uses extra regen-braking to recharge the battery, and utlises the 1.4 engine as a battery-charging altenator. It sounds complex, but the beauty of the A3 e-tron for many will be its simplicity: just hop in, treat it like a normal automatic as Audi intended, and enjoy uncanny silence and superb fuel economy.
By assisting the petrol engine under hard acceleration, killing petrol power at urban speeds and relaxing both sources at a medium-speed cruise, the A3 e-tron makes wonderfully serene, effortless progress. The eco-figures are predictably staggering: 176mpg and 37g/km are a commuter’s dream, as is a 31-mile electric-only range with a top EV speed of 80mph. Forget the blue-sky thinking though and the A3 e-tron remains impressive in the real world. In a challenging mix of urban crawling, A-roads and everything inbetween, our test car indicated 64.2mpg. A full compliment of charge and fuel offered a calculated range of 526 miles.
The best-of-both-worlds numbers might worry A3 TDI fans that their choice is outmoded, but the e-tron’s Achilles heel is the high price of early technology adoption. Against its frugal diesel sisters, the A3’s UK price of £29,950 (after the plug-in £5000 grant is deducted) is steep, but for a car which crams so much intuitive yet sophisticated kit into an immaculately finished product, the e-tron justifies the outlay, even before running costs are considered. And if this is what e-tron can do for an A3, we can’t wait to see it on Audi’s more exciting models. A TT e-tron, anyone?