Audi A3 Sportback e-tron: First drive in a car BMW should be afraid of

By next year those of us who would like our cars to come with decent performance, a mix of practicality and desirability, and the potential for stratospheric fuel economy will have three obvious choices.

We’ve already experienced BMW’s convincing effort, the i3 Range Extender, and will soon put the pure electric Mercedes-Benz B-Class through its paces, but this here is Audi’s effort.

Audi’s product experts for its new plug-in hybrid could be forgiven for sounding a little smug as they reel off the car’s various attributes. Although it’s the first car of its kind – namely a plug-in hybrid family hatchback – the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron already feels like the class benchmark.

On paper it immediately comes across as a machine that will appeal to a huge cross-section of drivers rather than early adopters and those dedicated to the environmental cause. It has a 31-mile electric range, which will satisfy those who commute a moderate distance each day, but it also boasts a total range of more than 580 miles thanks to a frugal 1.5-liter gasoline engine supplied a 40-liter fuel tank.

Four ways to drive

The pitifully short amount of time we spent in the A3 Sportback e-tron revealed two things. Firstly, its level of refinement is so immense that blindfolded you could almost mistake the experience for that of being inside Audi’s flagship A8. Secondly it doesn’t feel as fast or as fun to drive as its sister car, the charming Volkswagen Golf GTE.

The car starts silently at the touch of a button, uneventfully defaulting into EV mode and surreptitiously demonstrating where its priorities lie. Do nothing and you’ll enjoy around 30 miles of zero emissions driving at speeds of up to 80mph, wondering why on earth Audi doesn’t just build a purely electric A3, so tranquil is the experience.

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Unusually, power from the 8.8kWh lithium-ion battery pack and 101hp electric motor is channeled through a six-speed automatic transmission. This setup aids efficiency by keeping the motor’s speed in the sweet spot between power and efficiency. Nevertheless, driving above 70mph will drain battery charge on the double and Audi insists the car’s high speed capability in EV mode is merely to permit overtaking.

Recharging the battery takes place either by leaving the car plugged in (accessed by sliding the Audi badge to the left) for between two hours 15 minutes and four hours, or you can do it on the move.

‘Hybrid Charge’ mode is a trick the A3 Sportback e-tron has borrowed from its distant cousin, the Porsche Panamera S-E-Hybrid, and involves siphoning off power from the TFSI engine and using it to charge the battery. Two hours of driving like this is enough to reach full state-of-charge, although during that time power will come exclusively from the 150hp engine. This is no bad thing as Audi says fuel economy of up to 60mpg is still achieved on the – admittedly generous – European cycle.

‘Hybrid Auto’ is the mode in which most A3 Sportback e-tron owners will spend most of their time, and is selected via the transmission tunnel-mounted click wheel. Now the car will use gasoline and electricity together in the most efficient way possible, frequently shutting off the engine when its not needed and firing it up again (without so much as a whimper) as required. In this way fuel economy of more than 70mpg is possible in real-world conditions.

Conspicuous by its absence is the aggressive feel from regenerative brakes that harvest energy back into the battery during deceleration. This Audi has them, but only in Hybrid Charge mode does their effect reveal itself, and the A3 Sportback e-tron otherwise rolls on effortlessly during throttle-lift.

The fourth driving mode is ‘Hybrid Hold’, whereby battery charge can be preserved until a time where it can be used more effectively. Urban congestion at the end of a long highway journey would be one scenario where Hybrid Hold is useful, as pure electric driving is far more energy-efficient in shuddering stop-start traffic than using gasoline.

Restrained performance

Access to the drivetrain’s combined output of 204hp comes when the driver triggers the kickdown function. With two power sources operating via two clutches through a single transmission, there’s a delay of a second-or-so before the power arrives while the powertrain sorts itself out. When it does arrive, the A3 Sportback e-tron lurches forward without the excitement of the Golf GTE but in impressive fashion nevertheless. Green cars are not slow, not anymore.

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The company’s engineers have managed to position the 125kg battery pack underneath the rear seats, endowing the A3 Sportback e-tron with a superbly low center of gravity. The result is that it corners hard and flat, with little body roll and plenty of grip. All-wheel drive doesn’t feature, as it does in so many plug-in hybrids, but Audi is keen to introduce the technology that has become the hallmark of its brand in later iterations of this car.

Despite weighing 20kg more, performance is identical to the Volkswagen Golf GTE. The sprint from 0 to 60mph takes 7.6 seconds, and 0 to 37mph is dispatched in fewer than five seconds using the electric motor alone. Those numbers put it on par with all but the fastest hot hatchbacks, although performance and athleticism isn’t Audi’s chief approach for this car.

The steering, for instance, is direct enough but it’s also very light, giving the driver a sense of relaxation rather than refinement. The engine note is also muted in comparison to the Golf’s, which has been acoustically engineered to sound for rowdy when the driver floors the throttle. We liked that.

Luxurious details

Whereas Volkswagen will position its plug-in hybrid version of the Golf as a green alternative to the GTI then, Audi looks as though it will pursue a less sporting attitude for the A3 Sportback e-tron.

The pre-production car we drove was beautifully put together with not a rattle to be heard, although the quilted sports seats and sun-roof will not be offered on the single-spec models sold in Europe. Audi wants to keep the price of the car respectable and those features would add thousands of euros to the price.

Even so, and drivetrain aside, it’s an absurdly luxurious car for its segment, using clinical displays and dials that are as easy to interpret as they are elegant. The main instrument binnacle is split into two parts – an electrical energy usage dial that shows how much power the electric motor is providing as a percentage as well as remaining battery charge, and a tachometer on the other side that also displays a fuel gauge.

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In the middle is a TFT display showing a number of a facts and figures, not least where power is coming from at any given time. Perforated leather, polished aluminum, and high quality graphics abound, and cabin ergonomics are spot on. So far, so Audi.

Not all of the Audi’s details are for vanities sake, however, and closer inspection reveals the diligence with which the company’s engineers have tried to maximise range.

The chrome inserts inside the front air intakes, for example, reduce turbulence and increase electric range on the European cycle by several hundred meters. The weight of the battery and electronic systems has also been reduced by 30kg over the course of the car’s gestation period, affording it an extra two-thirds of a mile’s range in EV mode. Finally, low rolling-resistance tyres add a similar amount of electric range, improving overall efficiency by around 10 percent.

If there’s one criticism commonly aimed at Audi’s it’s their tank-like cabins. The quality can’t be faulted, but stepping from the hugely bright and spacious, sustainably-sourced interior of the BMW i3 and into the A3 may feel to some like stepping back in time. In many ways it is.

The competition

The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron will appeal to drivers who largely undertake short journeys and might otherwise buy a diesel version. Those with a daily commute of fewer than 30 miles stand to benefit most as, in Europe at least, a full charge costs roughly one euro and the car is hugely pleasant to drive in EV mode.

The plug-in hybrid market is still embryonic, so much so that like-for-like rivals are currently non-existent. Volvo’s Europe-only V60 PHEV is similar on paper but offers more space and performance. You’ll pay for the privilege, however. The Toyota Prius PHEV, on the other hand, is cheap by comparison but offers just a third of the Audi’s electric driving range and none of the desirability or performance.

The Ford C-Max is perhaps the closest to the Audi in objective terms, but there’s a gaping chasm between the two in terms of customer perception, which leaves the Volkswagen Golf GTE. It closely shares technology with the Audi but hasn’t yet been confirmed for US sales with little hope of being green-lighted in the foreseeable future.

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With that in mind, other electrified cars from rival premium brands enter the fray. The BMW i3 can be bought with a range extender that negates ‘range anxiety’, and the Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive will arrive with an inexpensive option that allows it to travel more than 100 miles on a single charge. Both cars will be suitable for most circumstances and boast three times the electric range of the Audi.

As a package the Audi stands out, however. It’s traditionally attractive design will be embraced by people – and there are many – who find the BMW i3 too otherworldly and attention-seeking. And unlike the Mercedes it can keep driving all day long whether you’ve plugged in to charge or not.

Consider also the Audi’s convincing performance and ease of use, and it’s hard to imagine that it won’t do well. Prices are anticipated to start at around $50,000 when it arrives in the US next summer.

Posted by Richard Lane

Richard is a London-based automotive journalist specialising in future mobility and sustainable design. Having fallen for cars because of the virtues of a particular German flat-six, it's what we'll all be driving next that now interests Richard most. Dream garage: Alfa Romeo GT 1300 Junior and a Detroit Electric SP:01.

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