I’d like to say that most of us are greening sufficiently to consider a plug-in for our next vehicle, but sales stats don’t agree. As of the close of calendar year 2016, which saw a new record for PHEV and EV sales, plug-ins amounted to just 0.57 percent of total global auto sales. I suppose we’ve got to start somewhere, and with respect to Audi that somewhere is the new A3 Sportback e-tron.
The A3 Sportback e-tron, which debuted for the 2016 model year but has been updated with sharp new styling and improved interior features along with the entire A3/S3 range for 2017, is a PHEV, or rather a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, rather than an EV, which (as you probably can deduce) stands for Electric Vehicle. Toyota’s Prius, the world’s most famous electric, is mostly sold as an HEV or Hybrid Electric Vehicle, a term normally shortened to hybrid. Hence, in the name of verbal laziness we now refer to PHEVs and EVs as plug-ins, although there are important differences.
First off, EVs (also called BEVs or Battery Electric Vehicles) run solely on battery power and therefore need to be recharged regularly in order to go anywhere. To do so you can either plug them into your 120-volt household socket (which will take most of, if not all night to top up) or connect them to a quick charger either purchased from a given EV manufacturer and mounted to your garage wall or found just about anywhere else these days, from outside a local shopping mall’s front door to hotel parking lots and in front of government buildings, not to mention curbside in many urban centers. Depending on jurisdiction quick charging is mostly free (for the foreseeable future), takes an average of two and a half hours depending on the size of battery (you normally are asked to unplug in four hours), and oftentimes even includes free parking.
Yes, just some of the perks that come with owning a plug-in. Having previously tested numerous PHEVs and EVs, and being a card-carrying member of ChargePoint (one of the organizations managing public charge stations), I immediately took the new A3 Sportback e-tron to a local shopping center to recharge, and slotted it next to a row of empty Tesla chargers on one side and a Nissan Leaf, Kia Soul EV, and BMW i3 on the other, and must admit to looking a bit green while trying to find its socket. A quick search on my smartphone showed it hidden behind the brand’s four-ringed badge on the front grille. You’d never know it was there unless instructed how to find it, the e-tron a PHEV sleeper if there ever was one (a standout electric icon—like the Leaf—it’s not, despite being a handsome looking five-door).
A quick twist of a rotating release lever within the second ring pops the badge outward and to the left, revealing a standard 32A socket that was ripe for a free recharge. I plugged it in and proceeded to the food court to get some work done while stealing free Wi-Fi (the life of an auto journalist… always on the take for handouts).
Of course, an A3 e-tron owner doesn’t need to recharge unless they want to, so therefore “range anxiety”, a new term for those concerned about being stranded on the side of the road without power, should only worry those who forget to fill the tank with unleaded. When the 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery is low the e-tron works like a regular hybrid, the 150 horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and additional kinetic forces, such as brake regeneration, adding electrons to top up the battery which then provides energy to the 75kW electric motor and assistance to the internal combustion engine (ICE) or, if full enough, deliver occasional EV propulsion all on its own.
Empty is how Audi delivered my tester’s battery due to circumstances beyond anyone’s (but the previous driver’s) control, hence my immediate run to the mall to top up its resources. Audi claims the A3 e-tron will provide an EV-range of up to 20 miles in optimal conditions (15 miles is more likely) and an ultimate range of just over 300 miles when its battery is fully charged and 10.5-gallon tank topped off with gas, meaning this is an electric that can get you back and forth to work under clean, ultimately-efficient EV power during weekdays while providing worry-free long-range road trips on weekends. The ski hills are beckoning.
And yes, along with its commendable fuel economy that equals 34 mpg combined city/highway when cruising in conventional hybrid mode, or 83 MPGe in mixed city/highway combined EV/PHEV driving, the A3 e-tron gets the Sportback moniker, which is Audi-speak for extremely versatile five-door hatchback. It’s shaped more like a wagon, as was its gasoline- and TDI diesel-powered predecessor, and while compact in size is nevertheless big on the inside.
This can be said for the aforementioned Prius and its plug-in Prius Prime counterpart, or for a more directly competitive Toyota, Lexus’ CT 200h hybrid. No, the long-in-tooth Japanese model doesn’t offer a plug-in variant (and we shouldn’t expect one based on the CT as something similar to the UX crossover concept will likely replace it soon), which means that so far only the i3 and Mercedes B-Class EV offer hatchback plug-in competition in the U.S. premium small car sector. Move up a notch to the D-segment as well as the compact luxury SUV class and Mercedes offers its C 350e PHEV and GLCe PHEV, BMW has its 330e, and (fingers crossed) Tesla will soon arrive with its Model 3, while above these there’s a plethora of plug-ins, many of which are extremely utile SUVs of which Audi’s own Q7 e-tron should soon compete.
As it is, the A3 e-tron offers up a roomy cargo hold with the advantage of 60/40-split rear seatbacks made better by a large center pass-through (a 40/20/40-split is the most flexible seating/cargo arrangement, but this will do). In comparison the CT 200h only offers a 60/40-split with no pass-through, and the A3 e-tron is much more accommodating for rear passengers and cargo with the latter measuring 13.6 cubic feet when all seats are available for use and 33.7 cubic feet when laid flat. That’s about 3.5 cubic feet less cargo capacity than in the conventionally powered A3 Sportback due to no hidden storage under the floor, but that model can’t be purchased here so it’s a moot point.
I should mention the e-tron’s cargo compartment is as nicely finished as in other Audis, with high quality carpeting on the load floor, seatbacks and sidewalls, plus chromed tie-down hooks at each corner, grocery bag hooks at each side, good lighting, and in my tester’s case, a very handy elasticized netting to keep smaller items from becoming projectiles during sudden stops.
The quality theme is even more apparent in the passenger compartment thanks to the same level of attention to detail as in the A3 Sedan and Cabriolet cabins, including a nice mix of premium soft touch synthetics in key areas, aluminum trim and switchgear accents, plus supple leather upholstery, while my particular example featured beautifully buffed silver-gray colored carbon fiber-look inlays across the instrument and door panels. The interior design is classic Audi minimalism, which means it looks great, the leather-wrapped steering wheel near perfection in shape and feel with nice narrow spokes filled with high-quality switchgear, the primary gauge package boasting a mix of analog dials over colorful digital backgrounds and a large color multi-information display at center. The leftmost dial includes expected hybrid info, the e-tron featuring a white needle that points to green “CHARGE” and “EFFICIENCY” sectors or a yellow “BOOST” indicator when heavy on the throttle, yet unlike most electrified rivals it actually acts like a tachometer as well, spinning clockwise when engine revs climb.
Four vents circled with knurled aluminum rotating bezels dot the dash, while just above the center two is a crisp and clear infotainment display that powers up out of the dash top upon startup, and can be powered back down to reduce distraction, especially nice during nighttime driving. If lowered it automatically powers back up when reversing, the rearview camera with active guidelines assisting in such situations, and then when finished backing up it automatically disappears once again. I like this alternative to a fixed infotainment display, which is becoming more common across the industry, but of course such things cost more to employ so enjoy this sophisticated bit of A3 kit while you can.
A particularly upscale knurled metal rotating dial on the lower console controls the MMI infotainment system. It’s surrounded by a gorgeous set of aluminized rocker switches and buttons, while a handy knurled metal audio volume knob sits right beside. An electromechanical parking brake replaces the old handbrake, and in this e-tron it’s a welcome addition.
Everything already noted comes standard in the e-tron, yet there are still two trims above the $38,900 base Premium model. Before delving into these the list of standard Premium features includes 15-spoke 17-inch alloys on 225/45 all-seasons, auto on/off Xenon plus all-weather headlights that do a better job of illuminating the area in front of the car, LED daytime running lights, LED rear lights, heat-insulating side glass, high-gloss exterior trim, heatable power-adjustable side mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, proximity access with pushbutton ignition, aluminum doorsill scuff plates, enhanced ambient LED lighting, a leather-wrapped three-spoke multifunction sport steering wheel, aluminum interior trim, Micrometallic Silver inlays, leather upholstery, 12-way powered front seats including four-way powered lumbar support, dual-zone auto climate control, Bluetooth, ten-speaker audio, HD and satellite radio, a panoramic glass sunroof, electronic immobilization, an alarm, all the usual active and passive safety gear plus rear side-thorax airbags, Audi pre sense basic that preventatively closes windows and pre-tenses the seatbelts in emergency situations, Audi pre sense front autonomous emergency braking, and finally Audi Drive Select that defaults to Auto mode for everyday driving with a nod to optimizing fuel economy (this is a PHEV after all), or can be set to Comfort mode for those nasty inner-city back lanes, the road to the cottage or ski hill, or any other ill-kempt surfaces, Dynamic sport mode that combines all of its electrical and gasoline-powered resources to achieve those aforementioned performance numbers, and lastly Individual mode that let’s you preset something totally unique.
As you might expect the A3 Sportback e-tron is an Audi first and a PHEV fuel-miser second, or rather the car feels like a well-sorted sport wagon instead of a doddering hybrid. It’s not only quick off the line as noted, but the way it goes about accelerating is more like a conventionally powered Audi than anything hybridized thanks to 258 net horsepower and what feels like more than 184 lb-ft of peak torque. Or maybe it’s how immediately all its twist comes into action that results in the potent slap on the backside as the front wheels spin, plus instead of the hybrid sector’s usual CVT-strangled pull off the line (or lack thereof) the A3 e-tron’s six-speed dual-clutch gearbox actually knows what to do when its shifter get yanked. This is a hybrid that’s fun to drive, and believe me Audi backed up its accelerative forces with good steering wheel feedback, excellent turn-in, plenty of grip through the corners, and no shortage of high-speed highway composure that’s even eerily silent when cruising along at 70 mph (or potentially higher) in emissions-free EV mode.
Of course I didn’t drive like it was stolen during my entire test, but rather enjoyed its smooth, linear, quiet EV performance at moderate city speeds more often than not. Of note, the e-tron power unit can be switched between individual hybrid modes as needed, the first being regular Hybrid mode as explained earlier, the second being Charge Sustaining mode in which it relies on the combustion engine for motive power and saves full EV-mode via the battery for later (ideally useful during fast-paced highway driving that depletes the battery quickly), and the third being Charge Increasing mode that uses the ICE to replenish the battery. Normally I really enjoy playing around with these types of features and eking the most from a given charge (and tank of gas), but I must admit the A3 Sportback e-tron was too much fun.
If you want even more excitement you can upgrade the e-tron with a $1,350 Sport package featuring a stylish set of 18-inch rims on 225/40 all-season tires as well as an S Line rooftop spoiler, a flat-bottomed sport steering wheel with paddle shifters, and more heavily bolstered sport seats, but such wasn’t the case with my tester. Instead it came with $500 heatable front seats and $300 aluminum roof rails.
Alternatively you can pay $3,100 to move up to Premium Plus trim that adds those parking sensors, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with integrated compass, full LED headlights, and LED taillights with dynamic turn signals, while this trim also makes the $3,150 Technology package available, which includes the best-in-class-by-far fully configurable color TFT “Audi virtual cockpit” gauge cluster, an upgraded infotainment display with navigation and MMI touch for tablet-style gesture controls as well as Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, loads of apps such as Spotify, WhatsApp, Google Maps, and Apple Maps, plus a useful charge delay function to minimize electricity costs when recharging overnight (it takes about eight hours when hooked up to a household socket and 2.5 hours on a 240-volt charger), Audi Connect Prime and Plus, and Audi side assist that warns when approaching rear traffic comes into your blind spot. You can also add superb Bang & Olufsen 3D audio for $950, while the Sport package and aluminum roof rails are also available.
For $5,550 more you can upgrade Prestige trim with the same Sport package and roof rails available, plus the addition of the Technology package and B&O stereo as standard. Additional standard kit includes front parking sensors, auto high beams, adaptive cruise control featuring “Stop & Go” low speed follow functionality, and active lane assist that pulls the steering back into your lane if you drift to one side. Of note, with all active safety features added it qualifies for a Top Safety Pick Plus rating from the IIHS.
Lastly, not matter the trim you can outfit your A3 Sportback e-tron in one of two standard colors or seven $575 optional metallic hues (plus $3,900 for exclusive paint), while the interior can be done out in standard Black, Chestnut Brown, or Rock Gray (the headliner is always gray unless the Sport package gets added).
While a roomy five-door liftback design, it’s important to remember the A3 Sportback e-tron actually fights it out with entry-level luxury subcompacts and compacts sized below D-segment models like Audi’s A4, BMW’s 3 Series and Mercedes’ C-Class. Therefore, when the driver’s seat was set for my five-foot-eight frame the rear seating area provided less space than I’d normally like (granted I’d ultimately prefer a fully loaded A8L when someone else is at the wheel). Still, I had about three inches left over ahead of my knees and plenty of room for my feet, plus about three inches above my head, whereas my shoulders were about two inches from the door and I couldn’t complain about hip room. It would be possible to fit three across although it’d be tight, and you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the comfortable folding center armrest with its cool pop-out dual cupholders. The front seatbacks get nice webbed pockets for stowing magazines, and there’s a 12-volt charger in back along with a set of rear vents, plus LED reading lights above, and all the pillars from front to back were fabric-wrapped for an extra level of premium pampering, but there were no heatable rear seats. On the positive, the panoramic sunroof is wonderfully large and comes with a stylish aluminum lever to move its high-end opaque woven fabric sliding sunshade back and forth. Truly, I can’t see an average-sized person being put off by the A3 Sportback e-tron’s rear quarters.
Sport wagons and hatchbacks enjoy a diehard following among American performance fans, and now with the A3 Sportback e-tron’s amalgamation of both body styles overtop a highly efficient plug-in hybrid drivetrain we should all be rejoicing as Audi makes going green fun and stylish.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press