A3 e-tron heralds Audi's electric future

Audi gave CNET a chance to drive its A3 e-tron, a new plug-in hybrid model, at the 2013 Los Angeles auto show.

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
2015 Audi A3 e-tron

The A3 e-tron is Audi's first plug-in hybrid car, with a recharging port hidden behind the Audi logo.

Josh Miller/CNET

LOS ANGELES -- At the 2013 Los Angeles auto show, I had the rare opportunity to drive a car that won't hit U.S. showrooms until 2015, the Audi A3 e-tron. There will be an A3 model here before that, but it will be a sedan and only comes with gasoline and diesel engines. Audi takes a different tack with the A3 e-tron, using its wagon body and fitting the model with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain.

In fact, the A3 e-tron will represent the first plug-in hybrid car from Audi.

Similar to the standard A3 model, the A3 e-tron will come packed with cabin tech options, including a built-in 4G/LTE data connection and Google Earth integrated into the navigation system. Audi enables quite a few connected car features into the cabin, including the ability to see which parking garages have empty spaces and hear Facebook or Twitter updates.

Read CNET's first take on the Audi A3 to learn more.

Audi electrifies the A3 wagon (pictures)

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The A3 e-tron will be distinguished not only by its drivetrain, but different gauges and power flow displays in the cabin. As a plug-in hybrid, the A3 e-tron has about 31 miles of pure electric range, and an additional 550 miles from its gas engine.

Under the hood sits a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine using Audi's direct injection and turbocharging technologies to produce 150 horsepower. Audi integrates a 75 kilowatt electric motor between the engine and the car's dual clutch transmission. Total drive system output comes out to 204 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.

2015 Audi A3 e-tron

Audi uses a small, 1.4-liter engine coupled to a 75 kilowatt electric motor to drive the A3 e-tron.

Josh Miller/CNET

Audi packages an 8.8 kilowatt-hour battery pack under the rear seat, which takes about 2 hours to charge from a 240 volt source. Similar to the Nissan Leaf, the charging port is located dead center in front of the car, but in a nifty design cue, the Audi badge in front slides to the side, exposing the port.

When I hit the car's ignition button, it acted like a hybrid car, lighting up the dashboard but leaving the engine off. The instrument cluster had a speedometer and a power gauge, showing when the car was expending electricity and when it was recuperating energy from its regenerative braking system.

Pushing the shifter to drive, the engine stayed off but the car began to creep forward. The accelerator pedal gave it typical electric car thrust, steady and quiet, a linear boost from the front wheels. Power felt adequate and the battery pack didn't make the car feel particularly heavy.

At my first clear straight I floored it, causing the engine to kick in, adding its boost to the electric motor. Audi says the A3 e-tron can hit 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds, a number I had no reason to doubt from my experience behind the wheel.

Notably, my burst of acceleration caused the car to go from its default electric-only mode into a hybrid mode. I could have also chosen the hybrid mode by hitting a button on the dashboard, but the car will intelligently try to figure out what the driver wants from accelerator input.

In this case, the car kept its engine on for a couple of minutes, then reverted to electric-only mode as I maintained more gentle pressure on the accelerator. Not that I had to baby it to stay in electric mode -- driving through downtown Los Angeles traffic I was able to keep up with traffic and avoid angry honking behind me when taking off from the stoplights. Giving the accelerator about a half push was enough to make a reasonably fast start and keep the car in electric mode.

2015 Audi A3 e-tron

Instead of a tachometer, the A3 e-tron has a power gauge, showing how much electricity it is using and when the engine is on.

Josh Miller/CNET

Of course the A3 e-tron regenerated electricity when I braked, but just lifting off the accelerator put it into what the Germans call "sailing" mode. Here, the wheels decouple from the engine, allowing the car to coast as much as possible.

I also had the option to put it into an electricity saver mode, where it preserves battery pack energy in favor of using the engine. Using this mode, I could save electric-only range for particular situation, such as a zero-emission zone in a city.

Ultimately, the A3 e-tron proved easily drivable. If I had wanted, I could have pretty much ignored its plug-in hybrid nature, letting the drive system decide when it needed to use the electric motor or the engine. I am a fan of the five-door hatchback body style, as it offers more practical cargo area.

Because of its hybrid drivetrain, it didn't feel like a sport driver -- Audi will have the S3 model to satisfy drivers who want speed.

What isn't available at this time are the car's fuel economy numbers or the base price. Fuel economy for plug-in hybrids will always vary drastically depending on how often the battery gets charged, and how many pure electric miles it logs. The 31-mile range given by Audi comes from a European test cycle, so that number may change under EPA testing.

Audi is showing the A3 e-tron at the 2013 LA Auto Show, but it won't be available until early 2015.