There are two things I dislike about my job: enduring clunky hybrid drivetrains and driving in Los Angeles.
When Audi asked me to drive its all-new A3 Sportback e-tron plug-in hybrid at the 2013 LA Auto Show, it saddled me with both.
Even though I love Audi – and the new A3 – I paused a moment before I agreed. “Do I really want to drive the e-tron that bad?” I wondered to myself. Eventually, I conceded I was in fact that eager to drive the e-tron and I agreed to a time and date for the drive.
First drive video
Let’s get something straight. Although I am a big fan of vehicle electrification, I’ve not always been sold on the idea of plug-in hybrids. I felt, like communism, plug-in hybrids worked best in theory.
Take the Prius Plug-in for example. It’s $5,500 more than the standard Prius but only goes 15 miles on the initial electric charge. Add that together with the gasoline/hybrid system onboard and the Prius Plug-in is only rated at 95 MPGe, which is not very good.
Step outside the relative inefficiency of the thing and the rest of the Prius Plug-in is a bit nightmarish. It’s not very usable inside, as none of its dimensions quite fit a real human body. It’s loud on the road and its drivetrain is jittery. If the Prius Plug-in is our example, you really pay at every level (sticker price, comfort, etc.) for the ability to plug your hybrid in at night.
Delightfully, there are at least a few alternatives to the dreary Prius Plug-in. The newest of which is the Audi A3 e-tron. And it, as I would discover on the mean streets of downtown LA, just might be the best plug-in hybrid to-date.
Behind the wheel
I met the Audi folks on the morning of my drive in their booth on the LA Auto Show floor. They offered me espresso, and when I declined, hurried me out to the car, which was waiting for me curbside.
They introduced me to my drive partner and Audi engineer, Jens van Eickels, and waved cheerful goodbyes, as to say, “OK please start driving now.”
I hastily punched the ignition button on the little, bright red e-tron and whizzed off into LA Auto Show traffic.
As I tried to pay attention to the cars surrounding me on the road and the driving directions, van Eickels began to explain to me the details of the e-tron and how it worked. He nervously glanced down as his cheat sheet and mumbled numbers at me.
The A3 Sportback e-tron is powered by a 1.4-liter TFSI four-cylinder gasoline engine that is mated to an electric motor, which is powered by an 8.8 kWh onboard lithium-ion battery pack located beneath the rear seats.
Working together to turn the front wheels through a six-speed e-S tronic transmission, the engine and motor together make a total of 204 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.
The e-tron will jaunt up to 62 mph in 7.6 seconds. It’s most impressive acceleration numbers, however, are between 0-37 mph, which is achieved in only 4.9 seconds. From there, the little e-tron will reach a top speed of 137 mph.
On the charge stored in the onboard battery, the e-tron can travel 31 miles. Utilizing both the onboard electricity and the fuel tank and it will go 584 miles. Recharging the onboard batteries only takes 3.75 hours on a standard wall socket. Hook it to a 240-volt and recharge time drops to around two hours.
This isn’t the only way to recharge the e-tron’s batteries, though. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
The most impressive number associated with the bubbly little Bavarian is its MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) number: 156.
Remember the Prius Plug-in’s 95 MPGe rating?
After van Eickles had given me his little spiel, and read to me all the figures from his fact sheet, he nervously settled back into the driver’s seat and continued to give me fumble-y driving directions, as Los Angeles drivers ripped their cars around us from all directions, as if they wanted us dead.
I cracked a few jokes about LA drivers and van Eickles sat silently, looking straight ahead.
Not only is the e-tron interior outstanding on a plug-in hybrid standard, it’s exceptional on an entry-level luxury car scale as well.
This is what is tough about interacting with German engineers. They’re obsessively nerdy, just like American automotive engineers. Unlike their American counterparts, however, they’re incapable of small talk. Jokes go right over their heads and rather than feign amusement, they sit quietly with folded hands.
They absolutely mean well, but have this innate ability to suck the liveliness out of a room – or small, plug-in hybrid car.
This gave me a moment to enjoy the interior around me. I have to say, not only is the e-tron interior outstanding on a plug-in hybrid standard, it’s exceptional on an entry-level luxury car scale as well.
Fit and finish is outstanding. Nothing looks or feels cheap, unlike so many hybrid interiors. Everything is well placed and formed from the highest quality materials. Audi added a cool, flat-bottom sport steering wheel and white accent stitching to the black leather interior. And just as a nice little accent, light green surrounds the gauges in the instrument cluster.
While the interior is top-notch, it’s the drivetrain that had me bowled over. Until that point, I had not yet driven a plug-in hybrid that didn’t suffer from drivetrain restlessness. The switch between gasoline and electric proportion, or between positive torque (acceleration) and negative torque (regenerative braking), is always a bit lumpy. It’s never quite smooth. Just like with the rest of its products, Audi got it right.
I could hear the gasoline engine rev up but I never felt it kick to life. I could see on the LCD screen that slowly rose from the dashboard at ignition that energy was being created and routed back to the batteries as we slowed to a stop. But I never felt it; my neck never went ripping forward, as the electric motor spun backwards.
“Now, is there a way to charge the batteries while driving?” I asked.
“Ah yes. You can push this button here and it will activate charge mode, which charges the batteries as you drive down the road in less than 20 minutes” van Eickles in a thick German accent.
I never got to feel this mode with the seat of my pants, as we were driving in the city. But it, aside from the swift all-electric acceleration, energy efficiency, interior quality, and drivetrain smoothness of the A3, was my favorite feature of the e-tron.
A partial day behind the wheel of the e-tron didn’t give me a full representation of its cunning. While I fully expected to like the e-tron, I figured I’d see find flaws quite quickly, as I had in the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid. From my short glimpse into the e-tron, though, I can say that I haven’t found a flaw.
- Powertrain efficiency and smoothness
- Build quality
- Interior design
- Hatchback versatility
- No panini press