The Audi A3 Sportback is a luxury compact hatchback. In 2013, Audi had discontinued the Sportback variant of the A3, in favor of a re-launched compact sedan. But due to popular demand for the Sportback’s mix of attributes—elegant lines, high-quality materials, and practicality—the Sportback will be returning in 2015 as a 2016 model. This time around, there will be a plug-in hybrid version that provides up to 30 miles of all-electric driving—offered alongside an option powered by diesel.
Expect the same styling—the signature front grille, its distinctive headlight design, and the four rings—that makes Audi such a hot brand. The smart visual approach is combined with a comfortable interior layout and instrumentation and dashboard controls that are easy to use.
When it arrives in mid-2015, the Audi A3 e-tron will represent a lifestyle middle ground between the more staid Mercedes small wagon-like B-Class electric, and the iconoclastic utility-like Kia Soul EV compact. The Audi A3 Sportback plug-in hybrid feels more low-slung than those two cars, which are both purely electric.
We had about 20 minutes behind the wheel of the A3 e-tron at the 2013 Los Angeles auto show. The combined 203 horsepower from gas and electricity was more than enough for the crowded streets of Los Angeles. When stomping on the accelerator in the pre-production model, the engine did come on once—but we were told that in the final product, no matter how far or fast the pedal gets pressed, provided that there’s adequate charge in the battery and the right mode is selected, the engine will stay dormant and the quick, smooth and quiet electric motor will provide all the propulsion.
There are four different driver-selected modes—with pure EV as the default. Audi engineers designed the vehicle to work as much as possible like an electric car. Yet, an “auto” hybrid mode allows for more blending of gas and electric; a “hold” mode uses more gasoline to reserve electric power; and a “charging” mode turns on the gas engine explicitly to recharge batteries on the road. The vehicle is capable of “gliding” at high speeds—effectively removing any regenerative braking.
During our drive, the A3 plug-in hybrid ran nearly the whole time on electricity. Therefore, a typical driver will rarely experience the transition from electric to gas. In one brief moment, when we put the car into hybrid mode, there was a shudder as the gas engine came on. We found the noise to be minimal, but other reviewers of the pre-production version complained about loud revving. The main point is that, despite what engineers told us, the A3’s technical design has more similarities to plug-in hybrids like the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid or Ford’s Energi models—rather than extended-range electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt, or the range-extended BMW i3.
Some reviewers also believe the paddle-shifter, used for controlling the level of regenerative braking, has usability issues—in terms of the transitions back and forth from auto to manual modes.
The Audi A3 e-tron reportedly goes from 0 to 62 mph in 7.6 seconds. The powertrain combines a 1.4-liter turbocharged and direct injection engine, with a 75-kW electric motor. Total horsepower should be right around 200 ponies. Top speed is reported at 138 miles per hour with the gas engine running, but that drops down to a modest 81 mph purely on electricity.
Unlike most Audi vehicles, which are all-wheel drive, the Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid is a front-wheel drive vehicle.
Range in electric mode is 31 miles—via an 8.8 kilowatt-hour battery pack. That handily beats the plug-in Prius’s 11 miles, and the 20-something electron-powered miles offered by Ford plug-in hybrids. The Volt remains the leader in all-electric range at nearly 40 miles. (Keep in mind that the Volt’s battery is about twice the size of the e-tron’s pack.)
We expect the A3’s total range—when electricity and hydrocarbons are combined—to exceed 500 miles. Quick refueling is as close as the next gas station.
It’s too early to know about efficiency ratings, so don’t expect trustworthy MPGe numbers for some time. Besides, given the significant difference between efficiency when running on electricity versus gasoline, it mostly comes down to your drive cycle. This is true for all plug-in hybrids. If you’re able to do the lion’s share of your driving within the all-electric range, or have access to charging throughout the day, then you’re likely to see 100-mpg-plus levels of efficiency. But if you’re a long-distance commuter, you should expect efficiency numbers closer to what’s provided by a conventional (no-plug) hybrid gas-electric car: mid-40 to 50 mpg.
Like the Kia Soul EV, the A3 e-tron hides its charge port behind a front panel. It’s become standard for plug-in hybrids to use a 3.3-kW on-board charger, capable of adding about 10 to 12 miles in an hour of 240-volt charging. That means refueling from completely depleted to fully charged happens in less than three hours. Obviously, quick charge capability is not necessary.
Despite having the silhouette of a small wagon, the A3 is a compact car. In other words, it’s small—with limitations in dimensions especially felt by taller passengers in the back seat. Still, the 2013 model—the most recent one that can be used to measure—offered a decent 20 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats. And with the seats folded down, that cargo space expanded to 39 cubic feet.
All of this could work quite nicely for a daily commute, but space constraints might make you question a weeklong family vacation.
A final production model has not yet been produced. Safety testing will occur closer to introduction of the vehicle.
In Germany, Audi sells the A3 e-tron for around $50,000. A price for the U.S. market has not been announced, but we suspect that the Audi A3 e-tron will be priced to compete against other luxury plug-ins, such as the BMW i3 and Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive. That would put the price around $40,000, before incentives.
Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche plug-ins are expected to come with the full range of e-mobility solutions that are quickly becoming commonplace in the industry: free rental cars for several days a year; roadside assistance; 8-year/100k mile battery warranties; and a set of mobile apps.
Comparisons of Similar Cars
As just stated, the plug-in A3 mostly closely aligns with other luxury German plug-ins. Yet, the A3 e-tron will fill a niche that is currently unoccupied—in the sense that it's a European luxury plug-in hybrid (rather than a pure electric car). You could make the argument that the version of the i3 with the range-extended engine is roughly in the same space as the A3 e-tron—although they really are quite different animals.
What makes the A3 a viable competitor for the luxury plug-in buyer is the ability to truly go long-distances of many hundreds of miles without any shift in the driving experience—combined with a body style that in no ways feels futuristic and strange like many of the first-generation battery-powered cars in today’s showrooms.
The Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid is scheduled for introduction in fall 2015.