What is it?
The Audi A3 e-tron is a plug-in petrol hybrid version of the A3 Sportback. It’s powered by a 148bhp 1.4 litre TSI engine and a 99bhp electric motor sandwiched between the gearbox and power unit to drive the front wheels. The motor also doubles as the engine’s starter.
A six-speed DSG gearbox harnesses the power, its wide ratio spread enabling the electric motor to operate through a narrower, 0-2000rpm rev range that allows for a more efficient design. The adapted DSG transmission includes an additional clutch that decouples the motors to allow coasting, which is a more efficient use of kinetic energy than recuperation.
The e-tron’s 8.8kWh, 125kg battery lives under the rear seat, while the repositioned fuel tank sits beneath a slightly raised boot floor. Despite the tank’s proximity to the A3’s back end this car can absorb a 50mph rear impact without the plastic tank rupturing. At the other end of this A3 e-tron, neatly hidden behind the four rings of its grille, is the power socket for the charging cable.
Despite its low emission, fuel-saving hardware the e-tron can be considered as both fuel-saver and lightly sporting performance car. It has the scope to achieve a spectacular 188.3mpg – one tester has even managed 235mpg – besides sprinting to 62mph in 7.6sec and topping 138mph. It will also travel at up to 80mph on electric power alone, although its 31-mile range will obviously be compromised by high EV speeds like these.
Those 31 miles are enough to allow most commuting trips to be completed without resort to the petrol engine; this practice encouraged by the automatic defaulting to EV mode on start-up. The petrol engine can instantly be engaged via the kickdown button however, or by using a centre console-mounted rocker switch to toggle to hybrid operation. Because kickdown can demand maximum effort from a cold engine, Audi has reworked this TFSI’s piston rings and liners for wear-protection, and included a sensor to measure oil quality.
The DSG transmission provides the same features as you get in a conventional car, including a manual paddle-shift mode, a creep function and kickdown, your chosen gear indicated in the instrument pack. As is the car’s range, a yellow and green bar graph indicating its distance potential with petrol and electric power. You can also select an energy flow read-out, and the infotainment display provides a box-out highlighting your chosen mode.
Otherwise, the interior looks standard, although an electric heater and air conditioner lie behind the familiar controls on the dashboard. The A3’s exterior appears similar too, there being no additional aerodynamic aids, although it does have low-rolling resistance tyres.
What's it like?
As quiet as any other electric car on take-off, the e-tron’s easy silence provides relaxed, and swift urban progress. That said, your advance isn’t always as smooth as it should be because there’s sometimes a solid thump as drive takes up.
"You can be sure that Dr Hackenberg won’t allow that," Audi A3 programme manager Alex Pesch wrily says of his boss, this pre-production e-tron not quite the finished article. Nor do you quite enjoy the rangey, seamless power surge that a single-gear pure electric delivers either.
But, however, the familiar sensation of power being parcelled through a multi-speed transmission is a small price to pay for the undoubted efficiency advantage of having an electric motor geared through six forward speeds, as it is in the Volvo V60 diesel plug-in hybrid.
The general integration of petrol engine, transmission and electric motor is otherwise excellent. There are no jolts when the drivetrain is combining or switching between motors, and the 1.4 TFSI has a subtly pleasing rort about it when it’s worked hard. Not inappropriately either, because adding a battery pack, shifting the fuel tank to the rear and installing a particularly light engine means that this A3’s 55:45 front rear weight distribution improves on the diesel’s 60:40 apportioning, to the noticeable benefit of its handling.
The e-tron turns out to be the best-balanced, sweetest-handling A3 in the range, which makes for a pretty satisfying steer. It rides well too, although there’s still some damper calibration work to be carried out. Hopefully that won’t firm things up significantly.
Recharge times vary depending on your power source of course, but you’re looking at 3hrs and 45mins using a 230 volt 10 amp supply, which reduces to 2hrs 15mins with 16 amp power. Either way, an overnight charge, which you can time via switches beside the Audi’s socket, is more than enough.
Should I buy one?
Audi's A3 e-tron is a fascinating car that has the potential to be very cheap to run, especially given its ultra-low, tax-dodging emissions. It also offers entertainingly strong performance and well-balanced handling to go with it.
The e-tron’s fuel and money-saving potential are best realised if your daily slog to work falls within its 31-mile electric range, in which case the cost of your commute will tumble significantly. And because this is a hybrid, you have the convenience of a 550-mile range using both on-board energy supplies.
True, this e-tron looks likely to cost a good £9000 more than an A3 2.0 TDI Sport when it arrives in summer 2014, but it’s a lot more entertaining and will cost you even less to feed.
Price £32,700 est; 0-62mph 7.6sec; Top speed 138mph; Economy 188.3mpg; CO2 35g/km; Kerb weight 1574kg; Engine 4cyls, 1395cc, turbocharged petrol, plus synchronous electric motor; Installation transverse, front; Power 1.4 TFSI 148bhp at 5000rpm, electric motor 99bhp, 201bhp combined; Torque 1.4 TFSI 184lb ft 1750-4000rpm, electric motor 243lb ft 0-2000rpm, 258lb ft combined; Gearbox 6-spd dual-clutch automatic