The Audi A3 e-tron is the first of what will likely be many Audi plug-in hybrid models to hit the United States in the coming years. The German luxury maker has been saying for the last several years that it plans to bring plug-in hybrid variants to all of its major vehicle lines, and we’ve since seen previews of several of those models. Audi recently projected that plug-ins will account for 25 percent of global sales by 2025, and in Europe, the A3 e-tron is already a mild hit—accounting for more than twice as many sales as the BMW i3 last year.
The 2016 Audi A3 e-tron is a luxury compact hatchback—or by Audi’s language, a Sportback. In 2013, Audi discontinued the Sportback variant of the A3 in favor of a re-launched compact sedan. Due to popular demand for the Sportback’s mix of attributes—elegant lines, high-quality materials, and practicality—Audi soon promised to bring the body style back for 2016, planning to attach it to TDI and plug-in hybrid models of the A3. But with parent company Volkswagen’s massive diesel emissions scandal putting at least a temporary end to Audi’s diesel ambitions in the US, the 2016 Audi A3 e-tron is the only hatchback version of the A3 Americans can buy for the time being.
The A3 e-tron is imbued with the same styling—the signature front grille, its aggressive headlight design, and the four rings—that makes Audi such a hot brand. This design language is particularly suited to the A3, giving the little car an air of meanness that dispatches any tendency to associate small vehicles, especially ones with an electric powertrain, as merely “cute.”
The interior of the e-tron is difficult to distinguish from other A3 models, which have received rave reviews for their comfortable interior layout, minimalist instrumentation, and dashboard controls that are easy to use. The cabin is stylish and well built, employing high-quality materials throughout, but it’s the details that really set the A3’s interior apart from its competitors. Zero-gap panels, chrome-ringed air vents and an ultra-thin retractable MMI display interface are among the many touches that give the A3’s cabin an unobtrusively modern feel.
Audi will soon grace us with a mid-cycle redesign of the A3, which recently spied under camouflage in Europe. The tweaks are expected to be minor, though a revised grille and modest bumper redesign seem to be in the offing. The new A3 is expected to go on sale next year, though it hasn’t been confirmed when the e-tron Sportback will receive its update.
The A3 e-tron has 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 on highways—which some drivers find to be a drawback to the driving experience of hybrids and plug-ins.
The Audi A3 e-tron goes from 0 to 62 mph in 7.6 seconds. The powertrain combines a 1.4-liter, 150-horsepower turbocharged and direct injection engine with a 75-kW electric motor. Total combined horsepower from engine and motor is 204 ponies, with combined torque topping out at 258 pound-feet. Top speed is reported at 138 miles per hour with the gas engine running, but that drops down to a modest 80 mph purely on electricity.
Unlike most Audi vehicles the Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid sends its power exclusively from its front wheels through a six-speed automated clutch transmission. Audi’s famous Quattro all-wheel drive configuration is not an option for now.
Range in electric mode is 16 miles—via an 8.8 kilowatt-hour battery pack. That’s more range than the outgoing Toyota Prius plug-in but for plug-in hybrid five-seaters, the Chevy Volt remains the far and away leader in all-electric range at more than 50 miles. Once the lithium ion battery pack is depleted, the A3 turns into a regular hybrid and gets a decent EPA-estimated 39 mpg combined. Between electric and gasoline, the A3 has a total range of 380 miles, and an 86-MPGe overall EPA energy efficiency rating.
In real-world driving, the A3’s efficiency 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—in this case, behind Audi’s four-ring logo on the grille. The hinges seem susceptible to wear-and-tear over time, but we need a couple years to see how they hold up. 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 about 2.5 hours. With a standard 110-volt outlet, the A3 charges to capacity in 8 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. Like most cars its size, the A3 is best suited for four adults or fewer on longer drives—preferably with passengers shorter than six feet tall in the backseat.
On the plus side, unlike some other plug-ins , the A3 doesn’t lose any passenger or cargo room thanks to its battery, which is inconspicuously housed beneath the rear seat. This leaves 13.6 cubic-feet of space in the hatch cargo area, expandable with the 60/40 rear seat folded down.
All of this could work quite nicely for a daily commute, but space constraints might make you question a weeklong family vacation.
The A3 comes with stability and traction control, collision-anticipating software that tightens seatbelts and closes the windows, antilock brakes and side curtain airbags. Available safety features include automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, and a collision warning system.
The A3 e-tron hasn’t yet received crash test ratings in the United States, but the European NCAP gave the car its top 5-star safety rating. Stateside, the NHTSA gives the gas-powered A3 sedan a 5-star overall rating but just four stars in its frontal crash and rollover categories. It should be noted though that the A3 sold here is a sedan, not the Sportback body style attached to the e-tron.
The all-new 2016 A3 Sportback e-tron plug-in hybrid begins at $37,900 before incentives and a $925 destination fee. The so-called Premium Plus package is offered at $42,000, with the Prestige package upping the price to $46,800. All of these starting prices are mitigated somewhat by a $4,158 federal tax credit, which is calculated based on battery size. After the credit, the cost of an e-tron comes to just $3,000 more than a base-level A3, and this price consideration becomes considerably more neutral when you factor in the extra standard equipment in the e-tron.
The A3 e-tron comes standard with leather seats, keyless ignition, LED lights, 10-speaker audio, sunroof, a rearview camera and a number of options you’d have to pay extra for in the base A3. Premium Plus upgrades from 16-inch to 17-inch alloy wheels, adaptive headlights and heated front seats. The Prestige trim adds a touchpad interface controller, a larger screen and a navigation system.
Comparisons of Similar Cars
The plug-in A3 mostly closely aligns with other luxury German plug-ins. Yet, the A3 e-tron fills 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.
From a pure efficiency and range standpoint, the A3 can’t compete with the 2016 Chevy Volt or Ford C-Max Energi, both of which beats it for range at a lower price point. Still, Audi is hoping that luxury buyers will compare the e-tron’s relatively reasonable price point to gas-only cars in its class and decided that the added fuel economy and standard features are worth the incremental price premium.
After delays brought on by finalizing approvals from regulators, the Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid finally hit showrooms in January 2016. It’s available at nearly all of Audi’s 287 U.S. dealerships.