I didn't have to wait long. Immediately following the Los Angeles Auto Show, Audi asked me come drive its all-new successor built on the company's third-generation A3 chassis. Compared to last year's model, the new plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) boasts a lighter curb weight, quicker acceleration and six times the range. Calling it improved is an understatement. Best of all, it's heading to production.
Technically speaking, the 2015 Audi A3 Sportback E-Tron is a parallel hybrid, meaning its electric motor is sandwiched between a combustion engine and an automatic transmission – either, or both, is capable of powering the front wheels. The gasoline-powered engine is a direct-injected and turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, rated at 150 horsepower. The transmission is a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox. A 75-kW electric motor sits between the two. Water is used to cool the gasoline engine, the electric motor and the battery pack – there are three independent closed loops.
Since Audi engineered the A3's platform from the outset to accommodate a variety of powertrains, the hybrid system is hidden discreetly. The compact powerplant is transversely mounted in the nose of the chassis, while the 96-cell lithium-ion battery pack, which weighs 276 pounds, is wholly contained beneath the second row seat cushion (in addition to the battery's sturdy diecast aluminum casing, there are metal rails beneath each side of the underbelly to protect the battery pack from raised obstacles such as tall speed bumps). A 10.5-gallon unleaded fuel tank, feeding the combustion engine, is located above the rear axle. All told, the A3 Sportback E-Tron tips the scales at just 3,470 pounds, which is actually quite light compared to most hybrid vehicles.
- The only significant visual difference between the combustion A3 and its PHEV sibling is found in the primary instrument panel. The cluster features two large analog dials, each with a smaller LED segment in the lower right corner. The left needle sweeps the state of regeneration (or output), while the right needle is a traditional speedometer. The smaller LEDs, which are too small in my opinion, display the state of charge and fuel level. Between the analog dials is a color multifunction display. Everything else, from the trick pop-up navigation screen to the nearly flush silver stop/start button on the console, is the same.
- Audi has programmed the E-Tron to start and initially run in EV mode, regardless of outside temperature or charge level (charging from zero takes less than four hours with a home 240-volt connection). In this near-silent configuration, the electric motor pulls well and zipping around crowded streets was uneventful. Range in pure EV mode is about 31 miles. The five-door will hit 80 miles per hour on battery power alone, meaning it will run emission-free on even the fastest of our highways.
- If the accelerator is pushed into kick-down while operating in EV mode, the combustion engine springs to life to provide assistance right up to the Audi's impressive 138-mph top speed. Ease back off the throttle, and the vehicle will immediately switch back to electric operation. The transitions are very quick and can barely be detected from the passenger cabin.
- The beauty of the parallel hybrid is that the both the motor and engine are able to work as a team. Press the accelerator all the way to the floor from a standstill and the combined power output is an impressive 204 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, which is good enough to hit the 60 mph benchmark in about 7.4 seconds. Whether on battery or combustion power, the six-speed dual-clutch gearbox delivers a very natural shift feel. The A3 isn't tuned to be sporty, but when prodded it reveals a very refreshing, energetic side.
- Once the battery is depleted, the turbocharged four-cylinder is solely tasked with propulsion. It runs buttery-smooth, feeling as refined as the four-cylinder engine in an A4, and it will continue to propel the E-Tron for another 535 miles – New York to Toledo isn't a problem. More impressive than its range is the ability of the A3 to completely recharge its battery in just over 30 minutes of highway driving (a trick we first saw in the 2014 Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid). This function allows owners to arrive at their destination with their battery at 100 percent, for pure EV travel at both ends of the trip.
- The stock A3 is a sporty little runner, but the additional 400-plus pounds that the E-Tron carries unfortunately promotes some negative behavior in the handling category. The battery pack's rearward location actually improves weight distribution (reportedly at 55/45, front-to-rear), but the suspension is best described as soft. Even though initial turn-in, transitional handling and straight-line stability were solid, the E-Tron dipped and bounced over large undulations with three adults on board. At the bottom of one deep dip, it unexpectedly reached the end of its spring compression. For an A3, a vehicle from an automaker that usually excels in suspension tuning, it felt out of character. Let's hope the automaker addresses the shortcoming before it goes into production.
- Oddly enough, I was most impressed with the A3 E-Tron's brakes – more specifically, how little they're actually used. Even though the vehicle has capable mechanical disc brakes at all four corners, they are only used during hard to severe braking. In nearly all instances, the electric motor will apply very strong regenerative forces to bring the vehicle to a stop while the calipers sit idle waiting to be called to duty (the parking brake is mechanical, of course). This arrangement is nothing short of brilliant, as it sends a large amount of recaptured energy back to the battery and it significantly improves the service life of the mechanical brakes. I'm betting the industry adopts its use widespread.
- Of all the hybrid vehicles I have driven over the past five years, the A3 Sportback E-Tron has impressed me the most. Audi has raised the bar in the segment by introducing a no-compromise vehicle that delivers lively performance, strong EV capabilities and an impressive combined range through a smooth and seamless powertrain. Its five-place cabin is comfortable and it provides plenty of utility for those looking to efficiently haul more than just themselves. Look for it in showrooms in early 2015.