Emissions legislation politics is a hairy subject at the company holiday party. But there are some unexpected benefits regardless ofÂ your take on California’s ZEV mandate or the EPA’s CAFE standards.
Without this legislation we may never have seen Audi’s smallest station wagon return to America. Yep, Audi’s first plug-in hybrid comes in the form of a small hatchback-cum-station-wagon. That means if you want an Audi plug-in, a compact wagon is in your future. If you want a compact wagon, you aren’t going to get one without a plug.
Fortunately, the Audi in question isÂ the tasty new A3 Sportback E-tron.
While Audi’s plug-in hybrid isn’tÂ as bonkers as Volvo’s turbocharged, supercharged, all-wheel drive, plug-in hybrid, the Europeans certainly know how to throw different technologies into a blender. The oddly named A3 Sportback E-tron uses a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, an electric motor, and a dual-clutch transmission (instead of the planetary gearset style hybrid system foundÂ in Toyota, Ford, GM or Chrysler hybrids).
TheA3 E-tron uses theÂ same 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine as the Jetta Hybrid. Tuned for maximum efficiency, it produces 150 horsepower and 184 pounds-feet of torque. Although the system is similar to the one used in the Jetta, the engine is the only common part. Instead of the Jetta’s seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, Audi uses a six-speedDCT and couples it with a 102-horsepower AC motor that’s nearly four times as powerful as the JettaÂ hybrid. On top of that, a battery pack that’s 800-percent larger than the one foundÂ in the Jetta stores the A3’sÂ electrical go-go juice. Just don’t expect to get 252 horsepower from this puppy. The engine and motor don’t produceÂ peak powerÂ at the same time, soÂ combined output is rated at 204 horsepower and 258 lbs-ft of torque.
If you drive the e-Tron gently, you’ll get 16 miles of EV range out of the 8.8 kWh battery. The resulting 83 MPGe EV efficiency rating is below the Volt’s 98 MPGe and well behind the i3 BEV’s 124 score.Â Once the battery is depleted it’s a similar story with the e-Tron system delivering 35 MPG average which is behind the Volt’s 42 combined figure but similar to what we got in the i3 REx last time we tested it. This isn’t surprising for a plug-in hybrid. Remember that EV efficiency will be hampered by the extra weight of the gasoline engine while hybrid efficiency is hampered by the added weight of the battery and large AC motor.
For better or worse, there is little standardization when it comes to certain aspects of EV design. Simple matters like “where does the plug go?” vary from car to car â€” and that’s before we even discuss Tesla’s “off the reservation” charge connector. Audi hides the e-Tron’s receptacle behind the Audi logo on the front grille, opened by turningÂ a small knob to open the panel. (Don’t worry, the panelÂ locks with the car.) While this design cue is certainly discreet, bugs crusted the entire area by the end of the week. SqueamishÂ shoppers should pack some gloves.
As we’ve seen in other plug-in hybrids, Audi skipped any form of DC fast charging in the A3. While I have heard grumbles about this, it honestly makes little sense to quick charge a plug-in hybrid when you can just stop at the gas station and fill up the tank in minutes. The on-board charger is a 3.3 kW unit â€” which is on the smaller side for a pure EV, but average in the plug-in segment â€” and it will charge the battery in 2.5-9 hours depending on your power source. In an unusual step, Audi includes a dual-voltage, portable, electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) charger that can charge at 3.7 kW from aÂ 240V dryer plug. Although you may still need an electrician to provide the proper outlet in your garage, it’s about a $600 value that you don’t even see in pure EVs.
If you’re the kind of person that likes interesting trivia, the E-tron uses the same liquid-cooling loop to cool the AC motor and the water-to-air intercooler.
I’ve been a fan of Audi’s simple and elegant interior since the A3 sedan landed a few years ago, and that translates wholesale into the E-tron. The only real changes are an extra button that allows you to changeÂ the hybrid system’s drive modes and a powerÂ gauge that replaces the tachometer. That means we still get the same comfortable front seats, same Volvo-esque pop-up nav system, and the sameÂ lack ofÂ driver’s seat memory. The A3 cabin is clean, attractive andÂ without question designed by an engineer that understands that Americans like cup holders, but has no real idea what we do with them. The Diet Pepsi slots are large enough to hold your super-sizedÂ McDonald’s CokeÂ butÂ positioned such that your drink bashes your climate control buttons.
Unlike the C-Max and original Prius-with-a-plugÂ hybrids, Audi modified theÂ E-tron’s structure to make itsÂ battery placement more efficient. Audi ditched the spare tire well and filled the void by jamming the gas tank and battery aft of the rear seats. This means that, aside from the missing spare, the A3 E-tron has the same cargo capacity as a standard A3 wagon.
Although full of unintuitive menus, MMI has probably one of the most advanced feature sets on the market, and one of the most attractive navigation maps thanks to a well-executed integration of Google’s satellite imagery. MMI even displays Google’s Street View images so you can â€œcreepâ€� your neighbors. On the downside, the Google map function requires a $15-30 per month subscription after the first few years for the built-in cellular modem, and the system has troubles downloading maps fast enough when traveling at freeway speeds, leaving you with a blank screen at times. If you prefer the simple life, navigation is optional, and the entire screen can hide withinÂ belowÂ dashboard while you drive.
If you hadn’t thought of it yet, the motor’s placement between the transmission and engine is essential to understanding how the car drives. When accelerating in EV mode, the DSG shifts through the six ratios just like a gasoline-only A3, albeit one with only 102 ponies under the hood. The experience is entirely silent since the e-Tron will heat and cool the cabin without involving the engine. Once you either deplete the battery or select a hybrid system mode that preserves battery charge, the system starts the engine and blends the power sources just like the Jetta Hybrid. Zero-to-60 acceleration in EV mode clocked in at a leisurelyÂ 11.1 seconds, about 3.0-secondsÂ longer than a dedicated EV such as the Kia Soul EV. When in hybrid mode, however, the sprintÂ drops to 7.9 seconds, putting it half way between the 1.8T and 2.0T versions of the A3 sedan.
As we see in the Chevy Volt, Audi provides a “charge” mode that will charge the battery to near full capacity. For many drivers, this isÂ nothing more than a novelty. But if you live in a mountainous area, it may make sure that you have all 204 horsepower still available 3/4 of the way up the continental divide.
Braking is one area where EVs and hybrids still have room to improve.Â When decelerating, power flows in the opposite direction from the wheels through the six-speed DSG to the A/C motor to recharge the batteries. Ponder that for just a moment. As you slow from 60 mphÂ to zero, the transmission shifts backward from sixth to first gear. Right before you finally stop moving, it shifts to neutral. The car’s electronics coordinate the actual amount of friction braking required, which obviously has to momentarily increase as the transmission shifts gears and then modulate from gear to gear. How well VW’s software engineers handled this complicated dance on a technical level impressed me. However, the brake feel ranges from unusual to decidedly odd depending on the situation, especially when quickly transitioning from mild to moderate braking.
The hybrid system adds pounds to the otherwise lightweight A3. On the bright side, much of itÂ is over the rear axle, which improves the weight balance versus its sedan counterpart. Unfortunately, the ultra low rolling resistance 225/45R17sÂ tires give up long before the A3’s suspension. Although Audi does offer an optional summer tire,Â they drop the size to a 205/55R16 in the process to keep fuel economy figures the same.
Starting at $38,825, the E-tron is $7,000 more than a base A3 sedan. If you live in California, the joint federal and state tax credits can cut this delta to just under $1,400, placing it firmly between the 1.8T and 2.0T models.
Comparisons as a plug-in hybrid get complicated. Every brand has a plug-in, but none of them are the same kind of car. BMW gets the closest with itsÂ i3 with range extender thatÂ undercuts the A3 slightly if you qualify forÂ maximum credits. The A3 E-tron can drive almost 400 miles on a full tank of gas and a full battery while the i3Â can drive onlyÂ 160 miles tops. The A3 drives just like a regular hybrid after the EV portion of the battery is depleted, butÂ the i3 drives very differently. The Audi looks and feels just like a regular car. The i3, not so much.
As a luxury upgrade from a 2016 Chevrolet Volt, the E-tron makes sense. The MSRP starts around $6,000 higher, but the A3 delivers a more premium experience, more sorted handling, better steering feel, a more usable back seat and a more practical cargo area.
There’s just one problem: The A3 sedan. Audi’s starter sedan is more nimble, can be configured with AWD, and really isn’t much less efficient. The last time we drove the A3 1.8T, it averaged 29 mpgÂ even when equipped with AWD. Our running total with the e-Tron after a week and nearly 700 miles was 35.5 MPG when in hybrid only mode and 38 MPG when taking into account the five complete battery charges that were consumed during the week. Obviously the shorter your commute and the more you can operate in EV mode the better your numbers will be.
Politics of plug-ins and EVs aside, it would take more than the average lease period to break even on the E-tron. While my inner-nerd loves the E-tron as the embodiment of a wheeled gadget, I suspect most shoppers would be better served by the A3 sedan.
Audi provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.Â
Specifications as tested
0-30: 3.0 seconds
0-60: 7.9 seconds
1/4 mile: 16.1 seconds @ 89Â mph