First Drive: The Audi A3 e-tron And The Double-Edged Sword Of Normalcy

There must be something wrong with being different, otherwise the Audi A3 e-tron would have “electric” written all over it.

Instead, it looks like an Audi A3 hatchback, a staple in trendy urban corners, also areas where electric cars like to live. Yet while the Chevy Volt, BMW i3 and even Toyota Prius stand out, the Audi will get looks for being a neatly styled car that’s easy to park. And for people who want to tip-toe into EV ownership, it’s a draw.

But Audi itself is tip-toeing into EVs with the A3 e-tron, a plug-in hybrid with more range than some, less than others. It’s as if the goal was a car that happens to have properties of a full EV, rather than the other way around, so owners would never have to explain it.

Maybe they hit the goal too hard.

Screaming, silently

Early U.S. ads for the e-tron have featured stereotypical Left Coasters harvesting free range organic food and tacking on more Bernie Sanders bumper stickers on their aged Prius, while the Audi does donuts on the cul-de-sac. The reality is different, though not because of the power on tap.

The e-tron’s combined output from the 1.4-liter turbo four and electric motor is 204 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. Of torque. That’s really close to a base Volkswagen Golf GTI, which shares a basic platform with the car and, importantly, is more sprightly than the numbers suggest.

The Audi is energetic too, depending on what mode the car is in. In default EV mode, the usual electric thrust is very present and gives the e-tron a terrier-like enthusiasm. It’s fun, at least at city speeds, or until the range of roughly 25 miles vanishes. But it’s this personality that feels hot hatch-ish, and reassuring about an electric future. And a Level 2 charge time of less than 3 hours is also a plus (or throw it in the regeneration mode, as I often did to the detriment of fuel economy).

Before then, however, you can switch into hybrid mode and that’s also somewhat entertaining. Unlike the CVTs of most hybrids, the six-speed S tronic in the Audi shifts like a car should and accesses the turbo boost that’s not unlike a gas-only A3. Unlike the Volt or other EVs, there isn’t a regeneration paddle or a simple way to get power back into the battery, but there is a sport or efficiency mode through Audi Drive Select, as well as a way to manually select the gears. You know, like a car.

Transitions between gas and electric aren’t the smoothest out there, but it’s good enough and the operation is mostly silent. The brakes are far too abrupt, though.

Real gears help make the e-tron feel sporty, but it just isn’t. At around 3,600 lbs., an e-tron weighs about 300 pounds more than even a Quattro-equipped A3. Un-sporty tires attached to the test car’s 17-inch wheels (16s are standard, 18s are also offered) also make the car feel more solid, rather than light. The fun is had when you put your right foot down and quietly blow past other electrics.

All this said, however, the e-tron drives much more like your average front-drive Audi. Which is fine. It’s normal.

Two-box suit

The e-tron is the only way Americans get the A3 Sportback, which is reason enough for me to endorse this over the sedan because I’m a hatchback devotee. It looks less tacked-on than the sedan alternative, while it’s definitely trimmer than a lot of other compact hatches on the market today.

You can’t fault Audi for sweating the details when it comes to exterior design. Sharp LED lights, sharp turbine wheels, sharp creases along the sides. The e-tron knows how to dress, and people notice.

Most of the guys who saw me driving the e-tron were besotted with it, much to my surprise. Telling them I was going to plug it into the wall didn’t deter enthusiasm, either. One was adamant about taking it out to dinner Saturday night. The e-tron could be the new dating app.

After a week, my favorite part of the car was still the door to the charge point, a source of amusement whether you’re standing in front of the car or sitting and on the internet. Like you are now.

Tech crunch

Say what you want about the A3’s minimalist interior design, but there’s little about it that doesn’t work well. In typical Audi fashion, controls click and turn with impressive precision. None of these are sounds associated with fuel efficiency.

Aside from a power/efficiency gauge in place of a tachometer and precious few other signs, there’s little that distinguishes the inside of the e-tron from other A3s. Get it with the Google Earth navigation and touchpad wheel on the center console and remember how slickly it operates compared to other systems.

But the most notable feature of the e-tron’s interior is the lack of sacrifice for the sake of the electrification. The rear seats fold about as flat as they normally would, and there’s nothing to suggest practicality has been changed until you tear apart the cargo floor in search of the non-existent spare tire.

Space isn’t any A3’s strong suit. Remember the Audi is effectively based on a Golf and you’ll wonder where the room went. The effects of a trim exterior are felt inside, despite a large glass roof that isn’t supposed to eat into headroom. Two people and their duffel bags will be fine for the weekend, but four adults will be unhappy on a long drive.

Compared to other compact hatchbacks, the A3 is short on space for people and things, which leaves you that feeling of paying more for less. In fact, it’s the price that weighs heavily on this car.

The trouble with normal

The least expensive e-tron goes for $38,825, but as is typical of German luxuries, you’ll almost never see one like this for sale. Any color other than white or black is an additional $575. The mid-level Premium Plus version I drove included commonly added features such as 17-inch wheels, the full LED headlights, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and that damn Audi cable to connect your Apple device – all for another $4,100. The Technology Package, with navigation and blind-spot monitoring? That’s $2,600. We’re at $46,100 now and could have gone up to $50,000.

Right now, you’re expecting a caveat in that lofty price for this electrified Audi hatchback thanks to healthy government incentives. But because the e-tron isn’t as electric as the federal government would like, you get just a $4,158 tax credit rather than the full $7,500. And that doesn’t bring the price down enough, especially with gas not as exorbitantly priced as it has been. Leases are available, but a BMW i3’s have been far more aggressive lately.

With today’s relatively cheap fuel, a Volt, an i3 or a Prius at least have a statement to make, and that’s important to some of us whose homes are at sea level. I like the e-tron a lot, but gas prices need to swing heavily in its favor for it to make financial sense over gas-only A3 or Golf GTI. It may rescue my social life, but so would a Mazda MX-5 Miata, and that’s less expensive to buy.

The e-tron is basically like any other A3, and that’s a good thing when it comes to the way it looks and feels. It has just enough electric range, too, for many daily commutes. Just don’t wait for it to offer much more than what you’re expecting.

Photos Estrada