First Impressions: Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

Tony Dron drives the new e-tron hybrid version of the Audi A3 Sportback.

Prepare to be seriously impressed. When I put the obvious question about their latest model to Audi, I was astonished by what happened next, but we’ll get to that later. First, things are moving fast in automotive technology and the changes in the next ten years are going to be much greater and more amazing than anything we have seen in the last three decades.

Audi’s first hybrid car, the A3 Sportback e-tron, is one step on the way. Wisely, they have applied the new engineering to an existing, top-seller and made it seem, most of the time, like a perfectly normal petrol-powered family wagon – complete with five seats and a decent boot. The difference is that you can switch it between four driving modes, one of which gives you purely electric drive for up to 31 miles.

There is no range anxiety because the A3 e-tron can always fall back on its petrol engine and the range from its combined power sources is over 580 miles. It looks sensible and it is sensible but it’s also fun to drive and, no doubt to the dismay of heads-in-the-sand anti-car bores who welcomed electric vehicles because they thought they’d be slow, this electric Audi is quick.

The combined 1.4TFSI petrol engine and 75kw electric motor give a top speed of 138mph and 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds, which is significantly quicker than a non-electric A3 Sportback 2.0 TDI Sport S tronic, a highly respected performer which looks almost exactly the same.

Audi, famed as a leading innovator in automotive engineering, is quick to remind us of the A3’s lightweight aluminium body construction and, equally, the pioneering race-proven hybrid technology that has delivered two outright wins in the Le Mans 24Hrs.

So what was the obvious question? Simple: given that all the above is true, and a large fortune has been spent developing that race-winning hybrid technology, why haven’t they used the same system in this road car? The Audi R18 e-tron Quattro race car that won at Le Mans in 2014 captures energy via a flywheel but the A3 Sportback e-tron has a permanent magnet synchronous electric motor/generator mated to the gearbox and a battery, with no flywheel to spin up under braking.

We were in the North East of England for the A3 Sportback e-tron launch when I put this question. Immediately, they sent a man with a mic down to the pit-road in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the final round of the 2014 World Endurance Championship was taking place. My question was put directly to Chris Reinke, the Audi R18 Project Leader, and within minutes I received an email with an audio attachment of Mr Reinke, in person, in South America, answering the question – exclusively for NEW CAR NET readers. Wow.

Here’s the essence of what he said: the race car requires a very intense recuperation and boost cycle – about three seconds each way. The demand in road cars now is different: you recoup for quite a while and then you run on electric power, also for quite a while. For the moment, then, the road car with its battery and the race car with its flywheel have ideal systems for their different requirements.

There are, however, links between the race and road cars, particularly in electronics. The race team is at the forefront of the extreme end of development. Mr Reinke concluded, ‘But believe me, that kind of technology will reach relevance in years to come . . . the spin-off will be seen in road cars.’

In other words, when it come to road cars, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Meanwhile, this first Audi plug-in hybrid can be ordered now for deliveries starting in January 2015. As it qualifies for the Government’s OLEV grant of £5,000, the OTR pricing is from £29,950. That includes all-weather LED front and rear lights, special 17in wheels, light and rain sensors, a handy charging point concealed behind the four-rings badge on the front grille, a public charging cable kit, MMI Navigation with Audi Connect, and more.

Even so, it’s not difficult to add several thousand to that price with a few extras such as leather sports seats, a panoramic glass roof, a special paint job, optional 18in wheels and so on.

To drive, it does feel like a perfectly normal premium quality car, with a six-speed S tronic gearbox and surprisingly good torque and throttle response from its hybrid power sources. The main driving mode uses both petrol and electric, with the battery recouping and delivering power as required. The other three are ‘Hold’, retaining battery power for later EV use; ‘Charge’, generating maximum electric range as quickly as possible while using the petrol engine; and ‘EV’, which gives purely electric drive up to 81mph.

It’s pretty lively around town in EV mode but if you floor the throttle a kickdown switch starts the petrol engine for maximum performance. The transition between the two is so impressively smooth that you can’t feel it.

The lithium-ion battery is quite compact, adds only 125kg and is very securely bolted to the floor between the rear wheels. If it has to be recharged by cable, it takes 2 hours, 15 minutes (public point) or 4 hours (domestic point).

The A3 Sportback e-tron officially emits a mere 37g/km of CO2 and has an official combined mpg figure 176.6. That sounds incredible – in the real world, a very wide range of mpg figures can be achieved and it all depends on road conditions and, most important of all, how you choose to drive it. There is no VED charge in the first or subsequent years and it’s free of the London Congestion Charge.

Audi feels that it has timed the launch of this very interesting new car just right. Just a few thousand are likely to be sold in the first year but demand for electric vehicles, including hybrids such as this, is expected to double every year after that.

What is sure is that cars are going to change beyond all recognition in the next decade, with an enormous variety available. Small engine and big battery? Big engine and small battery? Four-wheel-drive, rear drive or front drive? Stuff we haven’t even heard about yet? The choice will be yours.

Source: New Car Net

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