This car you see is clearly a new-generation Audi A3 Sportback. Yawn. But look closer and you’ll see the fancy decals that set this Sportback apart from the usual Bavarian five-door herd. “E-tron” is Audi’s sub-brand for all plug-in electric hybrids, and this A3 Sportback e-tron will be the first one of the breed to cruise into America.
Pricing for the plug-in electric hybrid A3 Sportback should come in at around $35,000 (or a few thousand less than the sticker for the BMW i3), and there will be no sedan. I’ll ask it: Why nothing really smart like a sedan A3 e-tron? The car’s project leader Jens van Eikels tells me, “With the chief markets intended to be China and the United States, we decided to offer the A3 e-tron in a body configuration that was out of the mainstream in these markets in particular.” The percentage of sales worldwide of the A3 lineup that will be e-tron Sportbacks, too, should amount to about five percent. So, for now Audi can dabble with early adopters happy to spend the extra green cash.
And it’s a ways off really, as you can tell by the headline here with that future-y "2015" model year. Audi wants to launch the A3 e-tron first in western Europe in September 2014, to be followed around March 2015 in the United States and Canada. So, it may actually be publicized here as a 2016 model. (Weren’t all cars supposed to be flying by then?) What I drove around southern California this day is a finished-looking prototype, but it is definitely a prototype. Main giveaways: the rough transitions between pure EV and hybrid driving with the 1.4-liter four-cylinder, and the removable smoker’s package ashtray in the center cupholder that is fixed and used to hide the red kill switch in case anything goes catastrophically wrong with the test mule. The latter red button is required on any prototype, and I didn’t use it all day, thus living to write this review.
Audi’s huge promise here is up to 600 miles of range from a full 10.6-gallon tank of fuel when the car is driven in a place like Iowa in perfect weather by someone with absolutely no place to get to in a hurry. In the dramatic hilly coastal zone of SoCal, I was nonetheless hitting 45 mpg while playing between pure EV and the other three modes — Hybrid, Hold, and Charge. This is the 148-hp tune of the multiple award-winning 1.4 TFSI engine, and it is paired with a 101-hp electric motor integrated within the housing for the six-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Together, they are allowed to churn forth to the front wheels 201 hp and 258 pound-feet of torque.
The weight gain by adding the e-motor, lithium-ion battery stack beneath the rear seats, AC/DC energy converter, orange high-voltage cables and e-power control unit is roughly 670 more pounds over a straight Euro 1.4 TFSI A3 Sportback, for a total of nearly 3,500 pounds. As I suspected, I actually enjoyed this added feeling of substance all day while driving this very fancy Volkswagen Golf VII. (And note: There will be a future Golf GTE five-door using the exact same powertrain tested here.) Though the A3 e-tron is capable of hitting 60 mph from a stop in just 7.5 seconds if you punch every button and paddle just so, I didn’t care so much about all that forward thrust. This is an everyday cruiser that goes the distance while providing all of the Audi premium tricks we’ve come to laud all these years.
This is also a Euro-trim tester I’m in here and I took engineer Eikels and his team to task for the measly 31-mile maximum range in EV mode from the 8.8-kWh battery pack. This powertrain combo might work well with your typical Ingolstadt-Munich commuter crowd, but in Los Angeles alone the range needs to be closer to 50 miles in order to get people here to get excited. And from this prying I got us a scoop: By the time the A3 e-tron goes on sale in North America, the lithium-ion assembly will pack over 10 kWh. Therefore, total possible range from the smaller fuel tank may creep toward 700 miles, as well. In Iowa and in no hurry.
Besides the flash decals on the flanks — which, no, you will not have to wear — the grille is new and quite flash as well. This was able to be afforded because they needed a new grille anyway in order to incorporate the cable’s plug-in point. Just push the four rings inward and then slide the plastic piece to the left and — shazzam! — there’s your outlet. Both the front and rear lower lips are chromed plastic that is specific to the e-tron world, and the rear detail helps hide the twin tailpipes at the left side.
It takes around three hours and forty-five minutes for a full battery recharge from a standard house current, while from the higher-throughput wall box it can happen in less than two hours. There is no DC quick-charge option offered since the lithium-ion pack has been kept relatively small-capacity. That’s their logic on the matter anyway.
Interior alterations include an EV mode button in the center stack which you use to toggle between the four powertrain strategies, the new heavily green-colored instrument cluster graphics for showing off efficiency and powertrain behavior (thank you, Europe-only A8 Hybrid), and then less available cargo space in back due to the needs of the 275-lb., 96-cell battery assembly. In effect, the lost 3.5 cubic feet in back is a borderline inconvenience at best since it is the underfloor/spare tire space which is lost and rarely if ever used by most owners. Still, whiners gonna whine.
Apart from the aforementioned prototype imperfections at this point of development, I thoroughly enjoyed the drive comportment and powertrain efficiency of the A3 Sportback e-tron once I stopped dreaming that it was an RS3 Quattro. Funnily enough, however, the RS3 engine bay subframe is used here to accommodate the added width of the hybrid powermakers up front, as well as to keep things good and stiff beneath that added weight. The electronic steering via the standard 19-inch wheels is perfectly swell, too, while the default chassis setup is more comfortable than that of the standard A3.
There is definitely work to be done on the four-cylinder engine’s seamless on/off promises, but there’s more than enough time prior to launch for the perfectionists at Audi’s tron division to fix anything that ails the A3 e-tron. The car has better range and costs less than the BMW i3, plus considerably more true sport-compact aspirations than either the i3, any Toyota Prius or Chevrolet Volt — and it looks better, too.