Audi A3 Sportback e-tron Review

The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is the brand's first plug-in hybrid car. Matt Campbell finds out what it's like.

The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron may look like a regular run-of-the-mill A3 hatch, but it’s actually at the cutting edge of car technology.

The plug-in hybrid luxury hatch is the first of its kind for the Audi brand, and the first such hatchback in the small luxury car class where the A3 does battle against the BMW 1 Series, Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Lexus CT200h and Volvo V40.

Behind the four-ring badge on the chromed grille of the A3 e-tron is a plug-in point for its charge cable, with the socket sending power to an 8.8kWh battery pack situated below the rear seats.

For Aussie buyers, Audi says it will offer a “standard installation pack”, with a powerpoint to be installed in the owner’s intended parking place that will run from a separate circuit on the standard 10-amp, 240 volt output. Buyers will likely be able to get a quicker 15-amp plug at extra cost, but the A3 e-tron’s charge time of less than four hours from a standard plug means they probably won’t need it.

The location of the batteries low in the chassis means the petrol tank has had to be relocated to under the floor of the boot. . This does impact cargo capacity – instead of the standard 380 litres, the e-tron has 280L, which is still enough for a pair of overnight bags or a large suitcase, but not much else. There’s no spare wheel, only a repair kit in the side section

Up front is a 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, with a six-speed dual-clutch e-S tronic gearbox in between it and the batteries. The gearbox also features an electric motor, and, unlike most other EVs, it uses all six gears when sending power to the front wheels rather than a single gear for all situations.

Audi says the entire A3 e-tron drivetrain is capable of a maximum 150kW of power and 350Nm of torque – hot-hatch rivalling numbers that the company insists adds weight to the notion of this being a performance-oriented model as well as an EV and a regular car.

There are four modes available for the drivetrain, including EV (full electric), Auto (both petrol and electric available and usable depending on the conditions), Hold (petrol engine only, with batteries taken offline) and Charge (petrol engine used to power car and recharge batteries). These modes are accessed via the EV button on the dashboard, which is one of the only giveaways that you’re driving anything other than a standard A3 – the interior is finished to an excellent standard, and unlike purpose-built vehicles like the Holden Volt, comfort is top-notch for those in the front and the rear.

You can also select the desired mode by entering the MMI system, which also features extended capabilities and more detailed information about the status of charge of the battery, its range and more. This data can also be accessed by scrolling through the trip meter display on the instrument cluster, too. Audi offers a smartphone app powered by the Audi Connect system that allows owners to set the charge time and climate, but for Australian buyers that service won't be available.

The A3 e-tron’s claimed 0-100km/h sprint time of 7.4 seconds is less than a second more than the likes of the Volkswagen Golf GTI and even Audi’s A3 1.8 TFSI Quattro, which have claimed jump times of 6.5sec and 6.8sec respectively.

It all sounds convincing in principle, but how does it stack up? The answer is well. Actually, very well.

Our short 106-kilometre test drive in Vienna, Austria, included inner city, suburban, country and hilly roads, where we saw well above Audi’s beguiling fuel use claim of only 1.5 litres per 100km, recording an indicated average of 4.8L/100km. It was higher than expected, though it was explained to us – after we drove the car! – if we’d used Auto mode rather than Charge mode (which essentially turns the engine into a generator), our consumption would have been better.

That said, the drive loop wasn’t wholly representative of what most people will put their car through on a daily basis. Indeed, with a claimed 50km of EV range (which is a realistic number – we ran on batteries only for about 45km), potential customers may not use the petrol engine at all for their commute – particularly if their workplace has a powerpoint to hijack prior to the drive home.

We tested the full gamut of drive modes, including what Audi describes as “Boost” mode – when you plant your foot on the accelerator and both engine and electric motor combine for maximum power. There is enough grunt to push you back in your seat, and once the electric motor hits its limit the petrol engine cuts in. There’s a slight lunge at this point, but on the whole the transition is smooth.

In Auto mode, the switch between EV- and engine-driven is only decipherable by the noise of 1.4-litre buzzing to life. In any mode, the gearbox is smooth and relaxed, though still with a slight hesitancy from a standstill, no matter where the power is coming from. For speedsters there are paddleshifters, too.

Pure EV mode is accompanied only by a slight rumble of road noise and some wind noise from the side mirrors. Keener listeners will hear a whine from the electric motor, but it makes for a relaxing drive experience.

Speaking of the way the car drives, many punters wouldn’t pick the difference between the e-tron and a regular A3. The steering is still light but direct, with quick turn-in response and good usability in the city.

With the extra weight at the rear it would be reasonable to expect the car’s handling to be negatively impacted, but we found the 1540-kilogram A3 e-tron - which is 145kg heavier than the next weightiest front-drive A3 and 240kg heavier than the lightest version sold in Australia – actually felt quite good on the road.

As is the case with the regular models, the rear has four-link independent rear suspension and it certainly felt well settled and sorted across a range of different road conditions. Through corners, the car’s balance was good, while the Pirelli Cinturato P7 low rolling-resistance tyres (measuring 225/45/17) could squeal under stress. However, this didn’t affect the car’s levels of cornering grip.

The ride comfort was also impressive, with rough surfaces, potholes and speed breakers dealt with comfortably. We’ll have to reserve judgement for local roads for a definitive verdict, though.

Stopping power from the regenerative brakes was also commendable, with better feel and response than most other hybrids I’ve tested. Under heavy braking downhill there was some unwanted woodenness the further the pedal sunk to the floor, though.

So is the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron a success? In isolation, yes, it is.

However, given its expected price tag of just below $60,000, buyers will need to decide whether opting for the high-tech e-tron over one of the already frugal run-of-the-mill A3 models is worth it.