2015 Audi A3 e-tron Prototype First Drive
If you've been following the auto industry, you might have noticed a trend: The search for the silver bullet of future powertrains has been called off in favor of a holistic solution. Most automakers have reached the same conclusion: No one powertrain will be a cure-all for emissions, efficiency, and cost. As a result, automakers are developing a number of different technologies. Thus, the same company that already offered you both gasoline and diesel turbocharged four-cylinder engines in the Audi A3 is now offering a hybrid variant as well, not to mention the S3 and RS 3 we don't get…yet.
We could talk all day about the economics and corporate strategy behind this, but let's instead focus on the car, because regardless of where you stand on hybrids, it's already here and no longer an academic exercise. The Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid claims a total output of 201 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque from the combination of a 148-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter gasoline engine producing 184 lb-ft and an electric motor good for 55 horsepower and 243 pound-feet. (Note, as always, that total system output is not determined by simply adding up the gasoline engine and electric motor outputs.) Power from either source goes to ground through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Per Audi, that combination is good for a 0-to-60 mph sprint in a reasonable 7.6 seconds. Not blistering, but recall that the outgoing A3 diesel needs, in Audi's estimation, 8.9 seconds to do the same. Of course, the diesel claims fuel economy considerably greater than the gasoline model, which again per Audi will do the 0-60 deed in as little as 6.7 seconds. The A3 e-tron splits the difference nicely while returning a ludicrous claim of 157 mpg, based on the European NEDC cycle. It hasn't been tested yet to EPA standards, but expect that number to come down quite a bit. The NEDC also says the A3 diesel we get is good for 56 mpg average versus the 34 mpg combined average the EPA claims.
The real-world result is a pretty compelling hybrid. Audi offered drives of A3 e-tron prototypes at the tail end of the Frankfurt auto show that were mostly city driving but also included some two-lane highways and a short stint on the freeway. Thanks to a stout electric motor backed up by an 8.8 kW-hr battery under the rear seats, the A3 e-tron tries to get you around on electric power as much as possible. Good for a top speed of 81 mph in pure electric mode, the A3 e-tron doesn't dip into its gasoline engine unless you've worn out the battery or really want some speed. Driving around the city and suburbs, the electric motor had more than enough grunt to keep up with fast-moving traffic without going to gas.
When you do get into combustion power, you feel it. Thanks to their torque, electric motors tend to feel strong off the line, but you lose some sensation of speed as you go faster, unless you're driving a really fast EV like a Tesla. Whereas the EV motor's output is linear and perfectly related to throttle position, the extra power from the combustion engine seems most noticeable in the mid-range of the throttle pedal's travel. It's like a traditional car that has strong mid-range power, where it seems to surge a bit more as you get the revs up, but in this case, the exact revs have little to do with it.
The other way to get combustion power, particularly in EV mode, is to floor it. Push past the detent in the throttle -- what might on an old automatic transmission car be the kickdown -- and you'll get Boost mode, where the electric motor and gasoline engine both go to full power. Then you'll really feel the power. No, it's not lightning-quick, but it certainly feels like it compared to poking around in normal driving. It's more than enough to get you up a short onramp at speed or make a pass.
Helping make all that happen is Audi's generally brilliant dual-clutch transmission. I say generally because this one, being a prototype, needs just a bit more fine tuning to get rid of the last few clunky shifts. Typically, though, the transmission behaved as expected: almost imperceptibly quick and quite smooth under both pure electric and hybrid power. We'll likely see this all sorted out by the time the car reaches production in the next year or so.
On the other end of the spectrum, braking was hybrid good. By that, I mean you can clearly tell that regenerative braking is engaging first and soaking up every last bit of inertia it can translate back into electricity. The handoff to mechanical braking was smooth and didn't suddenly ramp up the stopping force as some hybrids do. Audi has found that coasting is the most economical way to drive, so the A3 e-tron doesn't automatically begin regenerative braking when you lift off the throttle. At least, not in Drive. Click the shifter back to Sport and it will add in a little regen to simulate engine braking, though not much. Audi's still debating how much is right. Sport, of course, will also ramp up throttle sensitivity and shift points, though not dramatically. Audi seems to be trying to walk to walk a fine line between pure efficiency and the sporty character the brand partly has built its reputation on.
Some of that sporty character is evident in the handling. The A3 is already a decent-handling little hatch, and lowering the center of gravity by placing the battery under the car can only help. What's more, it also helps shift the weight distribution rearward, from a 60/40 split in the combustion-only models to 55/45 in the hybrid. The result is that the A3 e-tron corners fairly flat, without much body roll. The steering could be a little quicker if it really wanted to be sporty, but it's precise and has a nice weight, even if there's barely any feedback. Again, hybrid.
Perhaps the most noticeable handling trait is how planted the A3 e-tron feels. That, of course, is just another word for "heavy," but it's a good kind of heavy. The kind where a car feels pressed into the ground and stuck like glue, not like a barge on wheels. You feel it in the g forces when going around a corner, but also in the suspension. The springs and damping do an admirable job of trying to maintain ride quality while holding up an extra 660 or so pounds of hybrid gear, but you can feel them working over bumps. They do a good job of ironing out the sharpest jolts from the road and the little bumps, though if I were to complain, I'd like to have them isolate the cabin a bit more from the bigger bumps.
Otherwise, the inside of the car is a pretty nice place to be. The new interior looks fresh and modern, more in line with current Audi styling than the old A3, which felt like a top-trim Volkswagen Golf. In EV mode, it's very, very quiet inside and pleasantly isolated from outside noises. Wind and tire noise often become issues in EVs without engine noise to hide them, and the A3 e-tron does a good job of keeping both quiet. The only noise that was a bother was the engine when it kicked on. It wasn't especially loud, but compared to the silence that preceded it, it was more than noticeable, particularly because it wasn't a good noise, but rather a buzz. The tough question to answer, though, is whether it's any worse than a non-hybrid A3, or whether it's just more noticeable because the e-tron is otherwise so quiet inside. Either way, it would be a pleasant surprise if Audi could quiet the engine down a little for the production model.
It's the same story with the cabin vibrations while the engine is running. Are they worse than a standard A3, or amplified by their absence in EV driving? Without a combustion-powered A3 to drive side-by-side, it's hard to say. Still, I wouldn't miss the vibrations if Audi could somehow cure them, but I'd also understand if it simply isn't feasible.
The only other complaints I'd field against the interior are in two areas of the user interface and experience. I don't mean MMI, which is still very good, but in how you receive information from the gauges and input some settings. First, the new gauge cluster uses large, easy-to-read analog dials for the speed and power output/regeneration. Great, except the battery and fuel gauges are little white LED bars at the bottom of the cluster that, while mimicking other Audi models, are smaller and harder to read at a glance, even after you've found them.
Second, the EV button is rather counterintuitive, because it does not simply lock the car in EV Mode as in other hybrids. Instead, this button is how you toggle between the A3 e-tron's various driving modes, including EV only, hybrid and "hold," which will maintain battery power at a preset level so you can return to EV only when you reach a city, particularly one with a congestion charge that EVs are don't have to pay. A different label on the button would make it more intuitive.
All in all, then, my quibbles with the A3 e-tron are fairly minor and could well be remedied by the time the car goes into production. The Audi engineers tell me they have a long list of things from their boss to work on, though I don't know what more he wants changed than I do. From where I sat, I found the car nearly as good as many other production vehicles already on the road.
The A3 e-tron is not the sportiest A3 you can buy, nor is it likely to be the most luxurious. It is the most efficient, and more importantly, it's an additional choice for the consumer. Gasoline, diesel, hybrid, and S model, you can soon have a new A3 any way you want it, and based on our impressions of this car and the standard gasoline and diesel models, they'll all be good. The e-tron isn't a traditional Audi, but it's not replacing a traditional Audi. Instead, it's offering you another choice, and when it comes to cars, that's always a good thing.
|2015 Audi A3 e-tron Prototype|
|Base price||$42,500 (est)|
|Engine(s)||148-hp/184-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus 55-hp/243-lb-ft electric motor; 201 hp/258 lb-ft comb|
|Transmission(s)||7-speed twin-cl auto|
|Curb weight||3500 lb (mfr)|
|Length x width x height||169.7 x 70.3 x 56.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.6 sec (mfr)|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||Not Yet Rated|
|CO2 emissions||Not Yet Rated|
|On sale in U.S.||2015|