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First drive: Audi A3 e-tron a stealth eco-warrior

Designed to be different: Audi believes the A3 Sportback e-tron will attract people who want futuristic technology in a conventional looking package.

Plug-in Audi A3 e-tron to offer hi-tech in familiar surroundings for $60K next March


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25 Aug 2014

AUDI will pitch the A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid to Australian customers as the easiest, least compromised way of driving an electric vehicle when it launches here next March priced at about the $60,000 mark.

In addition to the car’s Australian debut at last week’s Audi-sponsored Hamilton Island Race Week, potential customers will be able to get behind the wheel of pre-production vehicles in November at a pre-launch event in Melbourne.

Audi has already taken around 100 expressions of interest for the petrol-electric premium hatch, which will be initially sold through 16 designated e-tron dealerships as a single generously specified variant packing satellite navigation, a rear-view camera, automatic parking, leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control and unique 17-inch alloys.

Installation of a 16-amp home charging station that can fill the battery in less than 2.5 hours is included in the price of the car – except in circumstances where major work has to be undertaken – and buyers will receive a certificate that Audi has offset the first 10,000km of electric driving with accredited renewable energy.

Audi’s first electrified vehicle in Australia will be promoted under the banner, “changes the world, not everyday life”, and Audi Australia managing director Andrew Doyle described the product as “extraordinarily normal” and “very relevant” to this market.

Mr Doyle told GoAuto the e-tron’s similarity to the rest of the A3 range is a strength, hinting that quirky stand-alone models like the Holden Volt, Nissan Leaf and BMW i3 might have limited audiences outside the mainstream.

“It’s an A3 Sportback, a well-known car, it looks normal … I would say there are a lot of people that perhaps do not think of themselves as plug-in hybrid drivers,” Mr Doyle told GoAuto at a media event on Hamilton Island.

“Therefore it becomes a discussion for on the sales floor of not necessarily this whole new world over here that is completely different versus the current car, it’s just two different options as far as performance and fuel-efficiency are concerned.” In context with the A3 Sportback line-up, the e-tron will be close in price to the $59,900 (plus on-road costs) S3 hot hatch, with the $45,500 1.8 TFSI Quattro Ambition sitting immediately below it in the range.

The headline fuel-efficiency figure is 1.6 litres per 100 kilometres on the ECE plug-in hybrid combined cycle, translating to 37 grams of CO2 per kilometre, while the 8.8kWh lithium-ion battery pack provides 50km of electric-only driving and the car’s theoretical total combined range is 940km.

The A3 e-tron’s closest competitor for price, size and plug-in ability will be the $59,990 Holden Volt, which has a longer 87km electric-only range and lower official combined fuel consumption (1.2L/100km) from a petrol-electric drivetrain that operates on range-extender rather than hybrid principles, using the engine primarily to generate electricity rather than directly driving the wheels.

At the media event GoAuto had access to a fleet of four pre-production A3 e-trons – left-hand drive and still sporting German number plates – for brief drives around a tiny circuit of traffic cones laid out on the main taxiway of Hamilton Island’s airport.

Such contrived conditions did little to provide a complete assessment of the hybrid A3’s on-road qualities but overall impressions were of an impressive and almost seamless application of plug-in hybrid technology to an already well-regarded car.

According to A3 e-tron project leader Andreas Pfaller, the e-tron was part of the A3 Sportback’s gestation from day one and the model is built on the same production line as standard A3s.

A few badges, extra chrome and concealed exhaust outlets aside, there is little to visually distinguish the e-tron from any high-spec A3 – even the charging point is secluded behind the four-ringed Audi emblem on the grille.

Inside, there is a 100L boot space penalty (down to 280L with the rear seats up and 1120L with them folded) and a lack of spare tyre due to the battery pack’s position beneath the rear seat and the location of a 40L fuel tank (standard cars have 50L) and 12v battery to the boot floor.

But the most obvious changes are seen and felt from the driver’s seat, looking at the instruments, where the rev-counter is replaced by a segmented green and yellow dial representing the use of electricity and internal combustion.

A digital tachometer is available by selecting the option in the multi-function display between the dials along with a smaller representation of the energy flow diagram shown on the large screen that pops up from the centre of the dash.

Start-up procedure is just like any automatic Audi apart from the point where the dashboard lights up but there is nothing but silence as we are running on electricity.

The Drive Select system offers four operating modes: EV (electric only), Hybrid Auto (default setting), Hybrid Hold (conserves electricity for later use) and Hybrid Charge (prioritises replenishing the battery pack).

After a push of the EV mode dashboard button, we set off silently for our first lap of the circuit in pure electric mode, in which a top speed of 130km/h is possible and the petrol engine is only engaged if heavy throttle inputs are detected.

In addition to silence and smoothness, the benefit of electric propulsion is its almost instantaneous response and surge of acceleration, so with 75kW of power and 330Nm of torque available on electricity alone, the little A3 felt particularly eager and nippy, masking its 260kg weight penalty over, for example, the 1280kg front-drive 1.8 TFSI Ambition model.

Like the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, the A3 e-tron sends drive through a stepped automatic transmission rather than a continuously variable (CVT) or single-speed unit.

Audi’s s-tronic dual-clutch transmission (six-speed in this case) is fast-acting and slick in operation but the inherent silky smoothness and silence of the e-tron’s drivetrain in pure electric mode meant we were more aware of gear changes and slight hesitation powering out of corners.

Negotiating sweeping curves and a tight slalom section, the e-tron again belies its extra mass, possibly due in part to the rearward shift in weight distribution that gives a 55/45 front-rear bias compared with 60/40 for standard cars.

Audi engineers decided that allowing the A3 e-tron to coast and maintain momentum is more efficient than applying an engine braking effect for harvesting kinetic energy to the batteries.

However, regenerative coasting does happen when Sport mode is selected on the transmission or the driver manually changes down a gear, ensuring the availability of battery power to boost the petrol engine during spirited driving.

In most modes it is only under braking that the conversion of kinetic energy to electricity happens and we had no issues with brake pedal feel on this short test.

On subsequent laps we engaged Hybrid Auto mode by planting the accelerator pedal, which introduces the 110kW 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine for a total output of 150kW and 350Nm through the front wheels to achieve a shove in the back similar to a six-cylinder large car and 0-100km/h in 7.6 seconds on the way to a 222km/h top whack.

In this mode the petrol engine phases in and out almost seamlessly where required, audible but smooth and refined, with any turbo lag eliminated by the instant whoosh of torque provided by the electric motor.

The main lag we experienced, and perhaps this was due to the contrived driving environment or preconceptions based on previous experiences with electrified vehicles, was the previously mentioned hesitation we suspect was coming from the transmission.

It is something we imagine drivers will either get used to or not even notice in everyday driving.

What they will notice is the smooth, punchy performance, intuitive driving experience, fewer trips to the petrol station and the joys of electric-only urban driving – not to mention a car that doesn’t scream, “I’m an eco-warrior”.

And for some, those last two points might be enough to get them to sign on the dotted line.

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