We take a long drive in Audi's A3 plug-in hybrid, the fetching E-Tron hatchback.
It only takes a few miles of winding road to realize something about the 2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-tron that’s rather uncharacteristic of most hybrid cars. It feels... pretty normal. Pretty uncompromising. It doesn’t seem to sacrifice the typical things like ride and handling, or performance, in the name of efficiency, as most hybrids do. Yet it can go 17 miles without using a drop of gasoline, on a full electric charge alone, returning 86 miles per gallon equivalent. Should the battery deplete, the E-tron still returns 37 mpg on the highway, and 33 mpg in the city. You may go days or weeks without using a drop of gas. And you didn’t have to roll away with some silver egg-shaped vessel of misery to make it so. You don’t have to be a martyr.
You may go days or weeks without using a drop of gas.
From the outside, too, there are very few tells that the Audi is such a gas miser. There are a few little “E-tron” badges, and that’s it. Those more in tune with Audi’s current lineup, however, will take quick notice of the Sportback (re: hatchback) body style, and know. The E-tron is the only A3 in the U.S. market available in that specific guise. Other than that, it blends in. No, “Look at my neon green brake calipers everyone I’m driving a hybrid!”Or even a set of massive, “I’m saving the environment because I bought an E-tron as you can clearly see by these enormous decals” decals. It doesn’t put on the bratty EV-spaceship-environmentalist-savior front that other cars like the BMW i3 and Toyota Prius do. Though it very well could. But because it doesn’t, I find it more tasteful and enjoyable. (Full disclaimer: I own a late-model plug-in hatchback that looks like an EV spaceship.)
The interior echoes the same. A suppressed PHEV personality, with just a small E-tron badge on the passenger’s side of the dashboard, a black EV button above the HVAC controls, and a battery charge indicator display that can be found on the center screen. That’s it, you guys. No leafy green graphics. No shenanigans. Just the familiar Audi niceties.
Out of the cabin and under the hood. There’s a 1.4-liter gas engine that creates 150 horsepower, and a liquid cooled, permanent magnet-driven electric motor located inside the transmission housing that creates another 102 hp. The engine and electric motor offer a rated 204 hp and 258 pound-feet of torque when working in tandem. Enough gusto to propel the 3616-pound Audi from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 7.6 seconds, and to reach a top speed of 130 mph. Up to 80 mph can be achieved on just electric power. Sufficient. (For those who want the sportier but far less efficient little Audi, the S3 beckons.)
A heavier (slower), more efficient VW Golf GTi comes to mind.
The suspension and Continental all-season tires also seem to do a good job of keeping the E-tron composed under its added battery heft. The steering is great: well centered, with a moderate electronic rack-and-pinion steering effort that’s neither too loose, nor too tight. The best I’ve experienced in a front-wheel-drive hybrid hatchback, to put it another way. And even though the A3 E-tron doesn’t have Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive (the 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery pack had to go somewhere), there’s an ample amount of athleticism to be found. A heavier (slower), more efficient VW Golf GTi comes to mind. This is because cornering feels nearly as flat as the stalwart GTi, and with all propulsion and steering happening through the front axle like the E-Tron’s corporate MQB cousin, butt-dyno sensations feel very similar between the two. Meanwhile, noise levels in the cabin come in at the low end at speed. Newcomers to the PHEV game may pick up on added tire noise in place of constant engine noise when in electric mode, but that’s natural.
Even though the A3 E-Tron tips the scales at over 3600 earth pounds, the battery heft in the back helps the FWD Audi maintain a weight distribution of 55:45, front-to-rear. It’s not the even split as seen in the GTi, but it’s actually better than the 59:41 ratio found in the S3. This weight balance also aids in tidy cornering -- even under bumpier conditions -- and helps keep things rather flat under braking. Of which, feel pretty much as natural as any given non-hybrid version of the A3. We wouldn’t be too afraid of taking understated Audi to the nearest autocross course. And we’d be really curious to see how it would do with a set of more performance-oriented tires. Yes, you will get thumbs up for running a plug-in hybrid hatchback around your local SCCA region’s cone maze, we promise.
The first two of four driving modes are self-explanatory: EV and Hybrid modes. The Hold Battery setting allows hybrid driving, but maintains the current charge of the batteries so the electric motor can operate on its own at the discretion of the driver (useful in a future EV Only zone, for instance). Finally, Charge Battery mode engages the gas engine while recharging the battery.
Most of the time spent with the A3 during this Palo Alto, California drive was in Hybrid mode. With it comes the typical engine noise modulation as it works in tandem with the electric motor, though the drone remains rather subdued compared more mainstream hybrid vehicles. This is an Audi after all.
E-tron owners can also download a smartphone app. This feature will display their vehicle's current charge level, range, and parking location. The remote start feature can also set a desired cabin temperature while the A3 is plugged in, thus conserving range once on the go.
Are there some flaws in the package? Sure. The biggest one was the voice recognition. It just wouldn’t cooperate. Despite using the correct cadence of words, despite my driving partner having a try, and despite the Audi representatives at hand giving it a go, it wouldn’t work. Maybe I had a glitchy system, but it was hard to know either way, as only one vehicle was sampled.
Plugging in a car can be an inconvenience at times. Specifically, when not plugging in at home. We’re still a long ways from batteries recharging as fast as gas tanks can fill up, so until we get there, the early adopters of the EV and PHEV movement have to tolerate charging times that can take half the day to replenish a battery pack. In the case of the E-tron, things aren’t so bad: just over two hours with a 240v charging unit. That’s a trip to the mall, or the gym, or a client meeting. Of course, an 8.8-kWh battery pack only needs so much time to juice up. That said, using a standard 120v outlet will take up to eight hours to recharge the battery pack. If you’re an overachiever, Bosch will install a 240v home charging station (for a fee). And Audi has teamed up with the folks over at SunPower to offer a solar energy supply for both A3 and home. That all comes a la carte, but hey, no coal-powered charging!
This combination of driving dynamics, efficiency, and style does come at a price: $37,900 to start, and around the $50,000 mark with full content. Buyers may bite their lower lips in anguish, thinking that Audi is overcharging them again, when they could have just as well gone with something else. At a closer glance they’ll realize that the 2016 Audi A3 E-tron comes in below the $42,400 BMW i3, which doesn’t even have a standard gasoline range extender. They’ll realize that the starting MSRP isn’t much more than the 2016 Chevrolet Volt, with the bonus of those coveted four rings adorning the front grille. Dare we say, the Audi A3 E-tron provides a significant amount of value from a German brand? Dammit, yes. Plug in and charge on that one for a second.
|Engine||Turbocharged 1.4-Liter I4 w/ Electric Motor|
|Output||204 Horsepower / 258 Pound-Feet (combined)|
|Fuel Economy||33 City / 37 Highway / 35 Combined / 83 MPGe|
|0-60 MPH||7.6 Seconds|
|Top Speed||130 MPH|
|Estimated Lease Price||NA|