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Audi's first production plug-in hybrid comes in the shape of the A3 Sportback e-tron, but does it have enough spark to inspire potential buyers away from their conventional cars?

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‘A stake in the ground’ was how Audi described the plug-in hybrid A3 e-tron .

The firm’s flirtation with electric propulsion has been prolonged – the original R8-styled e-tron concept was shown at Geneva five years ago – but the Sportback is the first production model to actually adopt the badge. Its not the only Audi or Volkswagen Group member to adopt a hybrid system, with the Q7 e-tron, Golf GTE and Passat GTE all part of the fraternity.

Audi employed hybrid power in its R18 to win Le Mans

The wait, says Audi, is due to its insistence that a zero-emissions-capable Audi ought not to be either a second-car compromise or too huge a leap for its buyers to understand.

Thus its EV comes packaged as a plug-in hybrid that doesn’t require a great deal of plugging in, has grunt to spare and is virtually indistinguishable from any other A3. Even after the A3 range was given a mild facelift in 2016 - the e-tron was also given a light makeover.

It also comes with some easily understood headline claims: 37g/km of CO2, 7.6sec to 62mph and a 580-mile range.

The implied lack of trade-off is compelling, and with only its sister car – the Volkswagen Golf GTE and the BMW 330e – for immediate company, Audi’s initial electrified offering seems uncannily well judged.

Could this be the consummate petrol/electric hybrid we’ve been waiting for? Read our review to find out whether it’s a lit bulb or a blown fuse. 

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DESIGN & STYLING

Audi A3 e-tron charging port

The components that make up the e-tron’s hybrid powertrain are not unfamiliar. Its central means of propulsion remains a transversely mounted petrol engine, in this instance a 148bhp 1.4-litre, four-cylinder turbo petrol unit

Audi says the four-cylinder petrol unit used in the e-tron is one of its most advanced engines. The turbocharged motor, which uses an aluminium crankcase, is claimed to weigh just 100kg, but it isn’t compact enough to allow the fitment of the electric powertrain components without adjustment.

The engine uses advanced thermal management to deal with sudden demands from cold

Compared with the standard A3, the e-tron’s engine has been shifted by 60mm or so to the right to help make sufficient space for the extra ancillaries under the bonnet.

Its party piece, though, is thermal efficiency, particularly with regard to getting itself to an optimum working temperature even for those short, low-speed journeys during which it might not be called upon much.

The exhaust manifold, integrated into the cylinder head, is at the heart of its efforts, quickly warming the engine following a cold start. Should that prove insufficient for sudden moments of high load endured during kickdown, the e-tron’s motor features a number of special protective measures, including specially coated piston rings and bearings.

Connected to the engine is a 101bhp electric motor, fed by a 125kg, 8.8kWh lithium ion battery mounted beneath the rear seats. Cleverly, the 34kg electric motor is sandwiched between the flywheel and a specially modified six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, with the motor’s power converter located overhead. 

This means that even in all-electric mode, drive arrives at the front wheels via proper gearbox ratios (spread to better suit a 0-2200rpm rev range), reducing the detachment felt at the throttle pedal with solutions such as Toyota’s planetary gearset.

When required, the engine is tow-started by the electric motor via a secondary clutch, which closes once it has reached the required speed – a process achieved within a few tenths of a second, according to Audi

Total system outputs are 201bhp and 258lb ft. That’s Volkswagen Golf GTI-rivalling and GTD-beating, but, predictably, the e-tron is compensating for something.

A typical A3 Sportback doesn’t weigh much more than 1200kg, but even Audi admits its hybrid is beyond 1600kg. We had it at 1645kg. That includes a generous amount of standard kit and doesn’t prevent the car from posting 176.6mpg combined as an official claim. 

No one will spot the weight gain from the outside, where the e-tron shares the Sportback’s dimensions and styling. Aside from the badges, headlights, rejigged air vents and an exhaust-concealing rear bumper, this is a five-door A3 – with a charging point hidden behind its grille. 

With plenty of other brands in the Volkswagen Group available to explore the potential for affordable, urban-focused electrified runarounds, Audi has been given the freedom to keep performance at the forefront of its thinking.

Consequently, save for the A1 e-tron, most of its concepts have resembled sports cars. The most practical application — up to now — has been the Audi R18 e-tron quattro, which used a Williams-designed flywheel accumulator system to win this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

INTERIOR

Audi A3 e-tron interior

The majority of the e-tron is high-spec A3 inside. You’d be hard pushed to find a corner of the cabin not attesting to Audi’s quintessential prowess with both interior aesthetics and quality of finish. The differences, then, are limited, and mostly fine. 

The most significant (certainly as far as practicality is concerned) is the impact on boot space, where 100 litres have been sacrificed to accommodate the 40-litre fuel tank beneath the floor.

Visibility is decent and the full LED headlights are bright and have a good range

That’s a sizeable slither of real estate, but its loss is made all the worse by the large pouch containing domestic and public charging cables that must be hauled around if you’d like to plug your hybrid in away from home.

Beyond that, the absence of a conventional rev counter stands out. It’s replaced here by a dial that displays ‘Power’ in 0-100 percentage terms, with ‘Boost’ above and ‘Charge’ below. If you’re doing well, the needle won’t stray beyond the first 30 percent of the scale, appropriately labelled ‘Efficiency’.

Adjacent to that, and in perfect symmetry with the petrol gauge across the way, is a battery meter. Lastly, there’s the EV button on the dashboard, which is used to toggle through the four drive modes.

Standard equipment is comprehensive, which goes some way to further justifying the Audi's not-insignificant list price. The A3 e-tron comes with unique 17in alloys, LED headlights, Audi's rear dynamic indicators, lowered suspension, cruise control, autonomous city braking and rear parking sensors on the outside as standard. Inside it gets dual-zone climate control and Audi's excellent MMI infotainment, which includes a retractable 7.0in display, sat nav, DAB radio, USB and Bluetooth connectivity, smartphone integration and a 10GB hard drive. 

A range of online services, voice control and a touch-sensitive rotary control dial for easier command inputs are also included.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

1.4-litre TFSI Audi A3 e-tron engine

For a model intended to sell partly on easy-to-understand functionality, the e-tron has a lot of driving modes to contend with: EV, Auto, Hold and Charge.

It defaults to the first and, as long as you stay shy of the kickdown or 80mph, will draw on the battery charge and electric motor exclusively, which it does well. There’s almost no whine, and while an electric-only 0-62mph time of 12.7sec isn’t up to VW e-Golf or BMW i3 standards, it feels snappy enough around town. 

The A3 e-tron's 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine is claimed to weigh just 100kg

The intended natural state is Auto mode, in which the e-tron efficiently juggles its power sources. This generally manifests itself as electric motor only up to around 40mph, at which point the petrol engine kicks in, simultaneously supplying further drive and slyly recharging the battery. Lift off and the car decouples its transmission, allowing the A3 to coast to remarkably good effect

In this setting, we managed 65.2mpg over 25 miles of A-road, B-road and town driving. The motor and engine blend to generally good effect with only modest throttle inputs.

There’s an inevitable delay between coasting, motor pick-up and internal combustion assistance, but it is tolerable – if a little inorganic. You can mitigate this by choosing when to switch between EV and Charge modes; the process demands some button pushing and is less efficient (49.8mpg over 25 miles) but does help to preserve battery life (largely by recouping power when it would otherwise be coasting). 

Drive without concern for the economy and the e-tron gets less well mannered. That it manages 60mph in 7.9sec or achieves something approaching real vigour in kickdown mode is not in doubt, but try to push on in Auto mode and, along with the aforementioned delay, you’ll find the gearbox and its sluggishly broad ratios are ill-suited to high revs.

Click the shifter into its Sport setting and things get livelier, but only because the drive management defaults into the Hold mode in which the four-pot does all the work. Only by opting to change gear yourself will the electric motor and engine toil in tandem – and then it all becomes too much for the chassis. 

As a relative shortcoming, it isn’t major. The generally sprightly e-tron is a generational triple jump ahead of the cloying progress made by some rivals. But for all its straight-line potential, this is still not a hybrid that really gratifies your impatience. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi A3 e-tron
If you're impatient out of very slow corners, you can expect to spin the tyres

We’ve come to expect a meticulous, civilised drive from the MQB-based A3 – understated to the point of cheerlessness, perhaps, but well aimed and rounded enough to satisfy most of the people most of the time.

The e-tron, in the main, continues this short streak. It is exceptionally refined, decently comfortable and undemanding in a way that makes its amiable electric passage decidedly effortless.

The A3 e-tron's dynamics are marred by its added mass

Unlike its powertrain, though, this character can’t be tampered with significantly. Delve into the Drive Select menu and only the apathetic steering’s weighting can be adjusted.

Adaptive dampers weren’t an option in the past; instead, the 2016 facelift ensured it now fitted as standard. This they do with a heavy-set soft flex, responding compliantly to intrusions, albeit with a dullness that never entirely lets you forget the extra mass. 

In an effort to make a positive out of its onerous battery pack and relocated petrol tank, Audi points out that the e-tron’s weight distribution is a better-balanced 55 per cent front, 45 per cent rear, compared with a regular A3’s 60/40 front/rear split. Certainly, this does the Sportback’s dynamic equilibrium no harm, but it’s nonsense to argue that 400kg of mass is a boon to the handling.

The chassis copes manfully with medium effort, but push any harder and the chinks in the steering, brakes and suspension are clear. Where the standard A3 is grippy, failsafe and generally precise, its corpulent hybrid half-brother ties itself in ungainly knots when deliberately pushed hard.

The problems start before a corner. The e-tron’s S-tronic ’box is far less snappy with its downshifts than Audi’s conventional dual-clutch units, and the car is less able to offer consistency through a brake pedal desensitised by regeneration. Despite the better neutrality offered by the rebalanced chassis, the e-tron would still prefer its turn-in speed to be well judged.

Anything less and you’ll be tempted to chivvy it along with the throttle, but doing so, on the standard 17-inch wheels, will almost certainly have you going straight on as the standard A3 front axle sags at the effort of dealing with considerably more torque than it’s used to.

Its efforts aren’t aided by pitch and lean being generated the moment the e-tron’s absorbent suspension is put under duress. A failure to properly incentivise any deeper prod of the e-tron’s potential isn’t necessarily any more damning than the inconsistency at full throttle, but it does consign the car to the usual hybrid caveat of satisfactory, not fun. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi A3 e-tron

Direct e-tron rivals are hard to come by. Audi likes to compare it with the BMW i3 Range Extender and Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid.

Neither is a perfect comparison, but the A3 is substantially cheaper than the latter and a wisp pricier than the former. Of greater consequence is its premium within the Sportback range, where, even with the £5000 government grant, the e-tron is £6000 more expensive than a 2.0 TDI SE Technik. But more importantly, its key rivals are the Volkswagen Golf GTE and the BMW 330e both of which are equally adept cars with minimal drawback.

The e-tron is a better bet than the i3, on the residuals front, and stays slightly ahead of the Golf GTE's values after three years

Presented with a life of motorway work, that car would almost certainly prove cheaper to run, but there are, of course, substantial savings for the business user, with the e-tron’s lowly CO2 emissions incurring it just five per cent BIK.

Urban commutes also favour the tax-free, congestion charge-dodging e-tron, although it’s worth spotlighting the extent of those abilities. Audi claims 31 miles on a full charge; on reasonably temperate winter days, we were unable to extract more than 18 miles.

The small battery does mean short charge times, though (just over two hours from a public point or around four from a domestic plug), and the e-tron is quite adept at recharging itself.

It won’t completely top up the battery, but in ideal conditions the engine will have restored 10 miles of electric range within about 10 miles, but expect the effort to reduce the petrol-only economy to 27-28mpg.

To help soften the blow of the e-tron's premium it comes very well equipped, so not much box ticking is required. That said, we'd be tempted to see if the optional 18-inch wheels fix the car's traction problems.

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VERDICT

3.5 star Audi A3 e-tron

It’s likely that the toe Audi has dipped into hybrid waters will find itself warmed. The e-tron is a quality product. Its functionality, comfort, refinement and practicality should come closer than most to convincing buyers that now is the time to plug into the electric car revolution.

However, the question isn’t so much whether it could serve as your only car (it definitely could) but whether it should. That sole space on our drive is a hallowed spot, and even with the narrow mindset of a business user adopted, it cannot be filled merely with laudable figures and cash savings, no matter how well dressed.

In the right conditions, a decent and desirable choice, but short on driver appeal

Earning this magazine’s recommendation still comes with a driver reward prerequisite, and the e-tron’s compromises mean it isn’t even the most persuasive A3 Sportback you could choose.

That doesn’t prevent Audi’s first plug-in hybrid from being a first-rate one – but that’s all it is. Its rival, the BMW i3, with less range, feels closer to the future. It might be a little compromised, but it is novel and new in a way the e-tron, BMW 330e, Golf GTE and the V60 Plug-in Hybrid aren't.

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Audi A3 Sportback e-tron 2014-2018 First drives