Not my cup of Swarfega
It's quiet
Quick and energy efficient
Audi A3 reliability
It's too quiet
Petrolheads will miss the traditional driving appeal
A bit boring

Philip Glenister reviews Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2015)

Spark up the Audi

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Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, £29,950

SO, SOME joker at The Sunday Times has deemed it sensible to lend a perfectly good brand-new Audi to the car designer Ant Anstead and me so we can conduct a road test. We’re co-presenters of a TV show about cars, and in our book “road test” is a euphemism for “thrash it about a bit”. Still, if the newspaper is willing to take the risk, then in the spirit of automotive discovery, so are we. Send the car, chaps.

While we await delivery of our guinea-pig supercar we are both eagerly Googling the all-new Audi R8, relishing its highly impressive performance stats and arguing over who gets to drive first. I even think of reprising my on-screen role as Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt in Ashes to Ashes and telling Ant to “fire up the quattro”.

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Then it arrives. Er, there seems to be some sort of mistake. That, if I am not very much mistaken, is an Audi A3 hatchback. Hardly the supercar we were waiting for. Where’s the R8? And why is Ant so happy?

Apparently the badge on the seemingly normal A3 bearing the words “e-tron” is exciting for my geeky friend. Sounds more like a 1980s sci-fi film to me. And anyway, why is Audi sending us a vehicle launched in 1996? It turns out the e-tron badge means that the car is battery-powered. I have heard of these things. Apparently you can plug them into the socket at home and charge them up just as you do with other battery-operated pieces of equipment around the house.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all in favour of electricity. It has done wonders for life in the home — lights, dishwashers and Flymos. But in a car? I don’t think so. A car is not an electrical appliance; it is . . . well . . . a car.

One of my favourite vehicles of all time is the Aston Martin DBS. I remember seeing one for the first time as a young man in the 1970s. And watching it on television in The Persuaders!, and of course being driven by James Bond. It had immediate cult status for me. I was in love. A DBS is also one of the barn finds that Ant and I make in the new series of For the Love of Cars on Channel 4, and it reminds me of the effect great cars used to have on people.

I am all in favour of electricity. It has done wonders for life in the home — lights, dishwashers and Flymos. But in a car? I don’t think so

Ooh, that was a good-looking machine. Part of the thing that got me was that it appeared so damn modern. In the 1960s all the glamour cars, your Astons and your Jaguars, were designed with flowing lines — all curves and smooth finishes. Beautiful, yes, but a bit . . . how do you put it these days? . . . a bit flowery.

The DBS was different. It was tough-looking: squared off at the front; proper edges — it appeared brutal. I liked that. Plus it packed a serious punch and had the most amazing exhaust note . . . let’s just say you knew one was coming before you could see it. All of a sudden Aston had got some beef.

It is not as if I am anti-technology either. One of my other favourite cars was the Jensen Interceptor from the 1970s. Aside from its power and appearance, I loved the fact that among the options was a built-in Dictaphone. Pure genius. I have to admit, in the best-options league, that car sits at the top: you could also order it with sheepskin seats.

So, as you can imagine, the rather boring-looking little Audi hatchback took the wind out of my sails. Inside, it’s great to look at: all soft furnishings and nicely put-together controls and lots of space-age illuminated buttons and touchscreens and what have you.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

There is a button that allows you to nominate what type of power you want. You have a choice of four: electric only, part electric and part petrol engine, pure petrol — called Charge Save mode — and a fourth setting that uses clever gizmos to harvest energy that would otherwise be wasted and feed it back into the battery. Which sounds kinda cool.

I opt initially for pure electric. The first thing you notice is that you don’t really know when the car is “on”. You push the Start button and expect to hear the engine come to life. Instead there is silence. The only way you know you are on is that some of the lights on the dash illuminate. Tap the throttle and you’re off.

And when I say “off”, I mean it. This thing covers the first three yards of any journey quicker than most other cars I have driven. Dab the pedal and you shoot forward as if you were in a dodgem. It’s smooth too: there is none of the clatter and jolts you associate with normal cars — you just glide forward serenely and smoothly and silently. On the road, plant your foot down and you hit the speed limit in no time. Take a corner and power out of it and the car slingshots you with all the g-force you could dream of. It is brilliantly capable.

Take a corner and power out of it and the car slingshots you with all the g-force you could dream of

Officially the e-tron will hit 62mph in 7.6 seconds and manage 138mph flat-out. It will even reach 81mph on battery power alone. But it feels a lot quicker than that. Travelling at 50mph in complete silence on instantly available reserves of torque seems faster somehow than in a traditional car.

The problem is, no matter how well it drives, it feels incomplete. It’s like watching Enter the Dragon with the volume turned down: you can admire the nimbleness and power, but you don’t feel involved in it.

To me, cars should be more. Mucky, smelly. Things you need to roll your sleeves up to fix. They smell of petrol and oil and Swarfega and sound like a werewolf that has stepped in a bear trap. This Audi is none of those things. It’s like a PlayStation X-Wii — great fun, I’m sure, but not really my cup of tea.

And anyway, can you imagine DCI Hunt saying, “Spark up the battery-powered e-tron”?

No, me neither.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron specifications

  • Engine: 1395cc, 4 cylinders, plus 75kW electric motor
  • Power: 148bhp @ 5000rpm (petrol engine only)
  • Torque: 184 lb ft @ 1600rpm (petrol engine only)
  • Transmission: 6-speed S tronic
  • Performance: 0-62mph in 7.6sec
  • Top speed: 138mph
  • Fuel: 176.6mpg (combined)
  • CO2: 37g/km
  • Road tax band: A (free)
  • Release date: On sale now

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Hmmm . . . I’ve got a better idea

Philip Glenister and Ant Anstead

Phil Glenister has had his say, writes Ant Anstead. Now let me give you the important information. That is to say, some proper facts.

Unveiled in 2013 at the Geneva motor show, the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron has only recently become available in the UK. It is the German company’s latest attempt to offer something different to customers who would usually buy a Volkswagen Golf — and it certainly does that.

At first glance the 1.4-litre engine seems inadequate. However, combine this 148bhp unit with the electric motor and you have a hot hatch package developing 201bhp and 258 lb ft of torque and able to go from standstill to 62mph in 7.6 seconds — more than ample for this category of car.

Put aside the performance stats for a moment, though, (and here’s the really special bit) as this vehicle officially does a whopping 176.6mpg. The low emissions figure means no road tax — in a country where you’re practically taxed for breathing. And to top it off — and to keep those who think hybrids are a gimmick in their box — it has a range of 580 miles.

The strange thing about the e-tron is that it is 2015 cutting-edge power housed within a car born in the mid-1990s. Yes, the A3 itself has developed over the years, but the product is tried and tested. It’s the ultimate balance between those who wear suits and do accounts at Audi (or more precisely the Volkswagen Group) and those who hold pencils, grow beards and cycle to work to be creative. It’s restrained — somewhat safe. And because of that it remains a little boring. It’s still an A3, after all.

Audi therefore deserves a medal in “business safety” for pushing the boundaries of what is surely to be the future of motoring but not exactly betting the Bavarian farm on an untested vehicle. Hats off to those in the boardroom.

How can this car fail? Audi has had almost 20 years to get it right. The A3 is excellent; a vehicle that feels solid and reliable. Not too flashy for people to judge the size of your manhood yet still feeling elite enough to hold its own at the poshest country clubs. It’s genderless too — a car for all people.

And it’s that large-scale appeal that is its true strength. It’s polished, ergonomic, refined. Trendsetters who once felt compelled to buy a Toyota Prius now have a sexier car, with some German street cred, to opt for.

Now if Audi could harness the brilliance of the e-tron powerplant and place it in the equally brilliant R8 (which we were actually waiting for) . . . Oh wait (refer to Google) — it has done exactly that.

Or, better still, can the top brass at Audi get their heads together with those of the Bugatti elite (another marque owned by VW) and put this amazing technology in a car that really inspires people? Maybe it’s wasted in the A3.

Philip Glenister and Ant Anstead appear in the new series of For the Love of Cars, which starts on April 19 at 8pm on Channel 4