A3 e-tron

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron Review

Rating: 8.5
$62,490 Mrlp
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The Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid stands out because it blends in.
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The Audi A3 e-tron is the plug-in hybrid car that stands out from the pack by blending in with the crowd. Launched this week, a few months after we first expected, the $62,490 (plus on-road costs) green machine takes Audi into a whole new market in Australia.

Unlike the largely price-comparable, radical BMW i3 and the just-axed Holden Volt, the A3 e-tron (which we've actually driven before) doesn’t so much as wear its green credentials on its sleeve as it sweeps them under the rug. In this sense, it’s similar to the more downmarket Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV.

Hidden exhaust outlets, a subtle body kit, a tiny ‘e-tron’ badge on the flank and unique wheels are all that differentiate this A3 version stylistically from any other. It’s only the sliding badge set into the 14-slot grille, and the charge inlet that lies behind, that really gives the game away.

Such understatement is typically Audi, and you could structure an argument around the notion that the best way to normalise a new technology is to package it in plain clothes.

How does the A3 e-tron work? We’ll try to be as succinct as we can:

As a PHEV, the A3 e-tron combines a small internal combustion engine — a 110kW/250Nm 1.4-litre turbo petrol — with a 75kW/330Nm electric motor charged by a compact battery pack, with a capacity of 8.8kWh that can be recharged via a wallbox in between 2.5 and 5.5 hours.

This bridging technology — that’s what PHEVs are, a patch until all mainstream pure EVs can travel 500km-plus — means you can use a car as an EV over short distances, and lean on the reassurance of a back-up petrol engine once the batteries deplete. In the case of the A3 e-tron, that claimed maximum pure EV driving range is about 50km — enough for an average commute.

Better, you can drive at speeds of up to 130km/h in pure EV mode, so a quick trip up the highway need not involve any petrol power. Unlike some rival electrified cars with CVTs or single-speed units, the A3 uses a six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox to send torque to the front wheels.

Unlike some PHEVs, the engine and motor are both capable of powering the wheels directly, meaning the 1.4 TFSI is more than just a generator for the battery pack.

The A3 e-tron also offers various driving modes to determine the amount of battery or petrol power you use. So, for instance, you can run on petrol power on a highway (when it’s most efficient) and save your battery reserves for when you get into the city and the stop-start traffic it brings.

Total combined system output is a maximum 150kW and 350Nm — that torque isn’t far from an S3 — and sufficient to punt the 1540kg (220kg heavier than an A3 2.0 TDI) A3 e-tron from 0-100km/h in a fairly rapid 7.6 seconds.

Ok, that’s the tech stuff somewhat out of the way.

The remarkable thing about driving the A3 e-tron — for both good and bad — is the almost complete lack of fanfare that comes with it. Simply put, you could give this car to anyone not particularly into the tech, and they’d struggle to know it was a PHEV at all.

Say for instance you’re in EV mode and you either select another mode that introduces the engine, or for that matter you run out of battery and the e-tron system does it automatically. This switchover is utterly unobtrusive, free of syncopation. This is not what you get in an i3 with the range-extender or an Outlander PHEV, or any ‘conventional’ hybrid car for that matter.

The engine is extremely quiet, the S tronic gearbox behaves like any other (though it’s more complex as it includes the engine decoupler) and the changeovers are only really discernible because the modified instrument display tells you all about it.

The system works off four basic modes operated via the multimedia system, which is central to understanding how the A3 e-tron works. You start in, and can operate in for around 50km, pure EV mode, where the engine is decoupled and the batteries/motor power the wheels in silence.

We can attest to the fact that this 50km claim is anything but bunk. Rather, it’s entirely achievable with sensible driving, and even exceed-able (our group managed up to 67km). In this context, you’re essentially driving an EV, albeit a pure EV with a limited, limited range.

The A3’s calling card, though, is the back-up petrol engine with its 40-litre tank gives you a theoretical travelling range of more than 900km, and you can fill up after that and keep going with depleted battery cells. No comparable EV can yet do that, though that’s not really an indictment, because who drives that far in one fell swoop, in a small hatchback, anyway?

The other three Audi e-tron modes are also impressively delineated, effective and technologically impressive.

Hybrid Auto mode runs the car largely off the battery but supplements with petrol power under heavier throttle. Hybrid Hold uses the petrol engine as the power source, meaning you save the batteries for later in your trip. Hybrid Charge ramps up the car’s energy regeneration systems, meaning more wasted brake energy and surplus engine power are funnelled into charging the cells.

Hybrid Hold proved particularly useful, given we switched into this setting at a freeway cruise, when the engine is efficient, and then when we returned to the nightmare of Sydney traffic, we switched to EV mode, which was untouched and still had 50km in reserve.

Equally, the Hybrid Charge mode is extremely effective. One quick run off-throttle down the long descent into Wollongong added about 6km of charge to the batteries. A 30-minute drive in this mode added about double that, at which point you can switch back to battery power again.

It’s all very impressive. Over our 170km trip, we eked well over 50km of pure EV power out, and over the remainder used less that three litres of fuel. Our colleagues managed consumption of under 2.0L/100km. The Audi factory claim is 1.6L/100km.

The same 170km would stretch a pure EV such as the Nissan Leaf to its limits, as that’s its maximum range. The non-range-extender BMW i3 wouldn’t make it at all. The Tesla Model S with its 500km-plus range costs twice as much as the A3 e-tron. So in this context you might see the purpose.

Equally impressive is the way the A3 e-tron drives. Its battery system, which weighs 125kg, is mounted under the rear seat, improving weight distribution to 55:45 front:rear. Other than the weight impost, the e-tron drives like any other A3, which means rather well.

The electric-assisted steering is well weighted, the body control and handling are dynamic courtesy of the stiff chassis, sharp turn-in and flat mid-corner characteristics, and the ride compliance, though firm, rarely degrades into discomfort. Additionally, the brake feel is entirely naturalistic.

Only the tyre roar, a general A3 bugbear, grates — and is indeed amplified by the lack of engine noise in EV mode.

Inside the cabin, it is likewise like any other A3, save the different trip computer setting and various Eco gauges and dials that sit ahead of the driver — which display battery use and regeneration, and boost levels, rather than a tacho — and the small e-tron badge ahead of the passenger.

This means an upmarket and clean/uncluttered layout, classy switchgear and outstanding ergonomics. That said, the sat-nav graphics on the pop-up screen are looking a little tired, and the giant TFT instrument display in the new TT puts the A3’s setup to the sword. Our point here would be that a little more tech razzle-dazzle would suit the e-tron, frankly.

Read our detailed Audi A3 e-tron pricing and specifications story here.

Rear seat space is on par with the average small hatch, while the 280 litres of luggage space (or 1120L with the rear seats folded flat) are both 100L less than the regular A3’s.

So here’s where we get to the real question of whether the A3 e-tron makes sense. At $62,490, it’s cheaper than the vastly more interesting BMW i3 (with its crazy styling, and production in a factory powered by renewables) that retails for $63,900 as a pure EV, or $69,900 with a range-extender.

Is the Audi better? Well, if you only do city driving, the 130km-160km BMW i3 is more novel and has a taller driving position. But the e-tron’s PHEV operation is more subtle than the BMW’s optional range-extender, and cheaper, and beyond the borders of the inner city, the A3 eats the i3 for breakfast.

On another angle, the hyper-efficient Audi A3 2.0 TDI diesel is almost $20,000 cheaper than the e-tron. At $62,490, the e-tron actually costs more than the $61,100 S3, and sits below only the forthcoming $78,900 RS3 in the A3 pantheon. It’s also more than $10,000 pricier than the larger Outlander PHEV.

Consider also that our test car had a range of options including the $1990 Assistance Package with radar cruise, AEB, lane assist and others; the $1990 Comfort Package with electric, heated seats, LED cabin lights and others; and $1050 metallic paint. Total cost: $67,520.

To sweeten the deal, Audi will give owners a wallbox and pay for installation (unless you live in a shack in the desert or something). A 10A/230V household box can charge the batteries in 5.5 hours, while an industrial 16A/230V unit can do it in 2.5 hours. It’s like charging your phone.

Of course, there’s no PHEV or full EV that yet makes financial sense over an internal combustion car, because the technology remains expensive. Instead, you buy one because you’re on the cutting edge, an early adopter.

You also might like being ‘seen as green’, something the anonymous A3 e-tron hardly advertises. But maybe, as Audi claims, its buyers don’t need to “shout from the rooftops”.

Irrespective of your take on PHEVs — a savvy bridging technology or a watered-down, inferior EV — Audi’s e-tron system is the best there is. We’ve heard arguments about “no compromise” electrified cars before. Audi has done that here.