The 2016 Audi A3 E-tron is the German carmaker's first foray into the plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV) market. It brings the premium quality and engaging driving experience of the Audi A3 to a segment that's known more for more pedestrian offerings like the Toyota Prius Plug-in and the Ford C-Max Energi.
What Is It?
The 2016 Audi A3 E-tron is a plug-in hybrid that comes as a four-door hatchback only. Plug-in hybrids are the perfect answer for those who like the idea of an electric vehicle but hesitate due to worries about limited driving range and the possibility of getting stranded. The A3 E-tron's modestly sized lithium-ion battery pack delivers up to 17 miles of pure electric driving, after which its 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine kicks in to continue on in hybrid mode, which delivers 35 mpg or 39 mpg, depending on equipment.
In order to differentiate it from the A3 sedan, the E-tron is exclusively made using the four-door hatchback (also known as Sportback) variant of the third-generation A3 platform.
The hatchback layout makes for unobtrusive packaging of the plug-in system. The battery pack nestles under the rear seat, which offers the same head- and legroom and folds flat to expose the same maximum cargo capacity it would have otherwise. Configure the backseat for passengers and the E-tron serves up 13.6 cubic feet of cargo space, which bests the 12.3 and 10 cubic feet available in the 1.8T front-drive and 2.0T Quattro sedans, respectively.
If all-wheel drive is what you're after, you won't find it here. The tightly packaged E-tron componentry leaves no room for rear-drive mechanicals. Like the A3 TDI, the A3 E-tron is strictly a front-drive machine.
How Does It Work?
Under the hood you'll find a transverse-mounted 1.4-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine that makes 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque on premium unleaded fuel. It's mated to a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission.
Between the two sits a 102-hp electric motor. A sophisticated clutch pack controls and smooths the various interactions between the engine, the electric motor and the transmission, but these are separate from the clutches that regulate gearchanges.
With a charged battery and the shifter in Drive, the A3 defaults to pure electric mode. Go easy on the throttle and the claimed 17-mile range is attainable, especially if you take full advantage of how the electric motor decouples when coasting and morphs into a generator when braking.
The electric motor will readily go it alone and power the E-tron along silently as long as you don't exceed 80 mph and refrain from fully matting the throttle. Either action awakens the engine under the assumption that you are determined to move out quickly.
Slip the shifter to Sport and the powertrain will combine the two systems more readily for sustained performance. Either way, maximum combined output tops out at 204 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. It's enough to deliver a 0-60-mph time of 7.6 seconds, according to Audi.
What Happens After Those First 17 Miles?
At some point the battery level sags below what's necessary for sustained electric propulsion, and the gasoline engine becomes the prime mover. The electric motor remains on duty to assume a handful of classic hybrid functions.
One function happens to be the starter. But it generally won't start the engine until it first propels the E-tron away from a stop up to residential speeds. It does this with a small reserve in its battery maintained by regenerative braking every time the car slows down.
There's a charge mode that runs the engine harder to recharge the battery as you drive, but that's a woefully inefficient method of recharging a battery to enable sustained EV propulsion. Better to begin your drive on gasoline and save your EV driving electricity for your destination by enabling Hold mode.
How Does It Drive?
Our drive route seems typical enough, beginning in a dense urban area and ending along a two-lane stretch of the coast highway, with a hunk of freeway in between. Through it all, the A3 cruises along serenely on electricity, with plenty of oomph to motor away from stoplights and deftly execute a particularly abrupt freeway merge.
Apart from the silence, the E-tron's general comportment gives off a typical A3 vibe. The steering feels familiar, and the reassuring feel of the brakes never reveals whether the car is slowing because of magnetic repulsion in the generator or traditional pads and rotors. Even the recalibrated A3 suspension makes it hard to tell that it's toting some 300 pounds of added electrical bits.
The level of sound comes up as we floor the throttle and spur the engine to life, but it's appropriate because it comes with a rush of acceleration. The odd part is the length of time it takes — something like a minute — for the engine to go dormant and resume EV mode.
The 1.4T engine runs most of the time once the battery runs down, and here the A3's six-speed DSG transmission proves far more direct and pleasant than the continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) in competing PHEVs.
What Is the Interior Like?
There are only a handful of changes to the cabin. The most obvious change is the lack of a tachometer in the left-hand gauge position. Instead you'll find a battery charge level meter and a power consumption gauge with green bands to indicate the most efficient zones of operation.
The dashboard array has sprouted a mode switch to step among the EV, Hybrid, Hold and Charge modes. The driver information screen indicates which one is selected as you toggle through the choices. Then again, you may never use it. The A3 defaults to EV when charged and slips into Hybrid mode when it's not.
Our Prestige test sample benefitted from handsome leather seating and Audi's usual high-quality materials. As with our A3 long-term sedan, everything works logically, it all fits together with precision, and the telescoping wheel and 12-way power seats possess ample adjustment for a wide range of drivers. There's little to complain about.
What Kind of Range and Mileage Does It Deliver?
Audi has conceived two flavors of the A3 E-tron, each with different range and fuel economy ratings. The difference boils down to the tires.
The E-tron Ultra is the more efficient of the two on the strength of its 16-inch low-rolling-resistance summer tires. An Ultra can travel 17 miles on electricity, after which it burns gasoline at 39 mpg in mixed driving. Total range from a full battery and 10.6-gallon tank of gas is pegged at 430 miles.
Regular E-trons use either 17-inch or 18-inch all-season tires that trade some efficiency for better looks and all-weather capability. Electric range is reduced to 16 miles, fuel economy to 35 mpg and total range to 380 miles.
A loaded Prestige Ultra with 16-inch summer tires is the very configuration we sampled. Our drive wasn't long enough to gauge gasoline fuel economy, but we did get 20 miles down the road before the charge ran out and the gasoline engine came to life.
What About the Battery and Charging?
The E-tron's lithium-ion battery pack consists of 96 cells divided among eight modules of 12 cells each. Total rated capacity is 8.8 kilowatt-hours (kWh).
The charge port is concealed behind the four-ring logo on the car's nose. It's compatible with any SAE-compliant Level 2 240-volt power supply. The rated recharge time is two hours and 30 minutes.
Certified Audi E-tron dealers can sell you an Audi-branded Level 2 unit and arrange for installation in your garage, or you can buy third-party SAE Level 2 charge equipment online and work with a qualified electrician.
The A3 E-tron's battery isn't large enough to make a home charge station essential. The supplied trunk cord can do the job in eight or nine hours using a standard 120-volt home socket, and it has a swappable 240-volt pigtail that can cut that by half if an electrician equips your garage with the matching socket.
How Much Does It Cost?
Unlike some other plug-in hybrids, this is no California compliance special. All but six Audi dealers nationwide have signed up to become E-tron certified sales and service outlets.
Prices start at $38,825 for a nicely equipped Premium, which has 12-way power leather seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, a panoramic sunroof, bi-xenon headlamps, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, a back-up camera with front and rear parking sensors and the fuel-saving 16-inch summer tires.
Keep in mind that because of the size of the A3 E-tron's 8.8-kilowatt battery, it's eligible for a $4,168 federal tax credit.
The next rung up is the Premium Plus at $42,925. It comes with LED headlights, aluminum exterior trim, upgraded interior trim, heated front seats, the Audi music interface with full iPod integration and the less efficient 17-inch all-season tires.
A nearly fully loaded Prestige will set you back $47,725. Among the included equipment is the Audi MMI user interface (optional on the other two), a Bang & Olufsen sound system, adaptive cruise control and active lane keeping.
A Premium can be upgraded with 17-inch all-season tires for $800. The other two can go Ultra with the efficient 16-inch summer tires at zero cost, or you can go the other way and equip them with the $1,150 Sport package and its 18-inch all-season rubber, shift paddles and sport seats.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
There are very few cars that compete directly with the A3 E-tron. The closest PHEVs in capability and configuration are the 2015 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid and the 2016 Ford C-Max Energi. Each is cheaper in both senses of the word.
If maximum electric range is more compelling than premium craftsmanship, deft handling and an adult-friendly backseat, the redesigned 2016 Chevrolet Volt PHEV and its 53-mile electric range and 42-mpg gasoline fuel economy is a strong choice.
Or you could forego the PHEV concept entirely and get a 2016 Volkswagen E-Golf, a dedicated electric vehicle that delivers 83 miles of silent running in a VW-clad version of the A3 E-tron chassis that is just as satisfying to drive.
There's also the 2015 BMW i3 with the optional range-extending engine, but in that case the engine really does function like an emergency backup system. You wouldn't want to drive it on a trip much longer than 150 miles or so.
Why Should You Consider It?
The 2016 Audi A3 E-tron is the sophisticated premium-built choice for those who aren't ready to go all-electric and would rather have the flexibility of a plug-in hybrid. It offers a usable amount of electric range from a modest-size battery that doesn't require the added expense of a dedicated 240-volt Level 2 home charge station. It could truly be your only car, a claim that's reinforced by the functionality of its four-door hatch layout.
Why Should You Think Twice About It?
The A3 E-tron's 17-mile electric range is certainly useful, but that figure may not be enough to tempt some to switch over from the pure gasoline hybrid choices out there. The 2016 Chevrolet Volt is a plug-in hybrid that offers enough electric range to feel like a true EV and offers somewhat better fuel economy at a distinctly lower price point.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.