Last week Fairfax New Zealand took Audi’s first-ever plug-in hybrid on a drive through the streets of the Austrian capital of Vienna, out into hilly countryside, and back again.
During the drive’s two and a half hour duration the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron was a zero emissions vehicle 70.8 per cent of the time. It was an emissions-free electric vehicle the entire time it was within Vienna, only beginning to pour stuff out of the exhaust once we joined the car’s 1.4-litre petrol engine in on the action to help give improve performance outside the city limits.
But even then we were able to control things so that there would be sufficient battery power to let the Audi again be a pure electric vehicle once we had re-entered urban Vienna.
All we had needed to do was punch a little dash-mounted switch to select a Charge setting that allowed us to use kinetic energy to recharge the battery as quickly as possible, and then select a Hybrid Hold to store the energy in the battery for use in the city.
As a result, we achieved the perfect drive. When we had departed our start point we had 8.8 kilowatt hours of electricity stored in the car’s lithium-ion battery pack. Despite the fact we had indulged in some enthusiastic motoring through the hills overlooking Vienna, on our return we still had 0.2 kWh remaining – and the petrol we had consumed out in the country had given us an average consumption of 5.0 L/100km.
How did we know all this? Because the A3 e-tron told us so. Audi has developed a smartphone app that can call up all this information as a sort of guide to achieving the most efficient driving habits.
Now while all this may sound rather complicated, it’s not. This new Audi is in fact an impressively simple vehicle to use, a deliberate move by its maker for the hatch to be just like any other A3. Left to its own devices, it will work its parallel hybrid magic to keep fuel consumption to a minimum.
In fact under normal circumstances this A3 might not need to use any petrol at all. A full battery charge – and this will take less than four hours using an ordinary New Zealand household power socket – gives the hatch a range up to 50 kilometres, which is easily more than the average daily commute.
The A3 e-tron is soon to be launched in Europe as the pathfinder for a wide range of plug-in hybrids now being developed by Audi, and due for arrival in New Zealand early next year. Next e-tron models will be an A6 followed by a Q7, and the master plan is for Audi – and no doubt Volkswagen as well – to have a triumvirate of petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid versions through almost its entire model line.
It’s all the result of a conviction by Audi-Volkswagen that no matter what happens longer into the future, plug-in hybrids are the best means of electrifying motor vehicles in the medium term.
Powertrain in this latest A3 comprises Audi-Volkswagen’s well-known 110 kW 1.4-litre TFSI engine, which has been moved 6cm to the left to make way for additional componentry and with specially coated pistons and bearings to handle its hybrid use. The engine is matched to a 75kW electric motor and a newly developed six-speed S-tronic automatic with its own integrated electric motor, so it can operate as a gearless transmission when the car is in EV mode.
They combine to provide a system output of 150kW of power, and perhaps more importantly 350Nm of torque, which isn’t far short of the 2.0-litre Audi S3 and the same as the VW Golf GTI.
Thanks to all that instantly available torque, as an electric car the A3 e-tron can accelerate to 60kmh in less than five seconds and on to 100kmh in 7.6 seconds – very good for a vehicle with a kerb weight of 1540kg which is 300kg heavier than a standard A3. And it does it more silently than a larger luxury sedan, too.
In pure electric mode the Audi has a top speed of 130kmh, and when the petrol engine kicks in it can get to 222kmh – but in typical plug-in hybrid style the hatch has an official average consumption of just 1.5L/100km.
That’s because the car’s 125kg lithium-ion battery pack, which sits forward of the rear axle under the back seats, can store up to 8 kilowatt hours of charge which is enough to give the A3 a range of up to 50km as a pure electric vehicle, which is easily sufficient for the average daily commute.
So theoretically the car nornally doesn’t need to use any petrol.
But the car doesn’t need to be driven that way. On startup the e-tron defaults to EV mode and it will remain there until it either runs out of battery power or the driver floors the accelerator to achieve kickdown – called Boost in e-tron speak – at which stage the petrol engine will join in.
In addition to all that, the A3 e-tron also has a special dash-mounted EV button which can be used to choose between four additional modes.
An EV mode prioritises the electric drive, a Hybrid Auto mode works to combine the electric energy and petrol engine in the most fuel efficient way, Hybrid Hold stores the energy in the battery pack for later use such as for urban driving or for Boosting when the transmission is moved into S, and there’s a Hybrid Charge setting which is used to charge the battery as quickly as possible while driving.
The A3 e-tron is based on the A3 Sportback already on sale in New Zealand, and it has subtle exterior differences including a matt black grille, sporting bumpers and side sill trims pinched from the S-Line models, and a slightly changed rear.
But it hasn’t been changed that much, and it is not until you become aware that the plug-in point for the charger is located behind the Audi badge at the front, and that there is that one button on the dash that allows operation of the hatch as a electric car or as a hybrid, that the vehicle presents itself as something special – in an entirely conventional way.
AT A GLANCE
Powertrain: Front-driven in-line turbocharged 1.4-litre four cylinder petrol engine, matched to a 75kW electric motor and six-speed S-tronic dual-clutch automatic with integrated electric motor. Battery type is lithium-ion.
Output: Petrol engine 110kW at 5000-6000rpm, 250Nm at 1600-3500rpm. Electric motor 75kW and 330Nm. Total system output 150kW and 350Nm. 0-100kmh 7.6sec, 1.5 L/100km, 35 g/km CO 2.
Chassis: McPherson strut front suspension, four-link setup at the rear. Electromechanical speed-dependent power steering.
Connectivity: Not finalised, but likely to have full connectivity including satellite navigation.
Safety: Not finalised, but likely to be comprehensive.
Dimensions: L 4312mm, W 1785mm, H1424mm, W/base 2630mm. Luggage capacity 280 litres with all seats in use, 1120 with rear seats folded. Fuel tank capacity 40 litres. Kerb weight 1540kg.
Pricing: Not finalised, but likely to be $75,000-$80,000.
Hot: Entirely conventional-looking Audi hatch with all that technology underneath. No EV range anxiety.
Not: Price premium will be several thousand dollars over standard A3 models.
Verdict: A3 e-tron is the first of a whole new model line for Audi. The technology is scalable, which will result in a family of e-trons.