A3 e-tron a determined attempt to make three-pin motoring feel utterly normal.
It will be a sign that the electric vehicle market has matured when we stop comparing cars solely because they all come with plugs attached.
When Audi’s new A3 e-tron is launched in New Zealand next year, it will almost certainly be compared with the Nissan Leaf, Holden Volt, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and BMW i3: an elite little group of three-pin pioneers.
Yet you wouldn’t normally compare an A3 with a Nissan Pulsar simply because they’re both petrol powered. Or an Outlander DiD with a BMW 118d just because they’re diesel.
Although you can count on one hand the number of plug-in models available in New Zealand they’re all very different in terms of technology and market position.
The A3 e-tron, launched in Vienna last week, is the deliberate attempt yet to make electric vehicle (EV) motoring seem utterly normal. To look at, you would hardly pick it from any other upmarket A3 model: it has a special grille, wheels and rear bumper, but beyond that you’d need to spot the tiny e-tron badges on the front guards and tailgate to identify it as the zero-emissions model.
The plug is cleverly concealed behind the four-ringed Audi logo on the grille.
Audi is proud of the fact that the A3 e-tron feels utterly conventional to drive. A full charge will take less than four hours in a domestic New Zealand power socket and can power the car for 50km. After that, the car turns into the kind of hybrid we know well already: the 1.4-litre TFSI petrol engine and electric motor work together to drive the front wheels. That’s it. Easy.
So in concept and operation the e-tron is simplicity itself: a normal A3 with the added ability to provide zero-emissions commuting.
There’s hidden complexity underneath. The TFSI engine is essentially the same unit that you’ll find in the entry-level A3, but it’s been modified in the e-tron with specially coated pistons and bearings – protective measures because the powerplant is sometimes called upon to fire up from cold to provide “boost” (as Audi calls it) under full throttle.
Under the bonnet the petrol engine has been shifted 60mm sideways to make way for the e-tron hardware. The transmission is a familiar six-speed dual-clutch S-tronic unit with shift paddles, but in the e-tron it has an integrated electric motor to allow it to operate in gearless EV mode.
The 92-cell lithium-ion battery pack is mounted underneath the rear seats, with the 40-litre fuel tank behind. In total, the extra e-tron hardware adds 300kg, but with total system output of 150kW the e-tron is still almost as quick to 100km/h as the conventional A3 1.8T: 7.6 seconds compared with 7.3.
Will it surprise you to hear that the e-tron feels just like a normal A3 to drive? On day one we drove the car on a zero-emissions urban loop through the middle of old Vienna, just to confirm that school-holiday-Friday traffic hell is the same anywhere in the world. Day two we undertook a mixture of city and open-road driving, including hairpin curves and big hills.
Once you get used to the weird silence in EV mode there’s nothing daunting about driving the e-tron. You don’t have to think about the powertrain at all: on full charge it prioritises zero-emissions driving, and when the battery is exhausted it automatically switches to hybrid mode. If you floor the throttle in EV mode the petrol engine will still kick in for maximum power. But you have to be pretty aggressive for that to happen; otherwise it sticks resolutely to battery power, right up to 130km/h.
You can manually switch between four modes. You can opt out of EV mode into hybrid, choose to keep the existing charge in the battery (if you want to run as an EV when you reach a city centre, for example) or even use the petrol engine to charge the battery. The A3 e-tron returns 1.5 litres for 100km in the European Combined cycle. On our second-day drive loop we covered 100km pretty enthusiastically and Audi’s telemetry recorded 70 per cent emissions-free driving and average fuel economy of six litres for 100km.
The most noticeable opportunity cost in terms of the driving experience comes with brake feel — the bugbear of all hybrids with regenerative technology — and limited grip from the low-rolling-resistance tyres when you are pressing on in open-road driving.
But the S-tronic transmission is sprightly indeed when you’re running in hybrid mode (it retains a sport setting, which also gives you more engine braking and therefore more regeneration) and the e-tron feels almost as nimble as any other A3 in corners. Or at least any other A3 on standard suspension, because you cannot have the sports chassis setup on this model. Audi is keen to keep the hot battery as far away from potential damage as possible.
Audi’s mission to make the A3 e-tron experience mainstream has a disadvantage: it will inevitably be cross-shopped with conventional A3s.
There’s a high cost of being an early adopter of EV technology. The e-tron is closest in power output and performance to the A3 1.8T Sportback, which costs $59,400 in S-line form (the e-tron wears the S-line front bumper and side sills, plus those special alloys).
Audi New Zealand says the A3 e-tron will cost $75,000 to $80,000 at launch in early 2015. Let’s split the difference and say $77,500, which puts it at an $18,100 premium over the 1.8T. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that because the e-tron will be a technology leader it is likely to have some equipment as standard that is optional on other A3s.
So the specification-adjusted price premium could be as little as $10,000 — or the same as Mitsubishi charges for the PHEV over a conventional Outlander, which we all thought was a bold step towards making EVs a viable consumer choice. Such a premium would be even easier to swallow for luxury-brand buyers.
It’s certainly fuel for thought. But there we go again, comparing EVs for the sake of it.