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Audi A3 e-tron review

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What is it? The Audi A3 e-tron is a plug-in hybrid version of the familar A3 Sportback.

Key features: Electric powertrain, low running costs, strong performance.

Our view: The Audi A3 e-tron drives just like any other A3 model, cruising and cornering with a competence that inspires confidence.

It is generally accepted that the electric car is going to grow in both acceptance and popularity, as buyers become more familiar with the technology and used to seeing such cars on the road.

Leading the way in the electric market is the plug-in hybrid format, principally because it removes the major drawback, apart from price, that prevents many from switching to electric – range anxiety.

The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) launched earlier in 2014, has already proven just how popular such technology can be, but it is this car, Audi’s first ‘e-tron’, and the forthcoming Golf GTE from sister brand Volkswagen that are expected to make the plug-in hybrid a mainstream model.

The first impression one gets on viewing the A3 e-tron is that it looks no different from the best-selling A3 Sportback model that it is based on. But for subtle badges, and on slipping behind the wheel a single extra switch on the centre console, this could be any of the range tested by The Car Expert in March 2013.

On the road, until one plays with the various electric modes, the car feels in most respects no different to driving any normal A3. So what makes it worthy of a price tag that even with the Government’s £5,000 plug-in car grant taken into account, is just over £5,700 more than an equivalent ‘normal’ A3 Sportback in Sport trim?

The answer is the hybrid powertrain. Matched to the 1.4-litre TFSI petrol engine of 147bhp is a 75kw electric motor, built in to a bespoke version of Audi’s six-speed S tronic auto/manual transmission and driving through the front wheels.

Power for the motor is supplied by a battery mounted with the fuel tank, under the floor and above the rear axle, which does impinge somewhat on boot space – the 280 litres (1,120 with rear seats folded down) is 100 litres less than a stock A3 Sportback and further compromised by the suitcase-sized pack that contains the standard-supplied charging lead and which lives in the boot.

The battery can be charged through the charging lead, which is connected via a panel behind the four-ring grille badge and takes two hours 15 minutes for a full charge. Or a normal domestic three-pin socket can be used, though this extends charging time to around four hours.

A neat touch is the ability to remotely monitor charging, pause it, and set such aspects as the climate control to have the car just how the driver likes it from the moment they get in, by either using a web portal or an app downloaded to a smartphone.

That’s the technology, and the resultant performance and economy figures make for impressive reading. The combined petrol/electric powerplant gives the A3 e-tron more than 50 extra horsepower, plus 7.5lbft more torque. This translates to a 0-62mph time of 7.6 seconds, seven tenths quicker than the petrol car, along with a terminal speed increased by 3mph to 138mph.

Along with this, the A3 e-tron returns CO2 emissions figures slashed by 79g/km to a positively miniscule 37g/km, and official combined cycle fuel economy of 176.6mpg – more than 100 miles further on a gallon than the stock car.

Now while there is no doubt that the e-tron will be a great deal more frugal in fuel use than the standard car, no-one truly expects to achieve even close to the official mpg figures in the real world. But such figures are used to set the various charges one faces for driving a car, and this is where the e-tron will really score – particularly if one is a fleet user.

Instead of VED band C, the A3 e-tron sits in band A, so there is no road tax to pay – no congestion charge either. In terms of Benefit-in-Kind tax, the rating plummets from 19 per cent to a bottom-drawer five per cent – with the resultant tax savings potentially running into thousands of pounds a year.

Starting the A3 e-tron is a silent process. The car has four modes, selected by that switch on the centre console, and the default is pure EV, hence the lack of engine noise.

One can drive the e-tron in EV mode out on the open road, for up to 31 miles with a full battery charge. The maximum speed drops to 80mph, but that is still above the UK motorway speed limit. It is also eerily quiet, with none of the radio-control model-like whine one is used to with EVs.

The most usual setting will likely be hybrid auto mode, which combines the engine and motor, engaging the latter as often as is practical and thus cutting fuel consumption and emissions.

In either of these modes if one suddenly finds a need for extra pace, kicking down the throttle like on a typical auto car will bring the petrol engine into action, with just the slightest of gaps before the car powers forward with enthusiasm.

There is also hybrid-hold mode, which calls upon the engine solely to provide the propulsion, preserving the battery charge for later use such as in an emissions-restricted city centre, and hybrid-charge mode, which uses the engine both for propulsion and as a generator to boost the battery charge. You feel the braking effect from the car’s coasting in this mode, but only in this mode.

Switching through the various modes is a simple one-click process, and a multi-colour dagrammatic display between the speedometer and rev counter keeps the driver fully updated as to what power they have available.

On the road, as already stated, the e-tron drives just like any other Audi A3 – the extra weight over the rear axle makes no appreciable difference, and the car cruises and corners with a competence that quickly inspires confidence.

Audi has set up 34 of its dealers as ‘e-tron centres’ with staff specially trained to sell the car. The brand admits that it doesn’t expect to see big numbers, at least initially – currently the UK electric market extends to only 40,000 vehicles with plug-ins only accounting for 5,500 of those. But as Audi’s Jon Zammett told media at the e-tron’s launch, this is a first move by the brand. The segment is doubling in size year on year, the upwards curve steadily steepening. We can likely expect more e-tron models from Audi…

Audi A3 e-tron – key specifications

Model Tested: Audi A3 e-tron Sportback
On Sale: January 2015
Range price: £29,950*
Insurance group: 23A
Engines: 1.4 petrol
Power (bhp): 147 (201 with electric)
Torque (lb/ft): 184 (258 with electric)
0-62mph (sec): 7.6**
Top speed (mph): 138**
Fuel economy (combined, mpg): 176.6
CO2 emissions (g/km): 37
Key rivals: BMW i3, Volvo V60 hybrid
Test Date: November 2014
* = With £5,000 Government Plug-in car grant included
** = in hybrid mode

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.