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.