Audi A3 e-tron: NGC Electric Drive
As the vanguard of Audi's plug-in model roll-out, the A3 e-tron Sportback has a lot riding on it. Packaged in a conventional hatchback body, the plug-in hybrid (PHEV) looks almost exactly the same as a normal Audi. Under the skin though lies a sophisticated powertrain that aims to offer a best-of-all-worlds package - one that is fast, economical and comfortable. Next Green Car tested one for a week to see if it succeeds.
Review by Chris Lilly
What is the Audi A3 e-tron?
Ignoring the e-tron part of the badge, Audi's A3 is a small premium family car, a step up again from the likes of the VW Golf in terms of price, competing with BMW's 1-Series and the Mercedes A Class. Sportback simply means that the A3 comes with five doors rather than three, and you can only get an e-tron model in this configuration. Bringing the final part of the Audi's moniker back into play, e-tron indicates that this model is a PHEV, in this case a petrol-electric hybrid that can be charged from the mains or while driving, and able to run either on petrol, electricity or both.
The A3 shape will be familiar to anyone who has been near a road over the past few years and Audi's family hatch is an understated yet stylish machine. There is nothing offensive about any of the design outside, while the interior is a lovely place in which to sit. To differentiate the e-tron from the rest of the A3 range, you will have to play a bit of Spot the Difference, but the clues are there. Discreet badging is the most obvious clue but there are others, such as the multiple horizontal chrome strips in the radiator grille, chrome highlights on the lower air intakes, chrome strips at the rear instead of exhaust pipes - and that's about it. It's under the skin where the changes make a difference though.
What's the performance of the A3 e-tron like?
In a bit of a stat attack, the facts are these. With a 1.4 litre TFSI petrol engine and electric motor, the A3 e-tron puts out a combined 204hp and 258 lb ft of torque through a six-speed S-tronic automatic gearbox to the front wheels. This is good to sprint from 62mph from zero in 7.6 seconds before topping out at 138mph. Numbers never tell the whole story though and, as with most cars that use an electric motor, the A3 e-tron feels quicker than that in the real world. The reason for this is that electric motor has considerable levels of torque, most of which is available instantaneously.
Essentially, the A3 e-tron has an excellent level of real-world performance available. People very rarely run from zero to 62mph, though drivers often quickly power out of a junction into traffic, or accelerate from 50 to 70mph off a slip-road. These common situations are dealt with perfectly by the combined PHEV powertrain, before letting the system settle down to whichever mode is best - normally petrol engine for cruising at higher speeds and electric motor for pottering around town.
To emphasise its Jack-of-all-trades abilities, the A3 e-tron also comes with a Sport mode - selectable by shoving the gear stick over to one side. Leave it to its own devices and the system doesn't really make sense but flick up and down the gears yourself and it makes the A3 e-tron feel pretty quick, creating the most engaging driving experience you will find in this Audi.
What is it like to drive?
Keeping it brief, the Audi A3 e-tron is very similar in terms of handling to the conventional models - and yet quite different. It sounds strange to say that, but there are a number of fundamental elements that haven't been tweaked when compared to other A3 models. In terms of steering, you get a light set-up which is accurate but without much feedback. The suspension is designed to offer comfort and safety rather than big driving thrills, and the cornering ability is more than good enough for most drivers on all but the twistiest of roads.
The PHEV elements do make a difference to the way the car drives though. The extra weight - around 125kg over an A3 1.4 TFSI - settles the car more thanks to the battery placed at the rear axle. This makes for a better balanced machine and the handling is smooth and predictable. Although you can feel the extra weight through the corners, it makes for an improved driving experience on the whole. If you want a B-Road blaster, you need to pick something else, but the A3 e-tron can hold its own on a flowing road and offer a decent degree of fun too. On the motorway, the balance helps again by smoothing out the undulations, and the comfortable suspension set-up shrugs off the weight around town at lower speeds, dealing with lumps and bumps well in what is the A3 e-tron's most natural habitat.
Bringing everything to a stop is a strong set of brakes that are supported by a brake energy recuperation system - which recharges the battery when possible rather than using conventional discs and pads to slow the car down. The brake pedal doesn't have a natural feel to it, with a which is a common plug-in car problem, but one that some manufacturers have more or less overcome.
Living with the Audi A3 e-tron
I covered around 800 miles in the seven days which the A3 e-tron was in my care and it proved to be a very easy experience. Like all PHEVs, the best efficiency figures come from regularly recharging the battery, though the Audi fairly performs well on longer runs too. Like the conventional A3 models, it's comfortable at higher speeds, though the e-tron's unit is not the quietest engine around when sitting at higher revs.
In terms of charging, the 8.8 kWh battery takes up to four hours for a full charge from a three-pin plug, or around two hours on a fast charger - while the electric only range is quoted at up to 31 miles. In practice, I found that about 25 miles was a reliable figure and, unless you accelerate hard or top 80mph within that distance, the A3 e-tron will run in EV mode most of the time without fuss.
The plug socket for the A3 e-tron is hidden behind the Audi logo in the front grille, with a twist of a switch all that's needed for the panel to slide forwards and to one side. It's a nice feature and means that you don't have to park with a particular side of the car close to your charging point. The cables are stored in a large bag in the boot which takes up a lot more space than the equivalent Mercedes Benz PHEV carry case, though there are brackets to fix it into place either horizontally or vertically.
What are the running costs like?
As mentioned above, the A3 e-tron works best with regular recharging and the further you go beyond the electric range, the less frugal the Audi becomes. Officially the fuel economy figure comes in at 176.6 MPG, though as always, that number will often be bettered or unreachable depending on the situation. For those who only travel around 20 miles at a time before you can recharge, the A3 e-tron will prove incredibly cheap to fuel. If a regular commute sits at around this distance, or you plan to use the Audi to complete the school run and supermarket trips, you will very rarely need petrol power at all.
However, travel further than this and the fuel economy figure starts dropping. At its worst, I averaged about 35 MPG on a long run across country, largely on motorways without realistic opportunity to charge. However, on my 45 mile commute, I averaged fuel economy figures in the high 60s MPG, proving that it really does depend on the situation as to how the A3 e-tron responds.
To assist you in the quest for low running costs, Audi has added four selectable driving modes to the A3 e-tron - Auto, EV, Hold and Charge. In the first, the car will switch modes depending on what it thinks is best, prioritising electric power where possible. EV keeps the Audi in pure-electric mode until you go above 80mph or really mash your right foot into the carpet.
Hold switches entirely to the petrol engine, with the opportunity to top up the battery using regenerative braking, while finally, Charge uses the engine to both propel the car along and act as an on-board generator for the battery. Obviously using Charge mode is the least fuel efficient, with economy figures dropping to the high 20s MPG at motorway speeds, though it does top up the charge quickly. Auto works well and allows drivers to hop in and go, while EV is obviously preferable for in-town driving.
I found the best way to maximise economy on my commute was to use Auto during the five miles of non-motorway work at either end of the run, where this mostly used electric power. Then, after about half of the journey completed, where the A3 e-tron had used electric charge to assist the engine, I put the car into Hold and relied on braking and lifting off the throttle to top up the charge before switching to EV for the remaining urban areas. It sounds complicated and it would ideally be simpler, though it is worth the manual control to really maximise fuel economy.
As for the other significant running cost - VED or road tax - the current rules put the A3 into Band A which costs nothing to tax at all thanks to its emissions of 37 g/km CO2. It is also exempt from London's congestion charge.
How green is the A3 e-tron?
With a Next Green Car Rating of 30, the Audi A3 e-tron scores averagely when compared to other PHEV models. The emissions figures are some of the best around for a conventional PHEV though and the real-world MPG figures are strong too. With the selectable driving modes, the Audi can be tailored to what you want from it, while the A3 e-tron will recuperate energy otherwise lost under braking.
Unfortunately, unlike the VW Golf GTE and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, there is only one level of regeneration, so you can't select which you want depending on the situation. On models with multi-level regeneration, I find myself braking more with my left hand - shuffling between strengths as I determine the gaps, braking distance and traffic around me - than I do with my foot.
At higher speeds, the gearbox will decouple the transmission when lifting off rather than recharging the battery, which helps with the car's efficiency. There have also been weight saving measures carried out in the chassis and drivetrain to try and minimise the effect of the extra electric powertrain elements, while smoothed out aerodynamics and low rolling resistance tyres all do their bit.
You can programme the car to charge and pre-condition too, to make the most of lower cost electricity tariffs in the middle of the night and have a cosy car to climb into from the off. This last attribute also reduces the drain on the car's systems out on the road, needing only to maintain the temperature in a large space rather than start from scratch. Audi offers an e-tron connect app too, to find out vehicle information, set-up charging times and find out parking locations.
Interior kit and comfort
The A3 e-tron is typically Audi in terms of the interior - superb. The levels of comfort, build quality and design are all excellent. Despite being an unfussy Teutonic design like the exterior, where the outside seems a little bland, the inside feels spot on. The colour infotainment screen rises straight up out of the dashboard, the switchgear is nicely laid out and easy to use, and the Audi MMI control system works well with short-cut buttons and a dial to select functions.
Seats are supportive and comfortable, while the levels of equipment are strong with the likes of DAB radio with Bluetooth, Audi Connect, leather trim with aluminium highlights, and automatic air conditioning as standard. Options available include a Bang & Olafson sound system, MMI navigation plus with touchwheel, WiFi hotspot, adaptive cruise control, active lane assist, blind spot warning, and park assist.
The cabin is spacious for four adults, though boot space is impacted upon by the car's battery. This reduces load space from 350 to 280 litres, along with the space taken up by the charging cable bag. This doesn't make for a tiny boot though an won't put off most buyers.
The Audi A3 e-tron is good, very good. There are downsides to the car but they are off-set by the strengths in other areas. At around £30,000 after the UK Government's Plug-in Car Grant (PiGC), the Audi is pricey, though not dramatically so compared to its rivals. The boot space is reduced, brake feel is not great, and there aren't options for brake regeneration levels which is a shame. Other than that though, the A3 e-tron could make a very good case for itself depending on the buyer. Long distance drivers are still better off picking a conventional diesel model rather than stop at every other service station for a couple of hours to make the most of the electric range. However, for those with regular little trips and commutes around the 30 mile mark, the A3 e-tron could save drivers quite a lot of money.
Private buyers benefit from zero road tax and low fuel costs, while BIK rates and low business costs can save companies money too - all while appearing as though the car is a conventional premium hatchback. The driving experience is good, proving a competent all-rounder rather than excelling in any particular area.
The A3 e-tron is the first of a range of plug-in vehicles planned by Audi and it's a very good start. The ultimate test is whether, at the end of my week with it, would I happily recommend buying one - and I would. You need to do the sums personally to see if it makes sense, but should the maths add up, the A3 e-tron is certainly worth looking at.
Model tested: Audi A3 Sportback e-tron
Body-style: Five-door hatchback
Engine/motor: Four-cylinder 1.4 litre turbocharged petrol engine and electric motor
Economy: 176.6 MPG / 37 g/km CO2
Range: 31 miles electric / 584 miles combined
On-road price: From £35,690. Price as tested £39,455
Warranty: Three years / 60,000 miles - Eight year / 100,000 mile battery warranty
In the showroom: Now
Review rating: 4 Stars
If not the Audi A3 e-tron, what else?
The excellent VW Golf GTE is almost identical under the skin, but with a sportier set-up and a slightly cheaper starting price. BMW's i3 Range Extender costs around the same amount but is smaller. However, because it only runs its petrol engine as an on-board generator, it's efficiency figures are the best of any non-EV around. The Toyota Prius Plug-in is a little larger but not as nicely built or stylish, while the new generation of executive PHEVs - the BMW 330e and Mercedes C 350e - are a class of car up again.