As we learned last year in our Deep Dive of the E-Tron project, all of the concepts, prototypes and rumors have finally come to fruition in this A3 Sportback E-Tron. Previously, we were given a chance to drive a prototype, but it was only very briefly. Last week, we finally got to run a production-representative example through the hilly roads between Vienna, Austria and Munich, Germany. After spending a solid day with Audi's first marketable E-Tron vehicle, we can say that it's a most amazing bit of engineering, in particular for the way that Audi has done so much to hide the fact that this is an electrified vehicle. Not entirely, of course, but the idea was to make the A3 Sportback E-Tron a no-compromise PHEV. And that means it drives and feels, in many ways, like the standard A3 Sportback despite over 700 extra pounds. Oh, and there's a charge port hidden behind the four rings in the grille.
When you first sit down in the A3 E-Tron, you're greeted by the same dashboard as in the current A3, the same retractable infotainment screen, and the same system controls, including the Multi Media Interface jog dial that moves the on-screen highlighted items in exactly the opposite manner you might expect. Differences include an EV button that cycles through the PHEV's drive modes under the central vents, and a new E-Tron-centric telltale to the left of the speedometer. It shows if you're drawing energy from the battery pack or adding some back. Over 277 miles and using all of the car's drive modes, we managed to reach an average fuel economy of 41.8 miles per gallon. Of those, 52 percent were when we burned gas in the 150-horsepower 1.4 TFSI engine and 48 percent were "emission free," but that's only part of the story.
Over 277 miles and using all of the car's drive modes, we managed to reach an average fuel economy of 41.8 miles per gallon.
When you end your drive, the info screen displays what percentage of the miles just driven were conducted on gas and which were emissions-free electric motoring. The latter number includes not only the electricity that you left the charger with, but also EV miles that were generated from the gas engine and regenerative braking.
We're pretty sure EV lovers will be completely impressed by the way the Volkswagen Group has been taking sailing lessons. Used previously in vehicles like the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid, the A3 Sportback E-Tron feels unbelievably light when you take your foot off the pedal at highway speeds and simply coast. Some drivers with us in Europe thought the powertain was actually contributing to the forward momentum when their foot was off the accelerator because of how different this feels than in most other vehicles. It wasn't, of course, since all clutches decouple when you coast. Audi's engineers have just made the A3 Sportback E-Tron incredibly efficient once it's already in motion. EV drivers will also want to be able to engage in one-foot driving, they way they might in a Tesla or BMW i3. To get stronger regen, the picture isn't as simple, but there is a way to increase it on demand. Actually, there are three ways.
Let's describe what happens when the A3 Sportback E-Tron ups the regen level, which is possible in all modes except charge mode (more on that later). First, the clutch is activated and connects the 75-kW electric motor to the drivetrain, which is then put in manual transmission mode. Imagine the powertrain using the gears to adjust the regenerative brakes just like it would in a gas-powered manual-transmission vehicle that is downshifted when you're going 55 miles per hour. The friction resistance of the engine acts as braking force. The same sort of thing is happening here, except some of the energy is saved. If you have the adaptive cruise control on and the car slows down automatically, that's because of the brakes, which also regenerate energy into the battery pack.
This confusing set of parameters will likely become second-nature to someone who uses the A3 Sportback E-Tron as a daily driver.
What confused us at first is that you can engage this 'regen' function by either hitting one of the steering wheel shifter paddles, pushing the shift selector into S or tapping the brakes. They all do the same thing (engage the motor), but that wasn't in any way clear. Tapping the brakes doesn't shift you into manual mode, of course, and if you use the paddles, the car will automatically revert to automatic transmission mode if you don't use them for 10 seconds. This confusing set of parameters will likely become second-nature to someone who uses the A3 Sportback E-Tron as a daily driver, but we didn't totally have it figured out by the time we got to Munich.
What's unsettling is that you need to shift the car back into automatic mode yourself if you're not interested in paddle shifting. Before learning exactly what was happening, we just thought the regen level was increased and that we could revert back to 'coastable' mode somehow. Instead, when we stepped on the accelerator, the buzzsaw engine revved up because we were in the wrong gear. The only way to get the automatic transmission back on line is to wait for 10 seconds or to shift the drive selector over into S and then back into D. Having the right paddle (which does nothing when the auto transmission is engaged) revert the regen level back to normal – and leaving the transmission setting alone unless you're in S – is how we would have designed it.
"The way we designed the car is to deliver a true Audi." – Max Huber
Before we get to the rest of the drive experience (the highlights of what was different from our Quick Spin in December), let's learn from Audi's Max Huber, who was our guide to understanding the A3 Sportback E-Tron. He, understandably, didn't think we were necessarily on the mark when we said EV-ness of this car is being kept hidden. The designers specifically hid the exhaust pipes to emphasize the electric nature, after all. But he did admit that:
"The way we designed the car is to deliver a true Audi, and people know us for cars that are not slow. They are very drivable. So, we wanted to make the EV drivetrain within the car not just a way to maneuver you around the way the Space Shuttle uses air pressure to maneuver but you're really not moving, you're not having fun with it. So, for the range that it has, our EV drivetrain is a true battery-electric car with all the torque and all the power that an e-motor has, for its size. We wanted to get people excited about the technology without feeling the fear or anxiety of stepping into that technology. We wanted to make it simple and affordable and exciting to take that step, that first step from pure combustion to the next future."
First, while no US price has been set, the A3 Sportback E-Tron starts at around $51,500 in Germany. It will doubtlessly have to be cheaper in North America. Second, we hope you noticed Huber's caveats: "for its size," "for the range that it has."
The A3 E-Tron starts at around $51,500 in Germany. It will doubtlessly have to be cheaper in North America.
With that out of the way, let's push the start button and hit the road. The best place to remind yourself that you're in an electric vehicle is around town. When there's charge left in the pack, the E-Tron's cabin is excellently quiet. But aside from this, it doesn't really feel like you're was driving an EV. Thanks to a total system output of 204 horsepower and maximum system torque of 258 pound-feet, the A3's 0-62 mph time is 7.6 seconds (just behind 2.0 TDI Sportback's 7.4 seconds, but quicker than other combustion-powered A3 Sportbacks). For comparison, the BMW i3 hits 62 mph in 7.2 seconds, but we think that the A3 suffers in the all-important 0-30 mph zone. It just feels sluggish – compared to other EVs we've driven – when taking off from a stop light.
And then there's the whine of the 1.4-liter gas engine. Again, if you're driving it normally through town, it's quiet when not needed. When you stomp on the gas pedal, though, you get a tremendous buzzsaw racket when it kicks in. That the noise rocks the cabin in contrast to the delightful silence of the all-EV mode just makes the unavoidable sound that much more noticeable. You can hear the sound kick in at 81 mph in our Short Cut.
Your author has yet to drive the 1.4-liter TFSI gas-only Sportback, which weighs 2,657 pounds compared to the much heftier 3,395 pounds of E-Tron model (that's 738 extra pounds, folks), but in the E-Tron, steering is responsive and feels basically identical to the conventionally powered A3 sedan that was sampled ahead of driving this E-Tron version. Audi knows how to make you feel like the car is turning just as you think of turning, and even when the nav system sent us through increasingly quaint Austrian towns surrounded by fields with curvy roads, we never felt like the car was challenged.
The steering is responsive and feels basically identical to the conventionally powered A3 sedan.
After a half-hour in slow-moving European city driving, our driving companion noticed the brake pedal feeling a bit soft and unresponsive, with a noticeable switch between the friction and regenerative brakes. But at all other times, including shorter stints of city driving and without question on the highway, the brake pedal never came up as an issue. Neither did the regen blending. You step on it, it stops or slows the car. Problem solved.
A word on specs. Audi product marketing's Tobias Meyer said that the European rating is 1.5 liters per 100 kilometers, which is the equivalent of 35 grams of CO2 per km and 156.8 MPGe. That's with the battery involved. Once that's spent (as it was for most of our drive), the numbers drop to 4.5 liters per 100 km, or 52 mpg.
One of the most important things the automaker has to figure out is how much of the 8.8-kWh battery pack it will allow the car to access.
Of course, all this has exactly zero bearing on how the car will perform on America's EPA test cycle, since not only does the European NEDC test traditionally result in much higher fuel economy ratings in the same vehicles than US test, Audi doesn't even know how it's going to configure the car for the States yet. One of the most important things the automaker has to figure out is how much of the 8.8-kWh battery pack it will allow the car to access. In Europe, 7.0 kWh is available to be charged and discharged (the reserve is there to preserve the life of the pack), and filling up from the wall takes two hours and fifteen minutes. Using a Level 2 charger in the US will take about the same time, while a 110v home outlet will take eight hours. There is no DC quick charge option. Huber tells AutoblogGreen that of the other discussions about what needs changing when the E-Tron comes to America, most are cosmetic: the driving modes might get different names, for example.
Huber admits Audi does not have a target EV-only range the company is trying to hit for the EPA sticker. In Europe, the model is rated as having a 50-kilometer (31-mile) EV range. Whatever number it will bear in the States will likely be low in the real world when the car is used in city driving, because the energy recovery system is extremely effective. What's more important, Huber said, is finding the balance. "We're struggling right now and are trying to find the right balance. EV miles brings your mpg down and if you want to have a high mpg, your EV miles go down. So, there's a mix and we're trying to find the right balance to get the customer excited about the car and not scare them away when they see the Monroney label. That is what we're currently trying to figure out, to make the car US accepted." Getting this right is so important that the US availability date is dependent on some of these changes, Huber said.
In Europe, the model is rated as having a 50-kilometer (31-mile) EV range.
Another likely change concerns what the four powertrain modes will be called. Currently, they are: EV, Hybrid Auto, Hybrid Hold and Hybrid Charge. EV mode is self explanatory. The car will only use battery power, up to a speed of 81 mph (the car has a top speed of 130 miles per hour in hybrid mode). Hybrid Auto will just let the car take over, trying to give you the most efficient experience possible. Hybrid Hold keeps the battery level wherever is was when you pushed the button and Hybrid Charge mode will actively pump electrons into the battery pack from the gasoline engine. This is not a quick process (our unofficial tests showed that it took about an hour, but that figures to change based on any number of conditions) and is actually not recommended for most drivers. Huber couldn't say what percentage of the car's overall efficiency is lost when it charges the pack from the gas engine – something is really only useful when there are congestion charge areas – since how inefficient it is depends on variables like the speed you're driving and if you're going up or down a hill. "It's so complex, there is no real number to it," he said. Even so, there is no question that charging via the engine is an efficiency loss, and Huber said, "In regular driving, I wouldn't use it." In other words, most drivers should just keep this EV aspect hidden.
The A3 Sportback E-Tron is, after years and years of thinking about how the first E-Tron should work, Audi's attempt to have every cake. Huber put it bluntly: "It's a regular car, and I think that's what people are waiting for. I think they would love to have a very efficient, nice looking and versatile vehicle. Every feature that they know from their previous car, they would expect in a new technology car. That's also why maybe it took us a little longer to make the package that good that you don't sacrifice." With an overall range of almost 600 miles, no one can claim range anxiety, yet it does offer reasonable EV performance in normal driving.
"It's a regular car, and I think that's what people are waiting for."
We will see how American drivers respond when the A3 Sportback E-Tron comes to our shores some time next summer or fall, likely following the US introduction of the A3 Sportback TDI next summer.