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2016 Audi A3 e-tron: First Drive Review

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by Jason Fogelson November 2015

If gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles represent a bridge technology, then plug-in hybrids take us further along that bridge by encouraging full-electric operation for a good portion of our drives. The 2016 Audi A3 e-tron is a premium compact 4-door sportback, and it wants you to join the electric revolution without totally abandoning your petrol dependency or your entitlement to luxury.

Plug It In, Plug It In

A3 e-tron is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). An ordinary hybrid has a gasoline engine and a battery-powered electric motor. Software mediates between the two power plants for the most efficient operation. Most hybrids can run in electric-only (EV) mode for a brief time at limited speeds.

As a plug-in hybrid, the A3 e-tron handles things a little differently. Its 8.8-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery module can be charged by plugging into household 120-volt current (8 hours from empty to full power) or level-2 220-volt charging (2 hours and 15 minutes from empty to full power). It can also be charged on the go by the gasoline engine or regenerative energy. The A3 e-tron has four drive modes to help drivers manage their state of charge. In EV mode, the e-tron uses only its electric motor until its range is depleted. Top speed in EV mode is about 70 miles per hour, and its range can be as far as 17 miles if you drive conservatively. In Hybrid mode, the computers do the work, using the most efficient balance of EV to gas usage for your drive. In Hold Battery mode, the gas engine does all the work, preventing the electric motor from helping. This mode would be useful for commuters who have a long freeway slog on the way to work, followed by an urban street crawl for the final leg of the journey. Charge Battery mode engages the gasoline engine at highway speeds (where it is most efficient) to charge the battery.

The advantage of plugging in to charge is that electricity is less expensive than gasoline, and most experts agree it contributes less to pollution. If you install a solar charging station at your home, your electric charge can arrive without a monthly bill. Audi has conveniently partnered with 3Degrees for carbon offsets and SunPower to offer owners the opportunity to design and install solar systems in their homes.

But What About the Car?

All of this powertrain technology wouldn't matter if it was installed in a clunky car. The A3 Sportback is far from clunky; it's actually quite cool. The Sportback has been a staple in Europe's A3 lineup for years and is currently available with multiple powertrains. A3's Sportback is attractive, with strong lines and a grown-up ambiance, while still having a useful, compact size. The e-tron's battery pack nicely fits into the Sportback under the second row of seats and barely protrudes into the cargo compartment.

Inside the A3 e-tron, Audi's well-deserved reputation for clean interior design is on display. An impressive level of technology can be ordered on the A3 e-tron, which will help it appeal to tech-savvy people who will be attracted to the plug-in hybrid concept. Audi hopes the A3 e-tron will serve as a gateway to premium automobile ownership for young, affluent buyers.

Driving in Modes

Audi's reputation for assertive road manners and sporty handling are a given at this point, and A3 e-tron delivers both. In EV mode, 102 horsepower is available, along with 243 lb-ft of torque. That's enough for city driving, especially since the torque is available right off the line. The gas engine, a 1.4-liter direct-injected turbo, makes 150 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque on its own, and when both gas and electric are working together, the combined system power is 204 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. The car is nicely balanced, with the weight from the battery held down low. Our one disappointment is that the A3 e-tron is front-wheel drive only. Audi's legendary quattro all-wheel drive is unavailable.

Driving in EV mode is a novel experience, especially aurally. There's no engine noise at all and a little transmission whine, but the e-tron eagerly accelerates. In Hybrid and other modes where the gas engine is engaged, the transition between modes is seamless and almost unnoticeable. A3 e-tron makes use of a glide mode, which can be disconcerting if you're expecting engine braking to slow the vehicle when you take your foot off the accelerator pedal.

Most hybrids come with a continuously variable automatic transmission. Audi chose to use a 6-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission, which delivers a sportier feel and better all-around driving experience. Audi estimates A3 e-tron will receive Environmental Protection Agency ratings of 33 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. It also estimated 35 mpg combined city and highway driving and 83 mpge for combined gas/electric operation.

To A3 or Not to A3

The 2016 Audi A3 e-tron is pricey. Premium trim levels start at $37,900, Premium Plus starts at $42,000 and Prestige starts at $46,800. There are currently federal tax credits available for purchasers of PHEV vehicles, and many states also offer credit. The price of entry remains high, and when e-tron does use gasoline, it prefers the Premium juice.

The plug-in hybrid concept isn't new, and Audi isn't the first to try it. The Chevy Volt is a PHEV. There's a PHEV Toyota Prius returning for 2016, a Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid, Ford C-MAX and others. There are many plug-in hybrids out there and more on the way.

There's something to this plug-in notion. It's still a bridge technology, but it eliminates range, one of the biggest concerns about EV driving. As long as you keep some gas in your tank, you won't be stranded by a plug-in hybrid the way you might by a pure EV. If you do get stranded, you'll be in a premium vehicle with plenty of technology to keep you busy.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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2016 Audi A3 e-tron: First Drive Review - Autotrader