2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron First Drive

While its parent company is still in the throes of an emissions scandal that has thrust the “green” credentials of automakers worldwide under the microscope, Audi is launching its first plug-in hybrid in the US. Audi is ready to double down on its electrified future, putting up its own reputation as collateral. This A3 Sportback E-Tron – a vehicle we’ve sampled in prototype form – is a tech-savvy plug-in car that could be the perfect vehicle to mark the brand’s new commitment to an electric lifestyle.

Straightaway, Audi USA President Scott Keogh addressed the TDI situation. He says he and the rest of the company are “shocked, followed by appalled, followed by anger, and now in the phase of drop-dead determination to make this thing right.” Out of the 500,000 affected 2.0-liter TDI engines around the world, 14,000 are in Audis: about 3,000 A3 TDI sedans and about 11,000 A3 TDI Sportbacks. “It’s quite simple. CARB and the EPA have told us these cars can stay on the road, they will stay on the road until we have a fix, and when we have a fix, we will absolutely fix these cars.” The most important thing going forward, Keogh says, is regaining the trust of both the dealers and customers.

Audi has been enjoying a bit of momentum in recent years, building a reputation for itself along the way. Audi came on the scene in the US in 1969, but it took until 2010 for the company to sell 100,000 units in a single year. Now, “In 2015, we’re starting to look down the barrel of nearly doubling our sales in five years,” says Keogh. The A3 achieves a 40-percent segment share, and for 75 percent of those buyers, it is their first purchase of a luxury brand. But as its own pace increases, the momentum of the industry as a whole has pulled Audi toward this foray into electromobility. Enter the A3 Sportback E-Tron.

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

The A3 E-Tron has several strengths working in its favor. First of all, as Keogh puts it, the hatchback is a “real, proper Audi – a real, proper, fully rounded driving machine.” Qualifications such as “this is an electric car” don’t matter. “People just want to buy a car,” he says. It has the technology, build quality, and drivability of an Audi. It’s an approachable car, and with a sub-$40,000 starting price, stepping into the A3 E-Tron doesn’t require a lifestyle shift that might keep people out of the world of luxury and plug-in vehicles.

Audi packaged the guts of the A3 E-Tron in such a way so as not to intrude on the hatchback’s interior. Even so, the E-Tron already boasts more functionality than the standard A3, thanks to the Sportback body style. The lithium-ion battery sits below the rear bench seat, and with the second row seats up, the trunk offers 13.6 cubic feet of cargo space. The 10.6-gallon fuel tank is seated below the floor of the cargo area, so there’s no room for a spare tire. Instead, Audi provides a patch kit behind a side panel in the trunk. It’s a small sacrifice to be able to make full use of the cargo area and the fold-flat rear seats. But this really helps maintain the versatility of the A3 E-Tron. Not only does the car have the range, but it also has the space to make the most of those weekend trips out of town.

Sitting inside the car, it is clear this is an Audi. It has the fit and finish we expect from a luxury vehicle. Where previous iterations of the A3 felt like they had more in common with Volkswagens, this car has its own personality. Touch points have a premium feel. When driving, the quietness helps make the car feel special, and the smoothness of the ride and drivetrain are examples of what one would expect from a tech-savvy Audi. There’s a little extra weight from the battery pack, but the suspension does a good job of keeping it unnoticeable while driving.

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

The A3 E-Tron is powered by a 1.4-liter TFSI gasoline engine, coupled with a 75-kilowatt electric motor and an 8.8-kWh lithium ion battery pack. The electric motor/generator is housed between the internal combustion engine and the S-Tronic six-speed dual-clutch transmission. The hybrid system runs the electrical components, which means no alternator, and the electric motor also works as the starter motor for the ICE.

The battery pack is made up of eight-cell modules with 12 cells apiece. A liquid cooling system is located at the bottom of the battery to keep it operating under optimal temperatures. The battery is meant to last the life of the vehicle, and is covered under an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty.

Accelerating to 60 miles per hour takes 7.6 seconds under the power of both the gasoline and electric motors, yet it feels peppier than that number suggests. The turbocharged four-cylinder on its own offers 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The electric motor offers 102 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque. Working together, total system output is rated at 204 hp and 258 lb-ft. The A3 E-Tron has a top speed of 130 mph, and it can go up to 80 mph in EV mode.

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

For drivers who enjoy having as much control as possible over the car’s energy usage, there are four electric drive modes. Hybrid mode is the go-to selection for most driving conditions – the car makes all the decisions about how to most efficiently use electric power, gasoline, or a combination of the two. In EV mode, as one would expect, the car is powered only by the electric motor. Hold battery mode reserves as much of the charge as possible. The car may still use electric power in some situations, but it will save a lot of the charge for later usage. In Charge Battery mode, the car takes any opportunity it can to charge the battery. This mode is also optimized for highway driving.

The A3 E-Tron includes Audi’s usual Drive Select feature, but here, it only governs the steering feel. We don’t notice any real difference between Comfort and Dynamic modes, though. And besides, most people will probably just leave it in Auto.

Despite the E-Tron technology, this car very much drives like your typical A3. Once underway, it’s easy to forget there’s all that fancy, newfangled technology at work. The gas engine and electric motor work together seamlessly. You don’t have to know about things like the car’s “gliding” capability that disengages the transmission when there’s no throttle input in order to appreciate the driving experience. It’s safe to say that Audi is successful in making the car, in Keogh’s words, “as acceptable and approachable and like the world I know as possible.”

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

The controls are all good to use, and while the MMI has a bit of a learning curve for a new user (particularly the handwriting recognition touchpad), there’s a great deal of control over vehicle systems. The steering wheel feels good in hand, and the gear lever offers a sense of sportiness when shifting manually. The throttle is easy to modulate, whether you’re trying to drive economically or goading the car into some spirited fun. The brakes feel solid, and the recuperation isn’t off-putting. It’s easy to drive, and it feels totally natural in the city and on the highway, regardless of EV mode settings.

It’s quite good to drive, as well. We’re not canyon carving or doing laps on a track, but the E-Tron is incredibly entertaining to toss around in traffic. Switching into manual mode helps you make the most of the car’s available power (it also helps if you’re trying to recharge the battery while driving). There’s also plenty of fun to be had by swapping through the various hybrid modes in different situations, challenging yourself to drive as efficiently as possible. It is as engaging or as automatic as you make it, depending on your driving style or mood.

The one thing that might feel a bit foreign to new plug-in drivers is the “% Power” gauge that replaces the usual tachometer on the left side of the instrument panel. Based on where the needle is pointing, it tells the driver if the car is charging, being driven efficiently, or if the electric and gas motors are being used together to offer boost. Between the two main gauges is a digital display that can be used to show a variety of information including power flow, cruise control settings and, yes, a tachometer readout.

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

Included with the car is a mobile charger with 120- and 240-volt cables. There’s no need to purchase a wall charger, though Audi does offer a sleek wall cabinet to provide a more permanent home for the charger. The A3 E-Tron’s charging port is hidden behind the Audi badge on the grille, so it doesn’t matter which side of the car the charger is on. On 120 volts, a full charge takes about eight hours. With a 240-volt source, the waiting time drops to about two hours and 15 minutes. A full charge offers about 16 to 17 miles of all-electric driving – enough for the average commute – while the total driving range is over 400 miles. Audi estimates a rating of about 83 miles per gallon equivalent, and for the gasoline engine alone, about 33 mpg in the city, 37 mpg highway, and 35 mpg combined.

With the proliferation of plug-in vehicles come more and more apps. The A3 E-Tron has one, too. It can schedule charging and display charge status. It can tell you if your doors are locked or your lights are on. It provides stats from the most recent trip. It records the last parking position so you can find your way back to the vehicle. Finally, you can precondition the car before a trip to make sure the temperature is just right when you get in. We’ve seen this stuff from other automakers, and Audi’s system works as well as any other.

For customers who are really committed to keeping their carbon footprint low, charging the car with renewable energy might be a priority. Audi partners with SunPower to offer home solar installation. That way, customers can power their A3 E-Tron – and their home – with solar power.

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron

The Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron starts at $38,825 for the Premium trim, including $925 for destination. With a federal tax credit of $4,168, you can get into an A3 e-tron for $34,657 (or even less, depending on local incentives). Premium Plus starts at $42,925, and adds heated front seats, full LED headlights, upgraded wheels and Audi music interface with iPod integration. The Prestige trim level starts at $47,725, which includes MMI navigation with voice control and handwriting recognition, a 705-watt, 14-speaker Bang and Olufsen sound system, lane assist, side assist, and front collision pre-sense.

So, mission accomplished? “This is our first step, and it’s going to be a substantial, substantial commitment,” says Scott Keogh. “There will be more plug-ins.” The plan is to “start with the plugs, commit with the full BEVs, and keep rolling from there.” Audi believes there is a “tipping point” with battery density and cost, after which it will simply make more economical sense to choose EVs over fossil fueled cars, and that this shift could be happening right now.

With its A3 E-Tron, Audi removed most of the obstacles that would keep mainstream buyers from choosing an electric car. And if this commitment to e-mobility pans out in the way Audi suggests, happy EV drivers will be putting the whole TDI pandemonium in their rear-view mirrors.

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron First Drive

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