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First drive review: Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2014)

With the potential to deliver 176.6mpg, is the new plug-in hybrid A3 the future of Audi or an interesting distraction?

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GIVEN THAT Audi was the first- ever manufacturer to win at Le Mans with a hybrid powertrain, it’s safe to say it knows a thing or two about pairing up electrons with fossil fuel. Now, the company is bringing that hard-earned knowledge to a forecourt near you in the shape of the A3 Sportback e-tron. As with all plug-in hybrids, it’s all about delivering low fuel consumption and low CO2 emissions.

The Sportback e-tron uses a 148bhp 1.4-litre TFSi turbocharged petrol engine alongside a 101bhp electric motor. Together they produce a maximum system output of 201bhp. But because this is a plug-in hybrid, it’s possible to travel up to 31 miles – and at speeds up to 80mph – using only the electric motor. And that’s what gives the car the potential to return 176.6mpg and emissions of 37g/km (according to ECE official figures).


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A full charge on the A3 e-tron takes about four hours on a domestic plug and about 2 hours and 15 minutes on a public charger (the car will be supplied with adaptors to suit each).

Unlike a plug-in hybrid such as the Toyota Prius, the A3 Sportback e-tron does not broadcast its green credentials with unconventional styling. It will take a very keen Audi spotter to clock that this is the plug-in hybrid in the range. There are subtle “e-tron” badges on the front and rear, and the grille sports 14 chromed cross blades, as opposed to the seven plain-finish ones on the regular A3 Sportback. The e-tron grille is now the best looking in the Audi range, I reckon.

2014 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron review

There are also turbine style wheels that are unique to the e-tron. And at the rear, Audi has hidden the exhaust pipe under the rear valance, a nod to the car’s ability to cover ground without using crushed dinosaur. The connection for the electric charger hides under the four-ring grille badge on the nose.

At the rear, Audi has hidden the exhaust pipe under the rear valance, a nod to the car’s ability to cover ground without using crushed dinosaur.

Inside, the biggest clue to this Audi’s mission is the large instrument dial that in other cars would usually house a rev counter. In the A3 e-tron it’s where the “powermeter”, which gives you information about the state of charge and battery power use, lives. The other control (actually, it’s a button) that is absolutely at the core of this Audi’s reason for being, is the mode button. In other cars, “mode” buttons usually tweak things such as steering and throttle response, but in this Audi the four operating modes pretty much describe the whole point of the car’s existence.

EV mode is self-explanatory. Select this one and, if you’ve got adequate charge, you can set off using nothing but the electric motor (nail the throttle, though, and the engine will fire up). In hybrid auto mode, the electric motor and petrol engine work together to provide the most efficient progress. In hybrid hold mode, the system preserves existing battery charge for later use. That’s handy if you’re heading for a city centre where you might want to run in pure-electric mode. Last is hybrid charge mode, which uses the petrol engine as a generator to charge a depleted battery.

2014 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron review

We set out on a journey of about 50 miles on the kind of roads that would allow us to properly experience all four modes. Starting off in downtown Vienna, we were in pure electric mode (which is the default when you first start the e-tron). As with other electric cars, there is simply no better form of propulsion for city driving. It’s fantastically refined without the interruption of gearshifts, luxury-car quiet and super responsive thanks to the electric motor’s torque being instantly available.

On faster, more open roads we shifted to hybrid auto mode and let the car decide which combination of power source it wanted to use in any given circumstance. Obviously, during overtakes or hard acceleration the petrol engine kicks in and when you really need to punch hard, the electric motor adds boost of its own. In this mode, the e-tron feels very responsive and really quite “normal”. There is regenerative braking that works when the brakes are applied, and the system also uses a “coasting” function that shuts down both petrol and electric powerplants when, for example, coasting down a hill. It’s al in the name of efficiency but I have to say, none of it feels intrusive. It’s very natural.

We used hybrid hold mode for a bit, but that felt slightly pointless as it just leaves you running on the petrol engine to preserve the battery’s state of charge (which was virtually non-existent by that stage of our drive). Instead, we opted for hybrid charge mode to bring the battery up to a state of charge that would get us back to base in Vienna city centre on pure electric. That worked a treat, but it is by far the least efficient mode to operate in, especially if the battery is quite low. It’s handy to have that mode if you know you’ll need some charge for a stint of zero-emissions city driving, but it’s one to be avoided in favour of mains charging.

2014 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron review

Charge mode bought us about 12 miles of range for the city leg, which got us within a few hundred feet of our destination in pure-electric mode, before the system had to wake up the petrol engine.

The Audi’s dashtop colour screen told us that on our trip we’d been driving “Emissions free: 78%” and “Fuel: 22%”. That 78% zero emissions included any time spent coasting with both power sources off, so it isn’t representative of electric-only range. But used with a reasonably careful right foot at city-street speeds, I reckon 30 miles would be achievable. As for our fuel consumption, we averaged 67.2mpg. Admittedly, this was quite a tough workout with some high-speed running and lots of hybrid charge mode used, so not the bad result it might look.

If you don’t drive it as though you’re actually trying to win Le Mans, the e-tron could well deliver on its promise of stratospheric mpg. Just do the sums first.

The A3 e-tron weighs over 300kg more than a regular petrol A3 1.4 TFSi Sportback, but does manage to disguise that weight well. Cornering attitude is neutral enough but unsurprisingly, the e-tron tends to understeer when pushed hard. And the six-speed dual-clutch auto shifts with sharp precision. It’s all predictable stuff, and the ride quality is also more composed and absorbent than I would have expected, albeit on pretty forgiving Austrian roads.

Audi’s classic quattro four-wheel drive isn’t available with the A3 e-tron, as it can’t be accommodated with the plug-in hybrid packaging. At least, not conventional mechanical quattro. Audi’s solution will be to include an electric motor on the rear axle to give four-wheel-drive dynamics.

2014 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron review

As with any hybrid or EV, you’ll need to do some careful calculations about how you use your car and whether it’s worth laying out £34,950 (before the government’s £5,000 OLEV grant) for the e-tron. If you have an urban commute of around 30 miles, you could potentially avoid burning any petrol for weeks at a time, and if you’re a company car driver, that 5% Benefit In Kind tax rate will also appeal. Then there’s freedom from annual Vehicle Excise Duty and London’s congestion charge.

Leaving aside the potential hassle of setting up a charging routine, there’s little compromise with this A3 e-tron, apart from a slightly smaller boot and fuel tank. And if you don’t drive it as though you’re actually trying to win Le Mans, the e-tron could well deliver on its promise of stratospheric mpg. Just do the sums first.

 

Verdict ★★★★☆

One of the very best plug-in hybrids on the road, with all the usual Audi refinements

 

2014 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron specification

Price: £34,950 (before grant)
Engine: Turbocharged, petrol, 1395cc, four-cylinder with additional 101bhp synchronous electric motor
Power (total system output): 201bhp
Torque (total system output): 258lb ft
Transmission: six-speed dual-clutch S tronic
Fuel: 176.6mpg
CO2: 37g/km
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 7.6sec
Top speed: 138mph
On sale: Orders taken in late July, deliveries from January 2015


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Audi A3 Sportback e-tron rivals

  • BMW i3 Range Extender, £33,830

For For people who love driving, this is one of the most rewarding EVs on the road Against You’ll get more attention than if you were driving a Lamborghini, which won’t appeal to some
Search BMW i3s for sale on driving.co.uk

  • Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, £33,395

For Useful around-town range in pure electric mode Against Over £11,000 more than non-plug-in entry-level Prius, so won’t make much financial sense unless you’re a company car driver doing lots of short trips.
Search Toyota Priuses for sale on driving.co.uk