Auto Tech

2016 Audi A3 Sportback E-tron: First drive

The first electrified Audi in the US charts a new path for one of the hottest brands on the road.

Jim Fets
Audi USA

In Audi speak, "e-tron" means anything with more than a standard 12-volt car battery. This new A3 is a plug-in hybrid, the first electrified car Audi has offered in the US and a big step for a company that long eschewed voltage in favor of turbos, superchargers, diesels and almost anything else it could use to gain efficiency.

The plug-in power train means this A3 can run on its gas engine only, in gas-electric hybrid mode or solely on its electric motor for around 16 miles at up to 80 mph. As the A3 is Audi's smallest car in the US, it's important that they completely hid the 8.8 kWh drive battery under the rear seat, intruding on neither rear passenger room nor the cargo bay at the back. The battery recharges as you drive, of course, or you can give it a full charge from a 240V plug in a little over 2 hours. Using a common 120V household outlet will take 8 hours.

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A3 e-tron charge port behind the front-grille Audi badge.

Brian Cooley/CNET

Thoughtfully, Audi's included portable charge cable handles either voltage source; many other plugs-in hybrids include a portable cable that only connects to the slower household outlet. The charge port is cleverly concealed behind the four-ring Audi badge on the front grille rather than punching another hole in the body for a charge door.

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Audi includes a portable connector for both 120V and 240V charges.

Brian Cooley/CNET

Under the hood

The engine bay contains a 150 HP 1.4 liter four-cylinder turbo engine straddling the front wheels, which are the only ones driven. Coupled to it is a six-speed dual clutch transmission that integrates the 102 HP electric motor, rich in torque.

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Unusual sight: High voltage cabling under an Audi hood.

Brian Cooley/CNET

Totaled up in the non-intuitive math of such arrangements, the A3 E-tron delivers a total of 204 HP and 258 lb-ft of torque, sufficient to move this 3,616 pound car to 60 MPH in an adequate 7.6 seconds.

A short walk around

The Sportback body style is a cross between a hatchback and a wagon. Compared with an A3 sedan, it has 2.2 inches more front headroom and 1.4 inches more in the rear. Cargo space is up a modest 1.3 cubic feet but the shape and nature of that space in the Sportback make a bigger cargo hole than that number suggests.

Currently, a Sportback is the only way to get an E-tron in the US and an E-tron is the only way to get a Sportback.

Behind the wheel

On the left side of the instrument panel is your main indication that this Audi is different: A big, round power gauge takes the place of a tach and indicates your state of discharge or recharge as well as overall battery level and system power output at the moment. The needle swings wildly between states as you drive, so many are the modes it conveys.

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Power & charge gauge takes the place of tachometer.

Brian Cooley/CNET

The other main difference in this car's cabin layout is an EV switch that toggles through four modes:

EV: Pure electric drive until battery is depleted. Top speed 80 MPH, range 16-17 miles.

Hybrid: The most efficient blend of gas and electric power.

Hold Battery: Saves whatever charge is in your battery for later.

Charge Battery: Prioritizes getting the battery back to full charge while you are driving.

I find that set of modes, on top of four other modes under the adjacent Audi Drive Select switch, to be much more than the average driver will fiddle with after the new-car honeymoon. Most will just put the car into D and occasionally shift manually for more pickup. But Audi is far from the only carmaker engaging in drive mode TMI in these teenage years of alternative power trains.

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Four EV power modes are available on top of four other traditional drive modes.

Brian Cooley/CNET

The rest of the cabin tech is familiar, excellent Audi gear though not as advanced as the 2016 Audi TT, which sports an all-LCD instrument panel and standard USB jacks for mobile devices; the A3 E-tron soldiers on with the proprietary AMI interface for cabling your mobile device and uses a motorized pop-up 7-inch display that isn't a touchscreen. It does, however, come standard with a built-in 4G LTE connection to create a credible in-car hotspot and, with the optional navigation system, also powers Google Earth, Street View and live online destination search by voice that is best in the industry.

On the road

That A3 e-tron has a lot going on between your right foot and the road. Gas, hybrid and EV power all flows through the logic of that six-speed dual-clutch automated gearbox, further nuanced by a turbocharger and a freewheeling mode the driveline can adopt to reduce drag when coasting. It all adds up to an Audi that feels very different and less direct than all its stablemates. Thrown onto an interesting road, you feel this little car's bigger weight; it's about 440 pounds heavier than a base A3 sedan. That weight is slung low and between the axle lines, but the car feels dense when pressed.

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The A3 Sportback e-tron handles well but communicates its extra weight.

Audi USA

The few hours I had with the A3 e-tron were too limited to evaluate its overall efficiency and, as of this writing, Audi is estimating 35 mpg average and 83 mpge, pending formal EPA certification.

What it costs

Since Audi does cabin tech so well, you'll want an A3 E-tron with the Prestige trim to enjoy Google navigation, B&O audio, active driver assists and LED headlights, which brings the MSRP to $47,725 (converted, that's about £31,250 or AU$67,200) before an expected federal tax credit of $4,168. Here in California there would also be an expected tax credit of $1,500, reducing the final sale price to just over $42,000 which is about the same as a comparably equipped A3 sedan with a garden-variety 1.8L gas engine.

None of my concerns about rather off (for an Audi) road response are going to keep this car from being the "Audi of plug-ins" for its intended market: smeone who values good but not track-honed handling in a chic, practical urban package with alternative power that speaks to greenness while not treading into range and charge anxiety.