The Audi A3 Sportback 40 TFSI e plug-in hybrid offers desirable styling and refinement along with the ability to drive on zero tailpipe emission electric power for an official range of up to 40 miles.
Audi has had plug-in hybrids on sale for a while, and now we’re into the latest generation of PHEV models, with the Audi A3 being one of the current crop. So is the Audi badge and zero tailpipe emission capability a compelling proposition in a hatchback?
The Audi A3 Sportback 40 TFSI e has a 4-cylinder, 1.4 litre petrol engine together with a 13 kWh lithium-ion battery and 80 kW electric motor, all of which feeds power through a 6-speed S tronic dual clutch transmission to the front wheels.
The latest generation of Audi A3 has more interesting styling than the previous model, including air vents in the front of the bonnet – a design detail from rally quattros of old.
The interior is still a quality environment overall from a design and materials point of view, but we were disappointed that the chrome-effect volume control near the gear selector has been replaced with a much more boring and cheaper-looking black plastic version.
The A3 Sportback 40 TFSI e driving experience is mostly refined when on petrol, but it’s even more refined on electric power (but you’ll need to watch out for the petrol engine coming on with only small pressure on the accelerator pedal in EV mode).
The steering feels slightly sharper than some previous Audi models. However the combination of front-wheel drive, lots of torque, and cold/wet winter roads can result in wheelspin when pulling out of junctions.
Ride quality is basically good, but the low profile tyres don’t help with comfort on pot-holed roads. There’s also some road noise, particularly at motorway speeds.
There’s a choice of drive modes, selectable via the touchscreen; Efficiency, Comfort, Auto, Dynamic and Individual.
The gear selector appears to have shrunk in the wash, as it has on other latest Volkswagen Group models. You can also change gear via the steering wheel-mounted paddles.
The central touchscreen has a home button at the top right-hand side, and below there are shortcut buttons for radio, media, phone, and satnav. There are also separate heating controls under the touchscreen, which is much better than the controls being in the touchscreen. The A3 has heated seats, which are essential to help preserve range in any EV, but there’s no heated steering wheel.
The A3 Sportback 40 TFSI e is a plug-in hybrid, so where are the buttons to control the hybrid system? Ideally you need clear one-touch buttons for electric, hybrid (ie. electric and petrol), and petrol (ie. locking the car on its petrol engine to preserve the battery charge). An option for charging the battery from the petrol engine can also be useful.
In the A3, there’s one small EV button at the bottom of the dashboard under the heating controls. That’s it. So how do you choose to save the battery charge if you’re driving straight onto a motorway, before entering a built-up area later? Well, it is possible to do this, but the controls are really hidden away in the touchscreen.
To choose to save the battery charge when starting the car, we needed to press a privacy message on the touchscreen (one button press), then press a button about being a guest (two button presses), then press the home screen (three button presses), then press ‘car’ (four button presses), then press ‘charging efficiency’ (five button presses), then press ‘e-tron mode’ (six button presses), then press ‘battery hold’ (seven button presses) (or at this point you can select EV, hybrid or battery charge). If instead you do this when you’re already driving, then the seven button presses reduce to five button presses – and five button presses when driving are dangerous in our view – apart from being very tedious. In the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, there’s just one button press for EV mode, Save or Charge.
Both the delivery driver of the car and a motoring journalist colleague couldn’t find these controls at all, which is hardly a surprise. So has the average motorist any hope of being able to control the PHEV system of the A3 in the most efficient way if they can’t find the controls? No.
The Audi A3 Sportback 40 TFSI e official WLTP combined fuel economy is 282.5 mpg, with an electric driving range of 40 miles.
In real-world driving we managed 21-27 miles of electric range. Real-life fuel economy of plug-in hybrids can vary between 30mpg and 1,000mpg depending on how much driving is on electric and how much is on petrol. We averaged 53.1mpg after a week with the car, and 43.0mpg at 70mph on the motorway on the petrol engine.
The range of the petrol engine was displayed as 325 miles. The petrol and electric ranges are shown graphically in the instrument cluster in a clear and refreshing way.
The Audi A3 Sportback 40 TFSI e costs from £34,125. There are three trim levels: Sport, S line, and S line Competition. If you drive primarily on electric power, and just use the petrol engine for occasional journeys, then you’ll enjoy significant savings in running costs. There’s also a low Benefit in Kind (BIK) company car tax liability of just 10% for 2020/21.
We like Audi, we like the A3, we like its 1.4-litre petrol engine, and we like the ability to be able to drive up to 40 miles on zero-tailpipe emission electric power. But we think hiding all the hybrid controls away in the touchscreen – and having to press seven buttons to control the system – is completely crazy. Therefore the Audi A3 Sportback 40 TFSI e ends up with a Green Car Guide rating of 7 out of 10. We look forward to a more user-friendly hybrid control system on the next model.