First UK drive finds the facelifted A3 Sportback e-tron remains a first-rate plug-in hybrid that is packed with tech if a little short on driver appeal

What is it?

The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is the plug-in hybrid offering within the updated Audi A3 range. The entire line-up has had a nip here and a tuck here and here, while this Sportback e-tron model specifically has benefited from an injection of tech on the inside and a tweaked appearance externally, although it remains mechanically unchanged.

That means it still carries a 1.4-litre petrol engine and electric motor in the front, driving through a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, while under the rear seats lives an 8.8kWh lithium ion battery. All that equates to a claimed - and extremely optimistic - official combined consumption figure of 166.2mpg and just 38g/km of CO2 emissions. This will be music to the ears of business buyers hoping to run a plush hatchback with low, tax-friendly monthly bills.

However, as with many hybrid options in the class – the Volkswagen Golf GTE and BMW 330e included – there are some drawbacks to the e-tron. Aside from its higher list price versus mainstream diesel A3s, it also has to lug around the extra weight of its electric motor and battery, which in turn impacts on its dynamic ability. Furthermore, fuel economy is typically never as jaw-dropping as the official figures suggest, and the electric-only range is often more limited, too.

Even so, the e-tron looks to have an enticing blend of performance, economy and practicality. Audi claims a total power output of 201bhp and a 0-62mph time of 7.6sec, which put it in line with the likes of the Volkswagen Golf GTD.

What's it like?

It may look like any other A3 from the outside, but on start-up, the hushed battery soundtrack reveals the e-tron's ultra-green credentials.

The car defaults to EV mode to begin with but remains impressively quiet at most speeds, regardless of which of the three powertrain modes it is running in. Along with EV, there’s also Hybrid mode, which uses a mix of electric and petrol power, and Battery Hold, which reserves the battery's charge for later use by getting the four-cylinder engine to do all the work. They can easily be cycled through via a button on the dashboard and are automatically selected if you run out of electric juice.

You’re unlikely to get particularly close to the claimed 31-mile electric-only range, though. When testing the mechanically identical pre-facelift model, we managed only 18 miles, which means anybody eyeing a no-cost commuting tool will have to measure their route carefully. Likewise, as with every other hybrid, the headline-grabbing combined fuel economy figure will be much lower in the real world. In our experience, expect it to return closer to the 50-60mpg mark at best.

At least the e-tron's small battery ensures that a full charge doesn’t take too long (around two hours from empty, according to Audi), although the e-tron does a pretty good job of replenishing the charge itself. The petrol engine will do this as it runs, while the regenerative brakes also help spool up some electric charge - but this does mean they can be quite grabby, especially at low speeds.

In EV mode, the battery hums away quietly on its own until around 80mph before the engine awakens, while in Hybrid mode it joins in at around 40mph. The transition from electric to petrol and vice versa is pretty seamless, but enthusiastic kickdowns can result in slightly sluggish gear changes. Yet at a cruise, the e-tron offers a very relaxing drive with excellent refinement and a compliant ride that helps it roll nicely over UK roads.

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Performance is impressively brisk in the car's hybrid modes, and there are different driving settings to go with them: Comfort, Auto and Dynamic. Comfort will be fine for everyday use, but switching to Dynamic, which adjusts throttle response, steering, and gearchanges, gives a greater sense of urgency to the acceleration and a more sporting feel.

However, throwing the e-tron into a corner while carrying some speed highlights a few of the drawbacks of carrying a higher kerb weight than a conventionally powered sibling. Where the standard A3 handles accurately and precisely, this hybrid suffers from more body lean and less front-end grip.

Inside, the e-tron is as polished and plush as you’d expect from Audi, and it gets a simple, user-friendly layout with a 7.0in touchscreen sitting atop an uncluttered dash. Usefully, the screen can be stowed away in the dash at the touch of a button. The e-tron is only available in one trim, but that means it comes packed with tech including Bluetooth, sat-nav and DAB radio and now it gets greater smartphone integration with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Everything else is as you would expect from an Audi A3. It’s comfortable, it offers great visibility, it has a nice driving position and it's fairly spacious, although around 100 litres of boot space has been sacrificed in order to accommodate the 40-litre fuel tank displaced by the siting of the hybrid system's battery.

Should I buy one?

As an easy-going daily driver, the A3 e-tron is a great hybrid option that would be a perfectly useable car for many urban motorists. It is slightly disappointing that its driving dynamics don’t entirely live up to its straight-line pace, though, and ultimately means it's not quite as fun to drive as a Golf GTE or BMW 330e outside town. 

The plush interior and technical wizardry don’t come cheap, either. Even with the £2500 government grant for which the e-tron is eligible, it’s still £7000 more expensive than an automatic A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI SE Technik. Sentencing it to a lifetime of urban driving could make the e-tron cheaper than the diesel in the (very) long run if bought privately, but by far the best way of owning it remains for company car tax-paying business users. If you're in this camp, it's well worth investigating. 

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Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

Location Feltham, Middlesex; On sale Now; Price £35,245; Engine 4 cyls, 1395cc, turbo, petrol, plus electric motor; Power 201bhp (total system output); Torque 258lb ft (total system output); Gearbox 6-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1540kg; 0-62mph 7.6sec; Top speed 138mph; Economy 166.2mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 38g/km, 7% Rivals VW Golf GTE, BMW 330e

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Mr£4worth 4 October 2016

no mention of BMW 2 Series Active PHEV

This brief report is of interest to people like me who are looking to lop off a shed load of company car tax. I expect to ditch my 3 Series in January and take 2 Series Tourer which can do 80 mpg on domestic trips.
It looks even uglier than my 3 series, but it drives well, and the engine sounds sweet when pushed.What I notice here is the recharge cable bag is simply enormous compared to the BMW, surely all the gubbins could be hidden in the bodywork rather than the boot? Perhaps BMW/Audi need to employ a vacuum cleaner designer on detailing?
In the meantime, we should seize the cheap company car tax cars whilst we can before the chancellor hammers us.
ekranoplan 1 October 2016

How much electricity did it use to cover 18 miles?

Another PHEV test without proper measurement of total energy expended on a typical journey. I covered London to Newcastle on just one litre of water! How efficient! Ah but then I had two meals and a train ride to get there!

Yes DJB is right that it'll run on the 1.4 petrol after battery used up but now it's much heavier than the regualr 1.4 TSI A3!

As for VWgate nonsense - it was VW's fault to try to sell excess Euro 5 engines to the USA and they cheated by using more urea injection under test than on the roads. Latest 2016 UK Govt independent tests show that VW, Audi and BMW have LOWER than Euro 6 emissions in real world driving. So the anti diesel press conveniently ignores it!

DJB 30 September 2016

New way to cheat

Well the VAG diesel cheat device was rumbled so here's another way to pull the wool over their eyes. 166 mpg ?? Yea, right! Sorry that's unfair, you might get 166 mpg for the first 10 miles until the battery runs out then it'll be the regular 1.4 turbo fuel consumption thereafter.