Why Audi A3 E-Tron Is a More Significant Car Than You Think

By · November 07, 2015

Audi A3 E-Tron

For all the excitement about plug-in electric vehicles since their introduction five years ago, there are only 10 models that sell at a rate of more than 200 per month. Half of those—just five cars—are plug-in hybrids (if you include the BMW i3 with extended range). Starting later this month, electric buyers have one more to consider: the Audi A3 E-tron, which we recently took for a spin from San Francisco to and around Palo Alto, Calif. It’s a great car, but its appeal is a lot less about battery-power—and a lot more about style and road manners. Here's where it gets interesting: there are a lot more drivers who care about those things than about the battle between electrons and hydrocarbons.

If you view the Audi A3 E-Tron as a plug-in for plug-in’s sake, it’s fairly anemic. The 8.8 kilowatt-hour pack grants less than 20 miles of all-electric range, which in contrast to the new 2016 Chevy Volt’s 50-plus electric miles, seems like weak sauce. But isn’t overall efficiency—burning less fuel and emitting less carbon—the name of the game? That’s what the A3’s battery pack and a sophisticated plug-in hybrid powertrain make possible, regardless of the electric-range metric.

Audi A3 E-Tron

The Battlefront Shifts

In an alternative universe, if Audi—just five years ago—had announced a new small hatchback granting the equivalent of 83 miles per gallon (as the A3 E-Etron does), it would have rocked the automotive world to its core. That shows how far EVs and plug-in hybrids have transformed the market. Today, the introduction of an 83-mpge Audi is ho-hum news.

But we, as EV fans, could be missing something more important: perhaps the battle for the electric vanguard is no longer about amping up electric range, but rather maximizing widespread acceptance. Maybe the proper shopping comparison for the A3 E-Tron is not the Volt—or some upcoming 200- to 300-mile EV—but the retrograde Toyota Prius.

We electric-heads are busy celebrating Tesla selling about 19,000 cars so far this year—or the LEAF and Volt reaching or surpassing 15,000 sales. Meanwhile, Toyota sold more than 95,000 Toyota Prius Liftbacks at 50-mpg a pop.

Add the more efficient Prius C’s 33,000 sales, and the V wagon’s 25,000 sales—and the smart play for new plug-in-makers, for both sales and petroleum displacement, is stealing Prius buyers. In other words, if Audi could find just 10 percent of Prius buyers who don’t love the quintessential hybrid’s appliance-like appearance and painfully boring driving experience, then we could convert a lot more American drivers to the wonders of plugging in.

This argument goes way beyond a single model. Get ready: the next big wave of plug-in models is coming from German luxury automakers—Audi, BMW and Mercedes—offering plug-ins with relatively modest EV range. Don’t hiss. Instead, think about how good these cars (as cars) are going to be.

Audi A3 E-Tron

From Behind the Wheel

The Prius can’t touch the A3 E-Tron for a fun, spirited, and stylish drive. Before you start up the motor, just take a look at the level of refinement of the interior. Roll back the sunroof, feel the textures, and see how your tush feels in the seat. There a lot of buyers who want the efficiency of a Prius (or better), but are sick of traveling coach on their daily commute. And they are willing to pay for it.

Moreover, no matter what faux-performance mode you select in a Prius, it can’t touch the feeling of the A3’s 150-horsepower and the 184 pound-feet of torque. Slap the A3 E-Tron’s gear-shifter into manual, so you can up- and down-shift at will, step on the go-pedal, and the thing really responds.

Audi A3 E-Tron

Whoa. “What about the environment?” you say. Well, today’s traffic doesn’t allow but for a minute or two of truly spirited driving anyhow. So, when that itch has been scratched, get back into automatic—and use the buttons on the dash to select EV mode. For as long as it lasts, about 20 or so miles, you can travel emissions-free. That’s a nice trick. Sure, the EV mode dampens the power and maxes out at 80 miles per hour, but you get that wonderful silent and swift feel of an EV. For those with a short round-trip commute—or with workplace charging for a midday electric fill-up—most days can be all about the electrons.

The A3 E-Tron’s modes also provide a lot of options—maybe too many—for when and how a driver uses the electricity, and the level of regenerative braking versus gliding. After playing with those for a few minutes, our guess is that you’ll put the transmission in auto, select the “hybrid” mode, and be on your way.

An Incredibly Efficient German Hybrid

Weekend jaunts create a dilemma for many pure EV drivers. A decent road trip means garaging your small battery-only electric car, and firing up a bigger gas car. On the other hand, the A3 E-Tron will not only provide adequate transportation service, but the ability to hit the highway, feel the road, carry gear—and enjoy the build-quality and engineering that frankly puts German automobiles a step ahead of its American and Japanese counterparts. The kicker is that the E-Tron is now the only variant of the model available in a sportback design.

Audi A3 E-Tron

The price of admission, after incentives and optioned out, is in the mid-$30,000 range. That buys a total package of attributes, which is hard to find in any other conventional hybrid or any plug-in electric car—even if the Audi E-Tron doesn’t quite match up on single factors, such as EV range, rock-bottom price, or overall efficiency.

Sure, there will be a number of buyers—relatively small—who want to push the envelope on EV range. But for the rest of the big wide world of drivers who think first about a car with pep and prestige, the Audi A3-Tron points the way to the future of plug-ins.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.