2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron review: It's not a hot hatch, but an electrifying one
The new 2016 A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid arrives in the United States this year, bringing the "sportback" body style with it. If your excitement for the latest Audi A3 was dampened when you learned that we'd only be getting a sedan for this generation, then prepare to turn the enthusiasm wick back up.
The e-tron badge signifies that an Audi is electrified, but not necessarily fully electric. The A3 e-tron is a plug-in hybrid that uses both electric and gasoline engines.
The electric motor is a 102-horsepower unit that makes a very potent 243 pound-feet of torque. The e-motor is joined by a 1.4-liter turbocharged gasoline engine that adds 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque to the mix. However, hybrid math is never as simple as addition, so the total system output is stated at 204 peak horsepower. Combined torque is not stated, but probably not much more than the e-motor's 243 pound-feet.
Power reaches the front wheels via a six-speed dual clutch automated transmission -- which Audi calls S tronic. Sadly, the automaker's quattro all-wheel drive system is not available, likely because AWD is typically less fuel efficient than FWD and efficiency is the whole point of this e-tron model.
The A3 e-tron can operate in four different hybrid and EV modes. The first mode, EV, uses only the electric motor for completely silent and emissions-free motoring. This is a full EV mode that is capable of achieving highway speeds. And with 243 pound-feet of torque on tap, the A3 e-tron feels very responsive around town.
The next mode, hybrid, is what the A3 defaults to once its battery reaches a critical level. When in this mode, the gasoline engine comes to life to deliver the sportback's full cruising range. However, the gasoline engine almost never works alone; both motors are used in tandem, even past the EV mode's range, to maximize efficiency.
The last two modes are variations on the hybrid mode. Battery hold is useful for maintaining the battery's level during longer trips and preserving a bit of EV for a slower city or suburban segment near the trip's end. Battery charge actively uses the gasoline motor to add EV range for use later in a trip, and because of its heavier use of the combustion engine, is the least efficient mode. (It's far better and more efficient to tough it out until you can plug in, under most circumstances.)
In addition to the four hybrid/EV modes, the A3 also features four Drive Select modes: Comfort is the default setting. Dynamic firms up the steering feel and tweaks the throttle and transmission programs to be more responsive and sporty. Auto, well, automatically adjusts these settings based on the driver's inputs. The last setting seems like a vestigial one. The Individual mode is usually where the driver can mix and match modes for the various aspects of Drive Select, but in the A3 e-tron, the only option in this menu is steering, which makes this mode feel a bit redundant.
Toggling between Dynamic and Comfort didn't really seem to affect the A3's throttle responsiveness as much as I thought it would, but the difference in steering effort was noticeable. I found that I preferred the extra weight and feedback afforded by the dynamic mode and so spent most of my time in that mode. On a twisty bit of road, I was impressed by the handling. The e-tron feels heavier than the A3 sedan I tested last year, but not significantly so. Meanwhile, the reasonably wide 225mm aspect of the tires provided fairly good grip for low rolling-resistance rubber.
PHEV charging range and efficiency
The e-tron's charging port is hidden behind the four-rings on the compact's grille. With the twist of a knob, the chrome rings lift and swing away, revealing the SAE J1772 standard charging point (beneath a second rubber cap) and a pair of buttons to toggle between immediate or scheduled charging behaviors.
Charging time for the 8.8kWh lithium ion battery pack (located beneath the rear seats, so not to intrude into the storage space) is 2 hours 15 minutes on 240V or 8 hours on 110V, according to Audi. The automaker's initial estimate of 31 miles of EV range dropped to 17 to 20 miles once the EPA got ahold of the sportback. The latter range fell more in line with my best of 22 miles on charge. When in fully electric mode, the A3 e-tron flows electrons at a rate equivalent to about 86 mpge combined. Once the gasoline engine kicks in, that economy drops to a still respectable 35 to 39 mpg combined.
For comparison's sake, a Prius Plug-In offers only 11 miles of EV range at 95 mpge and will do 50 mpg once its gasoline engine kicks in. Chevrolet's 2016 Volt is the king of the plug-ins by my estimates, with 53 miles of EV range at 106 mpge and 42 mpg beyond.
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Audi Connect, MMI Touch
When you press the start button on the A3's center console, the Audi Connect infotainment display slides out of a slot on the dashboard like an LCD pop-tart. The system is controlled by a the MMI Touch command knob, which is also mounted on the broad center console. The system's functionality is nearly identical to that of the A3 sedan, with crisp and smooth Nvidia-powered graphics that I found pleasant. The control knob can be twisted, nudged and pressed to make onscreen selections; additionally, its top surface is a circular touchpad -- not unlike that of a laptop -- which can be used to trace letter shapes with a fingertip to input addresses and search terms.
The "Connect" part of Audi Connect hints at the A3's onboard 4G LTE data connection, which is used for such features as Google Earth satellite imagery overlays and online destination search while behind the wheel. The data connection also allows the driver to connect with the vehicle remotely to monitor and schedule charging of the plug-in hybrid's battery pack, to monitor the vehicle's location or to remotely activate the climate controls to, for example, warm the cabin on a frigid morning, using power from the grid rather than the battery.
I was a little disappointed to see Audi's proprietary MMI smartphone connection in the center console, rather than the simple USB port connectivity that newer Audis have moved on to. It was even more of a shame to see that is a paid option at the entry Premium level. There is a single USB port in the A3, but it's a charging-only connection that can't be used for media connectivity.
Nor can that USB port be used for Android Auto or Apple CarPlay connectivity; neither technology is present in this specific iteration of Audi Connect.
The standard suite Driver aid options includes Audi's Side Assist blind spot monitoring, a rear camera and park assist proximity alerts. At the highest trim level, the A3 e-tron gains adaptive cruise and lane departure prevention.
Pricing and competition
Pricing for the 2016 A3 sportback e-tron starts at $37,900 for the base Premium trim level and stretches all the way up to $48,525 for a loaded Prestige model. Whether it's worth that depends on what you're comparing the A3 to, and why it's being considered.
However, if you're looking at a plug-in hybrid because you want the most efficiency for the buck, the A3 e-tron must come into competition with the Chevrolet Volt, which I consider to be the current king of the PHEVs. With more than triple the electric range per charge and better efficiency in both its EV and hybrid modes, the Volt costs less to operate and less up front, with a price range topping out at about the Audi's starting price.
Compared to the standard A3, the A3 e-tron has all of the tech that I loved in the sedan, but with the potential for significantly more efficiency, if its drivers can take advantage of the plug-in electric range. I'm a bit disappointed by the lack of a quattro option, but I understand why it's not there. That the e-tron offers the extra utility and, in my humble opinion, superior styling of the hatchback are nice bonuses, too.