Better than never: Audi A3 e-tron driven

9 April 2015

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron front view

Audi A3 e-tron
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Good: Fast, frugal, classy interior
Bad: Pricey, small boot, anonymous styling
Price: from £29,950 after the Plug-in Car Grant
The past year or two has seen a dramatic expansion in the range of cars capable of silently creeping up behind you on the street. From pure-electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe to hefty plug-in hybrid EVs like the Mitsubishi Outlander and Mercedes S-Class, to outlandish carbon-fibre confections like the BMW i3 and i8.

One brand notably missing to date has been Audi. While the German maker admits it has arrived late to the plug-in party, it argues that the market for electric cars remains both small and niche. As a result it has felt no pressing commercial need to rush an actual car you might buy onto market, despite wheeling out electric concept cars at every motor show since 2009.

It has finally made the move from mouth to trousers, however, and fortunately its first commercial effort belongs in the top drawer.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron driving

The A3 Sportback e-tron is a plug-in hybrid, pairing a 1.4-litre petrol engine with a 75kW electric motor. Working together they produce just over 200 horsepower, or enough to place the electric A3 among hot hatches rather than eco weenies.

Performance figures confirm the heat, with the dash to 62mph dispatched in just 7.6 seconds. Up to 31 miles of pure electric range and a CO2 rating of just 37g/km illustrate the other side of the car’s character.

The front wheels aren’t quite up to the task of handling the motor’s 330Nm zero-speed torque, however, the A3 being keen to spin its front wheels when pulling out of a junction. Beyond that enthusiasm for generating plumes of smoke, the A3 e-tron generally behaves itself.

There is an extra 200kg of weight to lug around thanks to the car’s 8.8kWh battery pack and electric motor, which can make the handling feel a little more wayward than the standard model, but there’s still plenty of grip for most people.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron interior

The heft also has an interesting side effect. All those extra kilos seem to damp down the ride quality for the better, making the A3 e-tron feel softer and smoother than the rest of the A3 range, which tends to be quite firmly sprung. Combine this with the potential for near-silent progress, as well as a set of driving controls that are light and well balanced, and the e-tron makes for a very relaxing proposition. Only at speed is the hushed environment disturbed by a disappointing level of tyre roar.

Inside the e-tron I’m greeted by an interior that I struggle to tell from most other A3s. The addition of an EV button to cycle through the driving modes is the most noticeable addition.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron mode switch

The car defaults to Hybrid Auto mode, which is probably the best mode to leave it in as this lets the car decide for itself when to use battery reserves, the engine, or both. Flick the switch to place the car in its pure-electric mode, while Hybrid Hold cranks up the petrol engine allowing me to preserve electric power for later in the journey, which is useful if there’s a city stint at the end of a long motorway blast.

Finally Charge mode uses some extra engine power (and therefore fuel) along with regenerative braking to recharge the batteries if you deem it necessary. The likely reason being to provide more potential for full performance.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron instrument cluster

Ahead of me the rev counter has disappeared, replaced by an eco-meter that displays how efficiently I’m driving, and what power sources are being used. The rest is typical Audi, providing an understated but neatly detailed cabin that is bolted together exceptionally well.

In the back are seats spacious enough to swallow two adults or three friendly children. At 280 litres the boot is 100 litres smaller than the standard A3 size, with a floor that’s been raised to squeeze in the battery pack. Disappointingly, a big chunk of what room remains is bitten into by the enormous case that gathers together charging cables and related paraphernalia.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron open boot

With an official economy figure of 176.6mpg and that CO2 rating of just 37g/km, the A3 e-tron makes a very strong business case for itself. Company car tax is reduced to a little under £700 a year for 40% taxpayers, thanks to a 5% Benefit In Kind rating, while business and private buyers will benefit from zero-rated car tax. It can also be registered for free passage through the London Congestion Charging zone.

However, don’t be fooled by the official consumption figures. On a demanding test route that took in some of the wilder roads of the Northumberland National Park, an MPG score in the mid 40s was considered a success. Undoubtedly that will improve under more moderate driving conditions, but if you want to see 176.6mpg you will need to find a very long road heading downhill, with a charger at the top.

Also don’t expect to stand out from the crowd in the A3 e-tron. As well as arriving late to the plug-in party, Audi has turned up in a very sober suit compared to arch rival BMW and its avant-garde i3. Only the name e-tron is remotely futuristic, calling to mind Hollywood light-cycle races and Daft Punk, which is presumably why Audi has written the name so prominently down the side of its launch cars. But minus the huge label, only a larger front grille stands out, with a sliding four-ring badge to hide the charging socket in the nose. Beyond that, it’s just another Audi A3 Sportback among many.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron charging point

Even under the skin there’s nothing presented that hasn’t been seen in plug-in hybrids before – and indeed the very same innards can be found inside the Volkswagen Golf GTE. The result does feel like a special, high-quality product, but only because that’s what Audi does anyway.

All told, the A3 e-tron presents a fine demonstration of why being late to the market can be a good thing. It has given Audi the time it needs to come up with a plug-in hybrid EV that is equal to today’s best. It only disappoints because a brand like Audi surely ought to be doing more.

An asking price of £29,950, once the government has stumped up its £5,000 plug-in car grant, compares reasonably favourably to the £25,675 asked for the A3 2.0 TDI, and you’ll end up with a cleaner, greener, faster and more comfortable machine with the e-tron.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron rear view

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