One would think it would be hard to impress pedestrians with the likes of an automobile when rolling down 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California (a.k.a. Apple headquarters, a.k.a. “the mothership”). One would expect to encounter those more obsessed with the latest handheld electronic devices, or awash with tech cash and obsessed with super expensive and super exotic cars. Yet here we roll, silently on electric drive, in a 5-door hatchback Audi A3… and we’re getting more than a few stares… a few smiles even.
Considering the significance of a car like the Audi A3 e-tron from the perspective of an aficionado, let alone an Audi aficionado, is a complicated matter. A critical enthusiast eye will tell you why one might prefer the likes of an Audi R8 or new RS-derivative, but an equally critical eye cast toward the future of mobility will still tell you that it is this sleeper of an A3 Sportback which signals a change is afoot. At the same time, the e-tron also enters a segment of the market long held by established players such as Toyota’s Prius on one end, and Silicon Valley startup Tesla at the other.
Maybe it’s fate or karma that we encounter our first Tesla while cruising the Silicon Valley area at San Andreas Lake. The road snakes along above the reservoir that sits atop the San Andreas Fault, a body of water for which the fault is named. Parked there is a P85D, more competitor the Audi RS 7 than the A3 e-tron as one can clearly see in size alone, yet a competitor that has helped force a seismic change in the pace at which electric cars are accepted.
Exactly where the A3 e-tron Sportback fits then, within the field of electric cars, is more than enough subject matter for any first drive feature. Defining where it fits inside the lexicon of Audi or within the crosshairs of auto enthusiasts in general is a whole other field of consideration. We aim to do both with this story… along with the usual first impressions.
For all intents and purposes, this is Audi’s first series production foray into the world of electric mobility. Those keeping track will point out the R8 e-tron that Tony Stark drove, but Audi has yet to sell a production R8 e-tron. Then there is the Q5 hybrid, though that car isn’t a plug-in nor does it sell in any great number. Super nerds will point out the B5-generation A4 duo, but those super nerds would also know that vehicle was sold in quantities counted on one’s fingers, and never sold in America anyway.
It seems there are two views from which to peer at the A3 e-tron. For starters, it’s a Sportback. Though a niche in and of itself, the former A3 generation was sold solely as a Sportback here in the U.S. market. Most of those cars weren’t exactly Autobahn-stormers, either 2.0 TFSI or 2.0 TDI and rarely with anything other than front-wheel drive. What I’m getting at here is that the A3 Sportback was much loved by its owners, its temporary loss lamented even. Those owners were more focused on the utility and efficiency of the car, all packed in a stylish shell. With the exception of drivetrain, not much has changed for those particular A3 owners and enthusiasts.
The other view, the more complicated view, is that of the car’s drivetrain in the eye of those who measure value with performance. At the heart of the A3 e-tron is Audi’s 1.4 TFSI turbocharged 16-valve 4-cylinder. This engine unit is good for 150 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. The engine is augmented of course by another 102 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque from a water-cooled three-phase hybrid AC electric motor/generator and powered by an 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery. Power to the ground goes solely tothe front-wheels via Audi’s 6-speed S-tronic (DSG) transmission.
The extra equipment and batteries do add mass. Audi reports the curb weight of 3,616 lbs, for the A3 e-tron, which is about 400 lbs more than a base A3 1.8 TFSI sedan and just over 250 lbs more than the A3 2.0 TFSI quattro sedan. Fortunately, the weight of the battery itself is low in the chassis and just below the rear seat. Yes, this means a can of fix-a-flat instead of a spare tire, but it also means the trunk isn’t intruded upon and that translates into 13.6 cubic feet of cargo space.
For straight line performance, we’ll stick with Audi’s reported numbers in order to keep comparisons consistent. The e-tron, Audi says, will knock out 0-60 mph in 7.6 seconds. And, while that may be .4 seconds slower than an A3 1.8 TFSI sedan, it is a whopping 1.3 seconds quicker than the previous generation A3 Sportback equipped with the 2.0 TDI engine.
Official EPA fuel economy figures for the A3 e-tron are 37 cumulative / 41 highway / 29 city. That said, Audi estimates a 16-17 mile fully-electric range on a charged battery. Depending on the length of your commute, this means your fuel consumption could be much, much higher or not at all. For instance, Audi says the average commute is about 14 miles. By plugging into a charger at work, even a 120-volt outlet, someone with an average commute ought to be able to go fully electric on a given working day.
Of course, not all days involve the average commute. That’s the beauty of a plug-in-hybrid. You won’t be range-limited as you might be in a Tesla or even a Volkswagen eGolf. Our own experience saw about 15-miles of driving in the bay area before we dug into use of the 1.4 TFSI and, even then, the car was a very capable commuter.
As for packaging, Audi skipped the model set by companies like Toyota with the Prius or Ford with their C-Max, electing to go with the more low-slung Sportback body style rather than the somewhat ungainly upright people-mover tear drop forms that come off more as small MPVs. The A3 e-tron even sports the equivalent of the European A3 S-line and S3 bumper designs, albeit accented with silver e-tron styling cues like grille and wheels. The latter may give the car a more “techy” feel, but rob some of the overall sporting appearance one might find with the Euro S line or S3.
Inside, the Sportback is nearly identical to the sedan save the difference in trunk space. A3 e-tron owners get the same minimalist dashboard with slick motor-driven screen and touch-pad MMI controls. Here, the gauge cluster changes just a bit to help focus on the car’s electric consumption and supply.
All told, the A3 e-tron prices in at a base price of $38,825. This being electric/hybrid territory, many states can and do offer rebates for such cars, and this means the base price could drop as low as $33,157 depending on your geographical location. Live in a rebate-friendly locale and you’re talking a price roughly akin to a low-spec A3 2.0 TFSI quattro sedan.
Not surprisingly, the A3 e-tron is considerably more fun to drive than other market plug-in hybrids like the Toyota Prius or Ford C-Max. Power is immediate off the line, then tapering as you gain speed… not altogether unlike the now replaced A3 TDI. The hydraulic brakes, at times mixed with regenerative energy re-capturing, aren’t as linear as the regular A3, but they’re close and not something we’d see any hybrid owner complaining about. The car’s gliding function is also appreciated, allowing the car to coast rather than immediately applying the energy recuperation and all of the effective torque braking that comes with it.
Oh, there’s also an App for that. The folks in Cupertino will be pleased, and so will you when you see that it is actually interactive with the car. This means you can access trip data, operate the locks, activate the lights, check status including charge and also find the car’s parked location. Though not first to market with such a tool, this is a first for Audi and a welcome addition.
When Audi of America began marketing the A3 e-tron, it introduced the car with a TV commercial whereby an e-tron owner rolled down a very politically correct street where many other hybrid owners reside. Of course they all stared and took notice of this sporty new offering in a sad sad world where everyone gardens and seemingly devoid of sport. No doubt traditional car enthusiasts fear such a world. In as much, we drove the A3 e-tron with that critical eye… wondering where we as car enthusiasts fit into the future.
The good news is that we walked away impressed. Our particular tester was fitted with small wheels, no doubt to maximize the efficiency Audi wanted to exemplify at the car’s press debut. The suspension too, while it didn’t let down in as much as any base Audi never would, might be just a bit more sporting to someone wanting an S3 but needing a clean commuter. Interestingly, a nearly identical powertrain configuration is sold in the European market Volkswagen GTE… essentially a plug-in hybrid GTI.
In Audi of America’s defense, the A3 e-tron is a first step in what will assuredly be a long line of electro-mobile Audi models. It introduces the Audi brand to hybrid-hungry consumers and very capably fills the shoes of the former A3 TDI Sportback it replaces… and yet it’s simply not vying for the attention of RS 7 Sportback owners as is the earlier encountered Tesla P85D. Perhaps the world’s not yet ready then for an enthusiast aimed S3 e-tron… or RS 3 e-tron, though we must admit we’ve spent time imagining our own A3 e-tron plus, perhaps with larger wheels… maybe paired with lightweight carbon ceramic brakes, lower firmer suspension (Euro GTE spec for the factory OEM+ types).
Given the e-tron’s A3 basis, there’s certainly not a lack of aftermarket to help accessorize or even augment these cars. We’ll be honest. We started looking at options and rendering our own bold yet imaginary A3 e-tron plus that thanks to Neidfaktor for the photographic inspiration. And, though tuning companies like APR haven’t yet shown an e-tron application, they do have power figures on file for tuned European market A3s equipped with the same 1.4 TFSI engine. Adding the APR numbers with the power figures of the e-tron’s electric motor suggests a tuned A3 e-tron would have the power of a stock B5 S4 (270 hp) and torque figures (459 lb-ft) greater than that of the current 4.0 TFSI equipped S6 and S7 models. Can you imagine?
Back at Apple HQ, our presence here is fitting in a few ways. No doubt the electrification and connectivity trends with cars move them closer to personal electronic devices in scope, just as companies like Apple themselves consider jumping into car manufacturing. It is important to remember though that Apple’s founder Steve Jobs very famously was more indulgent with his own car choices, opting for Porsches or big motor AMG Mercedes-Benz models, and even rather infamously parking them not in the electric charging station spots but in the handicapped spots just outside the facility’s main entrance.
Like Steve Jobs himself, we still think there’s room for automotive indulgence… minus the handicapped parking when you don’t need it.
So there’s the consideration we pose to our readers. The car’s not quattro. It’s not S or RS. It’s electric. Can you get your head around that? We suspect it’ll be a no-brainer for those searching for a replacement for their last-gen A3 Sportbacks, but will it also be embraced by a wider group of car enthusiasts? Time will tell.