The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is a refined 5-door, 5-seat Audi family hatchback that promises economy of 176.6 mpg along with emissions of just 37g/km CO2 – surely this must be the least compromised plug-in car?
All car manufacturers will have to introduce some degree of electrification to meet European CO2 emissions targets, the next goal after 2015 being 95g/km by 2021, phased in from 2020. Audi has not had an electric offering to date, but the A3 Sportback e-tron is now on sale, and the company has leapfrogged from having no electric cars in its line-up to having what is probably the most practical plug-in model.
Audi has taken the decision to use an existing model and insert an electric powertrain in addition to its petrol engine. So the A3 Sportback e-tron has a 1.4-litre TFSI petrol engine together with an electric motor (in the engine bay), and an 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery sitting under the rear seats. It’s a plug-in hybrid, so you can plug it in to provide around 31 miles of pure electric driving. Once the battery charge runs out you can drive the A3 e-tron on its petrol engine exactly as a normal A3.
Apart from the electric element to its powertrain, the rest of the A3 is almost identical to its petrol relation. There’s hardly any reduction in space inside the car, and you’re left with the normal high quality Audi interior. The boot has very slightly reduced capacity at 280 litres.
Unlike some plug-in hybrids, the A3 e-tron remains purely front-wheel drive at all times. Special rolling resistance-optimised tyres were developed for the A3 e-tron which reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 5.3g/km.
We’ve tested the regular Audi A3 with the 1.4 TFSI engine in saloon and cabriolet forms, and we really liked the A3 with this engine. The latest platform is agile, the engine offers good performance and economy, and the whole package is extremely refined – as we’ve come to expect from Audi. So this is the strong base upon which the e-tron builds.
The headline is that the e-tron maintains virtually all of the good points of the 1.4 TFSI, but adds other-wordly levels of economy and emissions. The electric motor also adds extra power and torque, resulting in a total of 204 PS of system power and 350 Nm of system torque, along with a 0-62mph time of 7.6 seconds. The downside is that the electric powertrain adds substantial weight – the battery weighs 125kg and the electric motor weighs 34kg, therefore adding 159kg plus other electric system components. This total weight of 1540 kg – compared to the 1175kg of the A3 1.4 TFSI Sport ACT – does make the handling feel heavy, and this is obviously more weight to carry around when accelerating.
Unlike some hybrids, the A3 e-tron (thankfully) doesn’t have any form of continuously variable transmission, but instead has a newly-developed six-speed, dual-clutch transmission. This works perfectly well in auto mode, but you can also change gear manually using steering wheel-mounted paddles.
In addition to the normal drive select settings for an Audi (comfort, auto, dynamic and individual), you can also choose between four hybrid settings. When you start the car it defaults into pure EV mode. You can override this to select hybrid mode, where the car chooses the most efficient balance between the petrol and electric powertrains.
You can also choose to hold the car on the petrol engine, so saving the battery for possibly driving into an urban area later. Finally you can charge the battery from the petrol engine while driving.
The A3 e-tron powertrain is refined anyway, but as with most electric cars, when driving in pure electric mode the car is even more refined, with lots of torque, and it’s virtually silent. You can drive in electric mode up to 80mph.
The A3 Sportback e-tron has an official economy figure of 176.6mpg and emissions of just 37g/km CO2. This sounds too good to be true, and unless your driving cycle is exactly the same as the short and low load NEDC test, then it will be too good to be true, as the NEDC test for plug-in hybrids is seriously flawed. However, the A3 e-tron – along with all other plug-in hybrids – will make sense for people who normally drive no more than around 30 miles between recharges, with occasional longer drives.
With such driving, the idea is that you get the best of both worlds – zero petrol is required when running on electric, yet if you do need to drive a longer distance, then the petrol engine offers a range of up to 553 miles – so there’s no range anxiety.
On the launch we weren’t able to measure the car’s real-life fuel economy, but we’ve been promised an A3 e-tron for a week to do just that – so we’ll report back on this in more detail.
Regardless of the real-life fuel economy, the A3 e-tron is still blessed with a Benefit in Kind rate for company car drivers of just 5%. There’s no road tax to pay, and the car is exempt from the London Congestion Charge.
Recharging at home should take 2 hours 15 minutes using a domestic wall box, or under four hours using a standard domestic supply. Audi can arrange for your electricity supply to be provided by Ecotricity, using renewable energy, meaning that car should be truly zero emission when driving on electric power.
The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron costs £34,950, or £29,950 after the UK government £5,000 Plug in Car Grant. As a comparison the 1.4 TFSI Sport ACT costs £22,745.
The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron has 17-inch wheels as standard, with 18-inch wheels as options (as fitted to our test car, when the official emissions rise from 37g/km CO2 to 39 g/km and fuel economy drops from 176.6mpg to 166.2mpg).
A wide range of other petrol and diesel A3 models are available in three or five door body styles, plus a cabriolet.
The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is probably the least compromised plug-in car that you can buy. It’s essentially just a regular Audi A3 to look at and to drive; this is a good thing for most people – it’s refined and practical. If your driving pattern is ideal for a plug-in hybrid – ie. you can drive most of your journeys on electric power, with occasional longer journeys – then you will enjoy impressive economy.
There are just two issues that prevent the A3 e-tron from gaining a maximum 10 out of 10 rating. Firstly, the price – it’s £7,205 more expensive than the A3 1.4 TFSI Sport ACT, and that’s after the UK government £5,000 Plug in Car Grant. You’d have save a lot on petrol to recoup this differential.
Secondly, the A3 1.4 TFSI Sport ACT weighs 1175kg. The A3 e-tron weighs 1540 kg. That’s an extra 365kg of weight thanks to the electric powertrain. We should stress that the A3 e-tron is a very refined and capable car to drive, but you can feel the extra weight compared to the 1.4 TFSI, and it does impact upon the handling. Also, despite the extra power from the electric motor, the laws of physics say that the extra weight will also impact on the car’s performance. BMW has tried to address this weight gain issue in the i3 by investing in a lightweight carbon fibre structure and using a lightweight range-extender engine.
However the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is likely to appeal to company car buyers, just as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV has done, and it gets a very impressive Green-Car-Guide rating of 9 out of 10.