Audi A3 e-tron: Australian Hands-On

Hybrid petrol-electric cars are evolving at a rapid pace, but early examples like Toyota's Prius weren't as earth-changing and fuel-saving as we'd all hoped. Ingolstadt is taking care of that last point, though — it doesn't want to be massively revolutionary, but Audi's new A3 e-tron city car marries an electric motor to a regular fossil-fueled engine, and it can travel 50km without using a drop of petrol. When it does use dinosaur juice, it does so frugally and sensibly.

Audi launched the A3 e-tron at an event on Hamilton Island as part of Audi Hamilton Island Race Week. I flew up there and back courtesy of Audi Australia, and got the chance to throw the car around for a short amount of time on the apron at Great Barrier Reef Airport.

What Is It?

The A3 e-tron is a new model in Audi's A3 sportback line-up, joining the four petrol- and diesel-engined variants and the upmarket sporty S3. It's based on the same chassis and uses the same 110kW 1.4-litre TFSI petrol four-cylinder, but moves that engine six centimetres to the right of the chassis to accommodate a 75kW electric motor, mated to Audi's S tronic six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. That close packaging of petrol and electric engines means some interesting technical feats have been achieved with the A3 e-tron.

There's no starter motor, for one — that should give you a hint as to the curveball approach that Audi has taken with the e-tron. The petrol engine is tow-started by the electric when it's needed, and the A3 e-tron is also one of the first mass-market hybrid systems where the electric motor runs through the car's regular gearbox rather than mated directly or via reduction drive to the wheels.

The A3 e-tron is, under the hood, quite different to a regular A3, but otherwise it is the same chassis and same bodywork — 4456mm long, 1796mm wide, 1441mm tall, and 1540kg. The e-tron gets a few goodies installed as stock — 17-inch turbine wheels in a design unique to the e-tron, leather trim, reversing camera and parking sensors, a smart key and keyless entry, and a centrally-mounted 7-inch media display and entertainment system — that would otherwise be expensive options on a base A3.

What Is It Good At?

Like most hybrid petrol-electric cars I've driven, the A3 e-tron feels far better to drive than its specs would suggest. Beyond a fair bit of drive-by-wire throttle lag — plan your acceleration a half second in advance — there's that immediate and constant acceleration from a standstill all the way up to the electric motor's 130km/h top speed. Exceed that, and the petrol motor will kick in to push the e-tron to a 222km/h Vmax.

When you're just moving around at normal city speeds, the interior of the e-tron is silent — the low-resistance Continental tyres are probably the loudest thing you'll hear, and there's no audible electric whine inside the cabin unless you're accelerating hard. Audi has specced out the A3 e-tron with four driving modes, so you can move under electric power only, an everyday mix of petrol and electric, petrol only, or petrol plus battery charging.

If you want to drive quickly and in a manner unbecoming of the e-tron's green credentials, you can do so — if you step on the accelerator enough that the A3 decides you need some extra power, the 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine kicks in and propels you in tandem with the electric motor, pushing the e-tron to 100km/h in 7.6 seconds. That's a far cry from the S3's flat 5 seconds, but it's a journey that is smooth and constant and ceaseless courtesy of that always-on electric impetus despite the gearbox. The e-tron's 8.8kWh lithium ion battery mounted below the rear seat gives the car more mass in its rear half, and that weight keeps the car planted through surprisingly violent sidewards motion.

Regenerative braking doesn't muddy the A3 e-tron's brake pedal, either — it's a lot less wooden than a less premium vehicle like the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. Steering is not bad — well weighted and with more linearity than I expected. For spirited driving the A3 e-tron acquits itself well, and far better than you'd expect from a hybrid.

Audi, being Audi, hasn't skimped out on the premium tech inside the e-tron's cabin, with everything you could ever want to adjust being controlled through the central 7-inch multimedia interface. Steering wheel buttons, satellite navigation, and a central touch-sensitive jog dial for navigating menu options are all appropriately high tech and will all be included on the e-tron as standard. The button that will get the most use, though, is the little EV switch on the centre of the dashboard, which both enables silent and efficient electric-only driving and lets you switch between the various hybrid modes.

Audi claims combined fuel consumption of 1.6 litres per 100km, making the A3 e-tron one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles to be sold in the country when it goes on sale early next year. A petrol plus electric combined range of 940km is excellent, too, and Audi insists that a rational real-world driver would be able to achieve this figure. As part of its commitment to efficiency, any A3 e-tron buyer will (if all goes to plan) have a complimentary 240V 16-amp charger installed in their driveway, letting the e-tron reach its full charge and full 50km electric range in 2.5 hours. If you want to charge off a standard wall plug, the battery will be full in 5 hours.

What Is It Not Good At?

Don't be fooled by the heritage of the R18 etron — the A3 e-tron is not a sports car. It's a lot more composed than the regular A3, with a much tighter-feeling chassis that is less prone to understeer and more fun to flick around a slalom, but there's still a fair bit of understeer when you throw the steering wheel from dead straight. Audi could have gone for a faux-quattro rear-drive for the electric motor to make the A3 a better driver's car, but it's targeted at the professional city driver, not the weekend racer. Anyway, you can probably expect to see that kind of tech in a future petrol-electric or diesel-electric RS.

The extra weight of the electric motor and rear-mounted battery pack add a solid 150kg to what is already a weighty mid-size car, so the A3 e-tron tips the scales at 1540kg. This mass is in the right places — slung low, between the rear wheels — giving the e-tron a really surprisingly properly-sorted feeling 55:45 weight distribution, and you don't feel it when you're driving, but it is quite a portly vehicle at least on paper. More concerning is the fact that the battery pack deletes around 20 litres of fuel tank capacity — the e-tron only has a 40 litre tank against the other sportback models' 60 litres. Boot space falls from 380L to 280L, too.

Audi is quoting a price of around $60,000 when the A3 e-tron launches in March next year — around a $10,000 premium over the top 1.8TFSI quattro S tronic, but spec up an equally-trimmed model and the difference is slightly smaller. This is a fair bit of cash for the privilege of no-emissions motoring, although you can probably convince yourself that the daily electric-only cost, as well as the improved fuel economy over longer distances, will make a difference to your overall running costs. (Although servicing might be a little more complex.) Just remember you could get a brand new S3 for around that price — an entirely different vehicle, but an equally tempting one.

Should You Buy It?

Look at the mediocre electric range of the Audi A3 and the extra weight it's carrying and its premium price tag and you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a half-baked attempt at getting some hybrid cars on the ground in Australia to fill a quota. Sit in it, though, and drive it around, and you begin to understand that the A3 e-tron is a genuinely different hybrid — one that is surprisingly sporty and quick, one that is quiet and feels efficient and planet-friendly, and one that doesn't try to unnecessarily complicate the process of driving electrically.

The A3 e-tron is the latest in a continually growing lineup of Audis with green credentials; it's not the end goal for the company's move towards a carbon-neutral future, but it's a solid step on that path. It is, by my quick experience, the best A3 by a fair margin despite its extra weight and complexity. When it launches in Australia in March next year, it should be a hit.


Comments

    Does it pack a spare tyre at all? Full-sized or half? How's the back-seat room - ok for kids?

      No spare tire at all, nope! Just a repair kit. (There's not a great deal of boot space...)

      Back seat had loads of room by my estimation, but I'm used to smaller cars like the 86 where you can barely fit a child: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/08/toyota-86-australian-review/

    So (and I know there are no firm prices yet) it seems that Ill still be waiting for the telsa model III.

      When the III is announced officially we should know more. I know that I personally can't wait!

    i would like to see this compared to the holden volt.
    i drove a holden test vehicle, and i really enjoyed it.
    and the same price range as the a3 etron

    2 questions that anybody considering an EV/Hybrid should be asking:
    1) How long will the batteries last before they no longer hold a sufficient amount of charge?
    2) How expensive are those batteries to replace?

      I think this is a myth that we need to move away from. It's only going to harm electric vehicles going forward.
      Some of the first ones may have been terrible but these days you can expect batteries to last about 8 years and cost about $8000 to replace. Not to mention that they will get heaps cheaper over the next 8 years too.
      It's potentially something that could be easily upgradable when new technology becomes available.
      The large cost of replacing the batteries is also offset by the significantly reduced servicing cost since there are so few moving parts (at least in pure electric vehicles). Few people mention that point.

    If it can only do 50 miles before you have to start up the petrol motor, then it's hardly worth it. Why are all these companies so afraid to come out with a pure electric vehicle. Is it because there is no after sales service on electric vehicles (hardly any is needed) and that would mean loss of money. A loss of a lot of money. They make a killing from after sales service.

      probably because they are still scared of the stigma of "running out of charge", "slow charging" and "low range".
      We know these problems can be (and have been) solved but the car industry is very risk adverse. They get around all those problems by throwing in a petrol engine. It's getting to the point where it's just easier to add a petrol engine and claim some environmental and fuel consumption benefits rather than doing this whole thing properly.
      I think most companies are just happy to let Tesla get it right first and then copy rather than risking anything themselves.

    I'm probably not the target audience since I can't really justify the high price tag for such minimal benefit but it all seems like a "swing and a miss" to me.

    You get a heavier car, less boot space, no spare tire, with the only benefit being reduced fuel consumption. You still have all the complicated and expensive things that need maintenance like a dual clutch gear box.
    Also if there's no starter what happens if you completely drain the battery? You won't be able to start the car unless you plug it in? Even if it's got petrol. Probably not a big deal but it's a bit strange. Also running the electric motor through the gearbox just seems like needless complexity and wasting the main advantages of electric motors.

    I still think 50km on a single charge is just not enough.... at least not in Australia. I drive 42km to work each day so I'm biased, but even by the time you do a school run, take the kids to sport and swing by the shops , and you'll eat through that 50km pretty quick.

    Ultimately what's the point? you're still using petrol (less of it but still). You can't do much on electric only, and you're paying $10k for the privilege. Which might even push it over into luxury car tax (depending on extras) and then it's even less worth it. Maybe it's just that I'm looking at these as electric-petrol hybrids instead of petrol cars with a small battery backup...

    I'd really like to know why no ones done an electric car with petrol generator. Only electric drive, no gearbox, maybe half the range of a Tesla (150-180Km ish) with just a petrol generator for long range drives. Something I actually won't have to fill up each week but can still get me to Sydney. You get the best of both worlds and still less maintenance.

      Check out the BMW i3 range extender. It is just what you are looking for, and looks ridiculously future cool (though maybe not for everyone)

        Can't say I'm a fan of the i3... I'll look into it's tech a bit more but personally I think it's super ugly. Also bit too small of a car for me. That's why I was interested in the Outlander PEVH that Giz reviewed a few months ago but again i was disappointed by the low battery range.

      Electric car with a petrol generator. Has me thinking BMW i3 with the range extender model. While I have the full electric model on order with the DC fast charge option, the range it can do will not be sufficient for many people's needs. The range extender "Rex" model can just maybe add that improved margin of range for those needing it. More complex of course than a full EV but still somewhat less complicated than the new Audi electron.

      Cheers.

      Modern direct injection engine management is capable of starting an engine without a starter motor. I am not sure if this is in public release, but it is quite capable. The ECU only needs to store crank angle on shut down to know which cylinder can be injected and fired to turn the crank and start the engine next time. Some systems are even capable of kicking the engine backwards to build compression on the previous cylinder which then fires in the correction direction.

    To my mind plugins make no environmental sense in a country where electricity comes from burning filthy coal, especially in Victoria with even filthier brown coal. CO2 wise grid power is somewhat more efficient than petrol power, but the difference is just not enough. Considering the added environmental and 3rd world exploitation of the extra "stuff", especially batteries, buying one of these amounts to nothing more than saving personal money at an added cost to society.

    Even so, you need to make your own ROI calculation based on how far you drive, and the premium you pay for the electric function. That, and the expected resale value, which will probably be poor considering the concern about the cost of replacement batteries. Would you buy a 5 year-old hybrid?

    If I lived in Europe it would be a no-brainer from every point of view except resale value. Here, LPG or CNG probably makes more sense.

    This vehicle is obviously fitted with Pirelli P7s not continentals

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