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Car reviews - Audi - A3 - Sportback e-tron

Our Opinion

We like
Clever and economical, quiet, brilliant build quality, spacious, well equipped
Room for improvement
Twice the A3 price, short electric-only range, mechanically and electrically complex

Audi logo4 Dec 2015

By NEIL DOWLING

Price and equipment

THERE are two ways of judging the A3 e-tron: a technologically clever family car or an expensive hybrid hatchback.

Yes, it’s clever. The seamless integration of conventional internal combustion and electrified powerplants is better than most rivals.

But do you want to pay $62,490 plus on-road costs for the privilege of owning a sophisticated tomorrow-car when the more conventional example of the A3 Sportback automatic is available from $36,500 plus costs?Put your techno hat on and the A3 e-tron is an intriguing machine that returns low-emission commuting and country touring in a package that looks almost identical to any other A3 Sportbacks.

It will reward with a high level of features, smooth ride and sportscar handling, a near perfect build quality and functional cabin with compact dimensions.

Even at its August launch, Audi Australia managing director Andrew Doyle said it was a car that suited the technically savvy buyer. This is the same buyer who would also look at an electric-only vehicle or another top-shelf hybrid.

Externally there are clues to the new drivetrain. The 'e-tron' badges on the front flanks are a dead giveaway, as is the 14-slat silver grille with its pop-out four-ring badge that hides the power socket.

Inside there’s a new instrument panel with a 'power' dial showing the level of energy being used and the reclaimed energy coming back through the regenerative brakes.

The basic dash and the cabin flow over from the more conventional A3s, though in keeping with appeasing the more technically-inclined buyer, it adds a strong feature list.

Standard are sports seats, the cabin is finished in leather, there’s satellite navigation, and the audio is an eight-speaker unit with a digital radio.

The wheels are thin-spoke 17-inch alloys with low-rolling resistant tyres, there’s front and rear park sensors with a reversing camera, it has automatic park assist and LED headlights and daytime running lights.

Options are plentiful and it’s here the buyer has to be careful not to blow the e-tron price into the upper-prestige segment.

To keep up with some competitors, for example, there is the $1990 Assistance Package that includes lane departure and blind-spot warnings, and autonomous low and high-speed collision avoidance.

Heated front seats are $550 but the Comfort Package includes them, plus electric seat adjustment, electric lumbar, folding and dipping mirrors and anti-glare rearview mirror for a combined $1990.

It can be expensive. Just remember that most of the purchase price goes into the technology forever hidden under the bonnet.

The icing is a recharging package that is a home charger fitted by Audi and included in the car’s price.

Interior

Audi has a different definition of luxury and quality compared with most of its rivals.

The A3 follows the company’s lead by presenting an almost austere cabin that’s free of baubles and glitter, remaining simple in matte black with a few modest trim highlights.

There is alloy trim to the dash and a stitched leather steering wheel. The gearshifter features cast alloy while the centre console has aluminium covers.

There are two fuel gauges – the right-hand side for the 95RON petrol and the left-hand gauge for the battery charge.

Attention focuses on the slide-up colour monitor that appears when the ignition switch is pressed.

The screen, perfectly placed high and centre of the dash, is not a touch unit.

Its control comes from a rotary dial behind the gear lever, flanked in quadrants by individual functions – including navigation and climate – which is simplified version of other Audi models.

The cabin is smart but the A3 e-tron doesn’t quite reflect the prestige of a mid-$60,000s car and certainly up against the lavish Lexus ES300h hybrid, it appears more a mid-$40,000s vehicle.

But there’s a lot going on beneath the bonnet. You just have to keep reminding yourself.

The A3 Sportback on which this e-tron is based is also a clever car, having almost wagon-like dimensions and cabin space yet sold as a hatchback.

It will seat four adults in comfort, five at a squeeze though the rear centre passenger contends with limited foot space thanks to the large floor spine.

Occupant room isn’t as good as the Volkswagen Golf 7 despite the two sharing the MQB platform and the Audi having a 10mm longer wheelbase.

Front passengers have reasonable personal storage space that includes two cupholders and door panels with bottle holders. The glovebox is small and filled with the car manual, so isn’t of much use.

Rear passengers get door pockets for bottles but no cupholders. There’s a $400 option for a centre armrest with load-through hole that includes two cupholders. However, there are airvents in the back.

The rear seats fold almost flat and there’s a near-flat cargo floor to make loading and unloading an easy chore. The tail-gate is a manual lift with a wide opening for large cargo.

The boot will take 280-litres with the rear seats in place and 1120 litres with the seats folded down. This cargo capacity is reduced by 100 litres compared with the regular A3 because of the extra under-floor equipment needed for the hybrid drivetrain.

As an example, it is far smaller than the 380-1270 litres of the near-size Golf 7.

The space restraints mean the Audi can’t carry a spare wheel, making it rely on an inflator kit. There is also the need to carry the plug-in cabling (in a neat zipped bag) that can only fit on the cargo floor unless you keep it at home.

The boot space is almost identical to the BMW i3 but smaller than the Nissan Leaf and Lexus ES300h. However, the Audi’s flexible seating makes it more versatile than the Leaf or Lexus.

Engine and transmission

This is Audi’s first volume production plug-in hybrid for Australia and will be followed next year with a Q7 SUV with similar technology.

The A3 e-tron is heavily based on its A3 1.4-litre TFSI sister, though the plug-in hybrid system with dual drivetrain requirements has added extra weight and reduced available space for cargo.

In essence, the 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine remains where it is in the standard version, but coupled with a disc-shaped electric motor before driving a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission to the front wheels.

Yes, that’s very much like a Toyota Prius and a lot of other hybrid vehicles.

One difference is the plug-in ability – shared with the Holden Volt and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV – to charge onboard batteries and give a limited dose of “free” energy.

Audi supplies not only a bag full of fast-charge and normal-charge power sockets and cables, but will install a high-amp charge box in your garage as part of the deal.

The electrical connection for the car is behind the Audi four-ring logo on the grille.

The company claims a range of 50 kilometres after five hours on the 10-amp home charger or down to 30 minutes for an 80 per cent boost from a fast-charge outlet. That’s enough to get to work and back for many people.

The lithium-ion battery is rated at 8.8kW per hour. Based on this, a recharge will cost about $2.00. Owners in some states also have a choice of energy provider, including those that have offsets for sustainable electricity sources.

Once the batteries are exhausted, the engine will quietly start and provide power. The driver and occupants of the car will have little knowledge that this transfer has taken place and this reflects perfectly just what a professional job Audi has done with the e-tron.

The engine is a shared with the Volkswagen Group though has a unique tune for the e-tron. In its standard guise for cars including the A3 Sportback, Volkswagen Golf and Skoda Octavia, the 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine delivers 90kW-92kW and 200Nm.

The e-tron takes the engine in a higher output at 110kW at 6000rpm and 250Nm at 1600-3500rpm, close to the premium 110TFSI engine in the Golf Highline, though the Golf’s outputs are reached at different engine revs.

Combined, the hybrid powerplant has an impressive 150kW and 350Nm of torque.

It is quoted at 5.4 litres per 100 kilometres but when attached to the 75kW electric motor, carves that back to an official average of 1.6L/100km. But that’s not wholly accurate because it’s reliant on how often the electric motor is employed.

The test average, with the petrol engine running most of the time and the electric motor filling in the gaps at low speeds, was 5.3L/100km.

A clever owner who commutes less than 50km a day is able to get away with using no fuel, conditional to the car being charged from the mains electricity grid or, better, from photovoltaic cells at the home or office.

Add the electric range with the petrol range and Audi says its possible to get 920km from the two power sources. This is more than enough for a weekend away in the country and ensures the e-tron can never become stranded because of an expired battery.

The hybrid drive goes through a new six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Audi – and Volkswagen – normally use the same type of transmission but with seven speeds. Thanks to the hybrid’s additional torque, the extra cog wasn’t deemed necessary.

On the road the electric motor is smooth and brisk at take off. Oddly, because it is pleasantly quiet, you begin to hear all the noises an internal-combustion engine will mask – like the stones being crunched under the tyres, the wind noise and ambient traffic noise.

When the petrol engine kicks in there is a very muted rumble and some extra kick under the bonnet, but there’s the same subtle push and quiet demeanor.

There is some extra response thanks to the three-mode 'drive select' system that sharpens up the gear shifts and engine, but basically you drive this as a hybrid with a keen eye on getting the fuel use down to competitive levels.

Despite weighing more than 200kg over the conventional A3 1.4-litre, it doesn’t affect acceleration with the 150kW/350Nm e-tron posting a reasonable 7.6 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint, compared with the conventional 90kW/200Nm 1.4 TFSI at 9.4 seconds.

Ride and handling

The e-tron uses a modified MQB platform from the conventional A3 Sportback, with adjustments made to fit the rear-mounted battery pack and its associated electronics.

Thanks to the accouterments, weight goes up by a portly 315 kilograms but don’t think that’s overly detrimental to ride and handling.

The car actually feels very planted, very confident on the road and though the mass can be felt when the car enters a bend, it’s restrained by a very competent chassis.

The weight distribution is 55:45 front to rear, which aids the balance through the corners.

Suspension is MacPherson struts at the front and multi-link at the rear, shared with the other A3 models. There is no firmer sports suspension offering for the obvious reason that this isn’t intended as a sporty car.

As such, it’s the smoothest riding A3 on the market and for comfort, feels more like a mid-size car.

To maximize economy and in conjunction with some aerodynamic tricks, the e-tron rides on Pirelli Cinturato Blue low-friction tyres. Eco-tyres traditionally squeal earlier through fast corners and are noisier on coarse bitumen than more performance-oriented rubber. But in this case, the Pirellis were surprisingly quiet. They still squeal, though.

Steering is by electric-assistance on a rack and pinion system that has good feel and a nice balance of light weight for the city and firmness for the highway.

Safety and servicing

The Audi e-tron has a five-star crash rating and adds to that with seven airbags, tyre pressure monitor, front and rear park sensors, a reversing camera and automatic headlights and wipers.

It doesn’t have a spare wheel (it simply doesn’t fit) and uses a tyre sealant repair kit for puncture damage.

To get the more comprehensive safety gear as fitted to many rivals, Audi has an optional Assistance Package for $1990. This highly recommended option includes autonomous low and high-speed collision avoidance, lane departure warning and blind-spot monitor.

The e-tron also has standard automated parking assistance which is probably of less value than the optional Assistance Package for people who have been taught how to park a car.

The e-tron doesn’t differ from its A3 sisters when it comes to maintenance and ownership, being covered with a three-year or unlimited kilometre warranty with roadside assistance.

Service intervals are annual and Audi has a pre-paid service program for optional time periods.

Audi Australia offers the e-tron with a home installation kit that includes the fitting of a 230-volt, 16-amp (homes are normally 10-amp) single-phase power outlet.

This will recharge the spent battery in about 2.5 hours, half the time as a conventional home socket. Audi has an electrical partner to carry out the installation of the power box in your garage. It said that in most cases, this will not cost the owner.

In addition, Audi Australia has partnered with Origin Energy to buy renewable energy displacements as part of the GreenPower program.

Glass’s Guide forecasts that the Audi A3 e-tron will have a resale value of 49 per cent of its purchase price after three years. This is down on its natural rivals (see below).

Verdict

Do the sums and the e-tron is a very expensive exercise. There’s about $26,000 difference between it and the entry-level A3 1.4 TFSI Sportback so the ownership calculator (including fuel use) shows it takes about 50 years to recoup the difference.

But that’s not the point. This is a clever car for clever people. It’s more comfortable, better kitted out and as quick as its A3 siblings. It is also very versatile so ideal for the family.

Yes, it has less cargo space and doesn’t quite have the same cornering verve of a normal A3. But this isn’t about normal. This may be the future.

Rivals

BMW i3 from $63,900 plus on-road costs
Carbon-fibre and an electric motor combine in BMW’s adventurous four-seater city car. The technological piece of work has a 125kW/250Nm rear-mounted electric motor for a brisk 0-100km/h time of 7.2 seconds and a range of 190km. The 4m long car also has a reasonable boot space of 260-1100 litres and has a feature list including sat-nav, leather upholstery, automatic self parking, 19-inch alloy wheels and a reverse camera.

It has a three-year unlimited distance warranty plus an eight-year battery warranty. The roadside assistance lasts eight years, too. Servicing is annual and BMW has a pre-paid program. The resale value is 53 per cent.

Nissan Leaf from $39,990 driveaway
Nissan has reduced the electric-only Leaf’s price from $51,490 to capture buyers. It is now almost half that of its rivals to put it firmly on the shopping list of alternative vehicles. It’s practical with seating for up to five, a 120km electric range and a boot with 370 litres of space. Standard equipment includes LED headlights, sat-nav, reverse camera and parking sensors, six speaker audio and tyre pressure monitor. It has a three-year or unlimited distance warranty with roadside assistance, needs six-monthly servicing and has a capped-price service program costing $1155 for three years. Glass’s Guide estimates its resale after three years at 45 per cent of the purchase price.

Lexus ES300h Luxury from $62,500 plus on-road costs
The upmarket cousin to the Toyota Camry Hybrid has an extraordinary array of sophisticated standard items that makes it the best value car here. This includes sunroof, sat-nav, leather, heated front seats, eight-speaker audio with digital radio, autonomous collision avoidance and safety gear from lane departure warning to 10 airbags and blind-spot monitor. The boot is a generous 425 litres. It has a hybrid drivetrain with a 2.5-litre petrol engine and electric motor for a combined 151kW and a fuel average of 5.5L/100km. Lexus provides a four-year, 100,000km warranty and roadside assistance and has a transparent service menu. Its three-year resale is estimated at 51 per cent.

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