2015 Audi A3 e-tron: Mastering electrons

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Audi, the Ingolstadt-based automaker, has just released its first rechargeable hybrid in Europe. The Audi A3 e-tron will then makes its way to Canada by the summer of 2015. We travelled to Vienna, Austria, to meet this newcomer, which balances seemingly irreconcilable priorities: efficiency and driving pleasure.

The A3 e-tron only comes as a five-door Sportback, and it keeps its hybrid status secret—or just about. From the outside, the only noticeable difference between this vehicle and its conventional counterparts are its black grille and unique rear spoiler. Inside, the dashboard is the same, too, with the only visual tip-off being the “EV” switch above the A/C system. On the left of the instrument cluster is a gauge that indicates the amount of power used/generated by the electric motor when the vehicle decelerates. On the right is just a regular speedometer.

Slightly less spacious

Adding the liquid-cooled 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery under the rear seats forced Audi to reduce the size of the fuel tank from 50 litres to 40. The cargo hold is just 100 litres smaller than in the conventional A3 Sportback, meaning that the hybrid offers 280 litres of cargo space when the seats are up and 1,120 litres when the seatbacks are folded down. As always with Audi vehicles, the quality of assembly, fit and trim is perfect. It’s also very easy to find a great driving position.

It’s not until you notice the outlet hidden under the four-ring logo on the grille or until you raise the hood that you realize that the A3 e-tron is powered by what some might call a kinetic chain! This chain includes a clutch and a 75-kW electric motor, which is tucked between a 150-horsepower 1.4-litre four-cylinder gas engine and a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox that transmits power to the front wheels only.

The Audi A3 e-tron is therefore just a front-wheel drive. Unfortunately, the hybrid model can’t be equipped with the brand’s renowned quattro all-wheel drive system. The combined output of the two engines is 204 horsepower and maximum torque is 258 lbs.-ft. The e-tron version weighs in at 1,540 kilograms, which is about 300 kilos more than a conventional A3 Sportback, yet it can still reach 100 kilometres per hour in 7.6 seconds. It can also attain 130 kilometres per hour in electric mode, and its top speed is 222 kilometres per hour.

Various electric modes

When you start the A3 e-tron, it’s default setting is electric mode (EV), as long as the ambient temperature is about 10 degrees, and it is able to accelerate energetically with each green light. Drivers can also opt to drive in Charge mode, which allows you to recharge the battery as fast as possible while driving. Meanwhile, Hybrid Hold mode will store energy in the battery for later use. In Auto mode, the vehicle uses electric energy along with the combustion engine in an optimal combination designed to keep fuel consumption down, even over long distances.

At this introductory event, I first drove the vehicle around a 23-kilometre loop through Vienna. This trip was done entirely in electric mode, and the vehicle had no problem with cold acceleration or negotiating heavy traffic. Once the battery was recharged – a process that takes 3 hours and 45 minutes using a 240-volt outlet or 2 hours and 15 minutes using the special quick charger provided by Audi – I took the A3 e-tron out for an 83-kilometre jaunt in the city and the countryside, which included 34.7 kilometres of electric driving and 48.3 kilometres of gas-powered driving. This resulted in an average fuel consumption of 3.4 litres per 100 kilometres.

Very, very good

What really struck me is that the Audi A3 e-tron offers a much more pleasant driving experience than the Toyota Prius or Chevrolet Volt. First because the chassis is rigid and remarkably well-balanced. Then because the car comes with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission and not a horrible CVT. Combined, these two aspects ensure the A3 e-tron remarkable handling on country roads. It may not be as sporty as a Volkswagen GTI, but it is nonetheless very enjoyable to drive. The suspension has been calibrated to be firm, while the steering gives you a good feel for the road. You never get the sense that you’ve sacrificed dynamism or fun just to get great fuel economy. In this case, the two aspects go hand-in-hand.

The Audi A3 e-tron is expected to arrive in Canada in the second quarter of 2015, but the price in Canadian dollars has yet to be determined. To give you an idea, however, the new model is currently being sold in Germany for €37,900. While this vehicle is extremely efficient when outdoor temperatures are pleasant, the A3 e-tron is not likely to perform as well in the dead of Canadian winter. Temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius will keep the combustion engine running constantly. Also, since the hybrid version doesn’t come with all-wheel drive, its winter handling will be less reassuring than that of the conventional A3 (which has the quattro system). These two factors are sure to be this vehicle’s weakness, in addition to the fact that it’s likely to cost a bit more.

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