For every gaggle of Toyota Prius owners who flaunt their electrified mobility, a discerning few enthusiasts search for an involving but discreet hybrid driving experience. For these cognoscenti, there’s the 2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron.
Even here in Palo Alto, abounding in brainiacs and Greenpeace proselytizers, few recognize this new Audi as a plug-in hybrid, more or less the distant relative of cars that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The A3 e-tron, the first Audi production car to wear the e-tron label, combines an advanced powertrain with the refined goodness of a rather nondescript four-door hatchback.
This means no one looking at you will be able to guess how much you donated to National Public Radio, how many kale fronds go into your smoothies, or what your favorite yoga pose is. The only visual cues that distinguish the e-tron from the normal (and relatively rare-on-the-ground A3) are a grille with integrated charge port, unique 16- or available 17- and 18-inch wheels, and a couple of easily overlooked badges. Perhaps the biggest clue to this newcomer’s identity is the apparent lack of exhaust pipes, which are tucked far below the rear bumper.
In other words, invisibility is achieved, despite our test car being red, an ill-advised color forany Audi A3. Slipping into this invisible A3 e-tron, we noticed the steering wheel’s just-right thickness and the comfortable leather-upholstered seat. The EV-status dial replacing the tachometer in the instrument cluster was the most obvious tip-off that we were inside an electrified automobile. We pressed the start button, and the slender information display screen arose from the dashboard, an Audi trick that never gets old. Getting under way, we marveled at the lack of impact harshness and the suppleness over rough patches: a truly premium ride.
Only then did we remember the propulsion system. We snuck away under the sycamores, and tire noise was the loudest sound inside the cabin. The 2016 Audi A3 e-tron is capable of 16 miles of driving on its 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery; it achieves a combined economy of 35 mpg with the gasoline engine and 83 mpge with the hybrid system.
Audi’s product planning chief, Filip Brabec, boasted the A3 e-tron can be a household’s only car. The battery pack consists of eight cell modules, each with 12 liquid-cooled cells. This mass is located beneath the rear seat and ahead of the rear wheels, so the rear seats fold flat and it doesn’t impinge cargo space. Measuring 169.8 inches long, 77.4 inches wide, and 56.1 inches tall, the four-door hatchback makes a nice runabout for urban and suburban driving. With all the additional componentry, weight comes in at 3,616 pounds because of the battery and electric-drive components.
Despite its heft, the A3 e-tron is pleasant and involving to drive. The feisty 1.4-liter turbocharged engine and electric motor combine for 204 hp. Zero to 60 mph is accomplished in 7.6 seconds, and 130 mph is the top speed. The six-speed dual-clutch automatic behaved perfectly.
To extend the involvement, four driving modes are selected with a dashboard button. EV mode was the obvious choice while still in Palo Alto, and it returned excellent performance. But something perplexing happened when we floored the accelerator on a freeway ramp, expecting to feel the electric motor’s rich torque and approach the claimed 80 mph top speed under electric power. Oddly, the system switched to Hold Battery, awakening the feisty 1.4-liter turbocharged engine to lend assistance and prevent rapid discharge of the cells. It was, as they like to say in Silicon Valley, disruptive. We should have moved the shifter into Sport mode to take advantage of all available power.
On a coastal drive, the Hybrid setting was just right. And when we later found ourselves in stop-and-go freeway traffic, Charge Battery was the choice.
Excepting the Hold Battery incursion, the A3 e-tron is as suave as a Stanford University frat boy who’s buying everybody milkshakes at Cream. It comes with a Level 2 charger to replenish the cells in as little as two hours, 15 minutes. Audi partnered with Bosch to install charging units in buyers’ garages, and SunPower, the home solar provider, will install panels to supply current. Nearly every Audi dealer has geared up to sell and service the A3 e-tron and other future e-tron models. This includes installation of charge ports at each dealership.
And what would an EV be without a smartphone app? Audi’s shows the usual features: charging schedule and status, trip data, and the car’s location. Preconditioning the interior climate is also possible.
Available features include LED headlamps, a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system, and a suite of driver assistance features such as lane keeping, pre-collision braking, and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability. The test car had voice-activated navigation, which worked well for one driver but evidently needed a stronger sarcasm detector for the other.
Overall, the 2016 A3 Sportback e-tron is a very likable car for its subdued styling, high level of utility, and excellent efficiency. No claims of performance leadership are made, just that it’s the Audi of plug-ins. That should be good enough for discriminating buyers or anyone who dislikes kale and prefers making an Audi statement instead of a geeky one.
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