An airport runway on an island in the Great Barrier Reef isn’t a normal location for a car launch, but then the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron isn’t really a normal car.
The new petrol-electric plug-in hybrid A3 hatch is set to arrive in Australia in March 2015, but the vehicles we tested under the sunny skies of Hamilton Island were the same examples that were on location at the vehicle’s international launch in Austria in June.
The left-hand drive, pre-production A3 e-trons still wore German number plates, and while these vehicles aren’t perfectly representative of the finished product, they offered enough indication that the production model could be the new benchmark in plug-in hybrid motoring.
Building on the already impressive A3 hatchback, the e-tron features a high-tech hybrid drivetrain that combines a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine and an automatic six-speed dual-clutch transmission, with a 75kW electric motor sandwiched in between them that draws power from a bank of 8.8kWh lithium-ion batteries under the rear seat. Power goes only to the front wheels, with combined peak outputs of 150kW of power and 350Nm of torque.
The A3 Sportback e-tron is set to have a claimed combined cycle fuel use of 1.6 litres per 100 kilometres, making it one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the market alongside fellow plug-in models such as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (1.9L/100km claimed) and Holden Volt (1.2L/100km claimed). Audi claims the car will offer a total range of up to 940km from a full tank and full battery charge, while EV range is claimed at 50km.
Unlike the standard A3 which has its petrol tank packed under the rear seat, the e-tron’s sits under the floor of the boot. That means there’s no spare wheel available (a repair kit is offered as standard) and boot space is impacted due to the higher floor, dropping to 280 litres from the more useful 380L boot in the standard hatch.
We started our test in EV mode, which uses only the batteries to power the car. The A3 e-tron feels brisk from a standstill, but if you flatten the throttle it will call the petrol engine to action, introducing “boost mode” which results in punchier acceleration. Audi claims 7.6 seconds from 0-100km/h - considerably slower than the S3 hot-hatch (5.0sec) that also wears a $60K tag.
On lesser throttle it will remain EV-only, with the motor offering smooth power delivery and decent torque through the six-speed dual-clutch ‘box. Smooth is again the best word to describe the progress as it makes its way through the cogs in EV mode, though the shifts are more alert and aggressive in hybrid mode.
Speaking of modes, there are four: EV (full electric), Hybrid Auto (both petrol and electric available and usable depending on the conditions), Hybrid Hold (petrol engine only, with batteries taken offline) and Hybrid Charge (petrol engine used to power car and recharge batteries). These can be selected using the EV button on the dashboard, or by scrolling through the MMI touch media system.
On the tarmac at Great Barrier Reef Airport, a range of slaloms and obstacles were constructed. While hardly a comprehensive test track - there was no traffic to impede the drive, nor any hills, potholes or highways - the A3 Sportback e-tron managed itself nicely.
Over a quick sprint and heavy braking test the car impressed, with decent feel and linearity offered through the brake pedal - something most hybrid models with regenerative braking can't match. From there, a sweeping left-hander tightened to a number of quick direction changes through several chicanes, and allowed some indication of the ability of the car's steering and suspension.
There is some detriment to its handling due to its mass. The A3 e-tron weighs 1540 kilograms excluding the driver – or about 200kg more than a standard front-drive A3 - and it can't hide that extra weight through the tighter twists, with some notable understeer. However, its eco-friendly Contintental low rolling-resistance 17-inch tyres offer commendable grip, and the steering is precise and involving.
That MMI system is one of the best infotainment units available, with its 7.0-inch pop-up screen offering simple menu navigation and a decent connectivity system including, in these prototypes at least, a USB input for recharging and MDI cable that can both read and charge devices. The test cars were fitted with phone coverage booster systems, though it’s not clear if that technology will be offered locally. Bluetooth phone and audio streaming are part of the package, as is satellite navigation, a reverse-view camera, front and rear parking sensors and a semi-automated parking system. Read more about the car's initial specifications here.
However, Audi Australia has ruled out a mobile app that allows owners to program and monitor the car's status, but the charge system is otherwise simple. Behind the four-ring badge on the grille hides the plug point, while there are two buttons available to pick: instant charge and timer charge. The former is self-explanatory - it will start drawing power from the mains as soon as it's connected; the latter relies upon a timer system that is access via the media system, allowing owners to make the most of off-peak energy savings.
The German company has confirmed that all Australian owners will be offered a charge-box installation as part of their purchase. Provided the desired location - be it work or home - is capable of handling the system, the wall-box uses 16-amp, single-phase power to help cut the car’s recharge time to about 2.5 hours. On a standard 10-amp charge from a conventional socket, it takes approximately double that.
Pricing isn't yet confirmed, but we'd expect to see the A3 Sportback e-tron hit showrooms from $59,900 plus on-road costs - identical to the S3 hot-hatch. Until final pricing and specifications are revealed, we don't feel it is warranted to give the car a score on this criteria.
You could save thousands and get a more affordable petrol or diesel A3, or that superb S3. But the inherent point of this car is to show the way forward - and what a way of doing so, as it seems there's very little to complain about.