A3 E-tron previews Audi electric car

Audi let CNET drive its A3 E-tron prototype, an electric car that seems road-ready, as it matches many of the features found in electric cars currently in production.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
4 min read
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Ever since 2009, Audi has been showing off enticing electric cars under the E-tron name, its brand for any electrified power train. I finally got to drive one during a green industry conference in San Francisco, but it was a far cry from the original sporty-looking E-tron concept. However, the A3 E-tron looks a lot more like a car that Audi would put into production.

Earlier this year I drove the Volkswagen eGolf, the electric version of the Golf, with which the A3 E-tron shares more than a few similarities. Both use a 26.5-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack and 85-kilowatt electric motor to drive the front wheels. With a single-speed reduction gearbox, that power train seems a lot simpler than the internal combustion engine that lives under a standard A3's hood.

Audi A3 E-tron on the road (pictures)

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A bit more complexity comes from the battery cooling system, a dual liquid and air system needed to preserve the battery pack's longevity. Audi also gives the driver five different brake regeneration modes, which the power management electronics have to implement.

With the A3 E-tron, Audi only promises 87 miles of range, a bit less than the 93-mile range VW gave me for the eGolf. The difference may have to do with the A3 being a heavier car, or that real-world testing of the power train showed a lower number.

Batteries rear and center
Next to an internal-combustion Audi A3, there is little difference on the surface. The A3 E-tron is still a premium wagon, albeit with manually adjustable driver's seat. While the electric motor, gearbox, and other power train hardware sit under the hood, Audi put the lithium ion battery pack under the cargo area and in a T formation underneath the rear seat and up through the transmission tunnel. Splitting the battery packs in this fashion gives the A3 E-tron near 50-50 weight distribution, according to an Audi representative.

Shoving battery packs into the available spaces of a formerly internal-combustion engine-powered car is not the most elegant solution, but I understand the manufacturing efficiency versus building a low-volume, dedicated-electric car, where a flat battery pack in the chassis would make more sense.

Audi A3 e-tron
Part of the battery pack sits under the cargo area, seen here with an adapter cable for charging. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

When I turned the key of the A3 E-tron, a process which seemed quaint considering the car's electric power train, the dashboard lit up and the climate control system began to blow air from the vents, letting me know the car was ready to go, absent the rumble of internal combustion. But when I put the shifter in drive (yes, it still has a shifter), the car sat still. In this prototype, Audi did not program in a creep function, so I had to push the accelerator to go.

The Audi representative in the passenger seat pointed out a button on the dashboard which toggles the car through Efficient, Dynamic, and Standard drive modes. This button mimics the Select Drive system on other Audi models. I initially opted for Dynamic, as it would let me use 100 percent of the motor's power, while also putting the biggest drain on the battery.

From a stop, the A3 E-tron showed ready willingness to burst forward, just a little touch on the accelerator giving it that inexorable electric push. As this drive was strictly on city streets, I did not get to find the car's limits, merely feeling its more-than-satisfying push to 35 mph.

Switching it to Efficient mode, the difference in acceleration was night and day. Where before I had a tiger by the tail, the A3 E-tron suddenly became a sloth, requiring a serious push on the accelerator to get out of its own way. However, this sloth had a secret store of energy, as pushing the accelerator pedal to the floor unleashed more potential. That Efficient mode actually restricts the motor to 60 percent power, along with keeping the top speed governed at 60 mph. You don't want to get on a freeway on-ramp in Efficient mode.

Driving along city streets, making quick lane changes to avoid traffic, I enjoyed the A3 E-tron's handling. The steering felt sharply tuned, and the weight balance felt in line with what I had been told. The suspension managed to support the weight of battery pack without making this wagon feel like a truck.

Audi A3 e-tron
Audi did not bother with low-rolling-resistance tires on the A3 E-tron, but did give it custom wheels to enhance its looks. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

As in the eGolf, Audi attached paddles to the steering wheel. But these paddles do not change gears. Rather, they control the amount of coasting regeneration. When I tapped the left paddle, I increased regeneration, which caused the car to slow more when I let off the accelerator. When I took regeneration off with the right paddle, the car coasted freely, although using the brake pedal would still initiate regenerative braking.

Audi includes four levels of coasting regeneration, a unique feature not found in other automakers' electric cars. In addition, a B position on the shift lever would have maximized coasting regeneration beyond what the shift paddles offered.

Seventeen of these A3 E-trons roam the streets of America in an Audi test fleet, but judging from my experience, the car seems ready for production. The total range is not great, but it is in line with other automakers' electric car offerings. Audi is apparently still tweaking the power-train system's programming, dealing with things such as differing fault tolerances from charging stations.

The A3 E-tron may not be as exciting as the original electric, all-wheel-drive E-tron concept, but it is much more practical, a car you could use to get to work every day for a lot less than it costs to gas up. And with both VW's and Audi's electric-car testing programs, I would expect a production offering within two years.