When Audi offered North America the all-new A3 for the 2015 model year, there was a little bit of an uproar from the enthusiast community.
Even though the car was technically very good, and the new Volkswagen Golf’s “MQB”-platform underpinnings made for excellent driving dynamics, purists wanted a hatchback. After all, that body style was the only way to have the last A3 on these shores. This year though, the A3 Sportback has returned, but there’s a catch – it’s a plug-in hybrid. Interestingly enough, this 2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is the only way Canadians can get the hot A3 in five-door guise. I borrowed one of the first examples on the road here to see how it performed through a variety of conditions.
I may be alone here, but when comparing the Mercedes-Benz CLA to the Audi A3 (see review here) I just don’t see a comparison. The CLA has edgy, modern styling, but much like the first-generation CLS, I don’t see it aging well. On the other hand, the Audi is contemporary but boasts the classic lines that have caused that lineup to be almost timeless. The A3’s formula doesn’t deviate too much from the previous model, but with smart LED lighting front and rear, excellent sightlines, and subtle but fresh design cues throughout. Our tester was painted in a stunning Misano Red, which remains one of my favourites on the Audi colour palate (after Sepang Blue).
Of course, I know what you’re really curious about – it’s that “e-tron” badging all over the car. After teasing it at auto shows and media previews for almost five years, Audi’s plug-in hybrid setup is finally a production thing. If you’d asked me about it last year, I would have said that Audi’s green future revolves around the TDI clean diesel. Unfortunately, as we found out recently, that’s not the case. If done correctly, the e-tron philosophy might be what keeps the Audi/Volkswagen family relevant in a rapidly growing green vehicle industry. Rather than a conventional hybrid or a full EV setup, e-tron is a plug-in hybrid with a variety of customizable modes.
Under the hood of the A3 e-tron lives a 1.4L turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine, good for 150 horsepower and 184 lb-ft on its own. This application is not too different from the beast that powers the new entry-level Jetta TSI (see review here). Couple that to a permanent synchronous electric motor that boasts 102 horsepower and 243 lb-ft. A combined figure for the two is 204 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque – not too far off from the regular A3 TFSI’s numbers of 220 and 258, respectively.
Numbers aren’t everything, and despite the instant torque generated in full EV mode, the A3 e-tron accelerates to 100 km/h in a modest 7.5 seconds. If power is what you’re looking for, consider the similarly priced S3. What the e-tron delivers for its price premium is the option to adapt your vehicle’s powertrain to specific surroundings. It’s capable of driving up to 30km at a time on just electric power without dipping into the gasoline engine at all. It can be plugged into any household outlet and charged overnight, complete with charge timers for optimal energy use.
Unfortunately, even in this age of green-friendly motoring, I don’t have access to a power outlet in my downtown Toronto condominium. Initially I was worried, but Audi really has thought of everything. They have included a “Charge” mode on the A3 e-tron, which uses the gasoline engine combined with regenerative power. I actually tested this twice, and was able to get a full battery charge over about 70km of highway driving. Of course, fuel consumption during this setting isn’t great, and I saw numbers in the 7.2L/100km during this period.
Seeing as my test took place in the winter, I made the most use of the “Hybrid” mode, in which the A3 e-tron drives like a typical hybrid – no hidden surprises or hassles. While zipping around the downtown core to do errands, I made full use of the “EV-only” mode, but the vast majority of my week was spent driving the car like a hybrid. Performance isn’t compromised, and the added electric boost to the turbocharged-four makes for a pleasant drive. The transition between the electric motor and the gasoline engine taking over is effortless, and demonstrates the same precision that makes Audis so special.
The A3 Sportback e-tron weighs some 750lbs more than a comparable gasoline-powered model, so the weight addition is substantial, but the car has been stiffened up to better handle this weight. There’s no quattro offered on the e-tron, so as of right now, the Sportback is front-wheel-drive only. This does save a little bit of weight, and it’s worth mentioning that no other plug-in that isn’t an SUV is offered with all-wheel-drive right now. Despite its front-drive setup, the A3 e-tron does a good job of hiding its weight out on the open road. It handles corners with ease and the steering, though lacking in analog feedback, is precise and direct.
Another thing that differentiates the e-tron from other plug-in offerings on the market is the transmission. Rather than employing some sort of continuously variable gearbox, Audi has stuck with a formula they’re familiar with. Putting the A3 Sportback’s power to the road is a six-speed dual-clutch S-tronic gearbox, from the Volkswagen DQ400 family. Variants of this gearbox have been seen in applications like the regular A3 as well as the current Volkswagen Golf R (see review here). Throttle response is sharp, and “Sport” and manual modes are just as responsive as in conventional Audi models.
What really surprised me here was how responsive the brakes are. On every other eco-car I’ve sampled, brakes with regenerative setups are mushy or the brake equivalent of on/off switches. The A3 changes this trend for the better, and offers brakes with a great amount of feel, as well as natural transition between friction and regenerative modes. I could do without the electronic parking brake, but I must be the minority here because the entire automotive industry is trending towards this, and the mechanical setup is all but extinct.
Inside the A3 e-tron is virtually identical to a regular A3 Technik, with the exception of some specific e-tron features in the MMI and instrument cluster. The tachometer has been replaced by a gauge that displays charge, efficiency, and boost. Those still needing a tach can configure the LCD display in the center of the cluster to display an electronic one. Audi’s MMI is still a favourite of mine over Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND system, because of its ease of use and crisp graphics. It also has a neat screen that slides slickly into the center stack, for those times when you just want a clean look. The interior trim has some plastic, but nothing that really takes away from the premium image of the car. Remember, the base A3 starts at $31,600, so it’s definitely built to a price point.
Pricing for the A3 Sportback e-tron starts at $39,200 for the base model. Our fully-loaded Technik starts at $44,600, and adds niceties like LED headlights, an auto-dimming interior mirror, MMI navigation plus, Bang & Olufsen audio, Audi side assist, park assist front and rear, a reverse camera, and a few other toys. The Misano Red Pearl Effect paint is an extra $890, the Sport Package with e-tron Turbine-design wheels is $1,100 (and also includes sport seats), and the Technology Package is $1,400 (and adds Active Lane Assist, radar-guided cruise control, and Audi pre-sense braking). The total sticker on our car before freight, PDI, and taxes was $47,990.
I must also mention that most provinces offer some sort of rebate for purchasing a green vehicle. For instance, at the time of this writing, Ontario buyers for the A3 e-tron qualify for $8,500 back in provincial and federal rebates, which bring the price down considerably, and it becomes pretty comparable to the Chevrolet Volt (see review here). My particular e-tron tester was one of the first models on Canadian shores, and had literally no mileage on it. However, the passenger seat mechanism was prone to loud creaks over bumpy surfaces. I’m willing to chalk this off to an early production issue and not indicative of actual production vehicles.
With the dieselgate scandal around the TDI powertrains looming in the Volkswagen Group’s shadow, drastic steps need to be taken in order to ensure that one of the world’s largest automakers stays relevant. The 2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is the first of these steps into the future. Starting with the four-ringed logo on the grille that slides aside to reveal the charge port, it does a thorough job at reminding the car-buying public that green cars don’t have to be bland and forgettable. This smart little five-door is spunky, elegant, spacious, and best of all – efficient in all of the right ways without sacrificing any of the fun.