First drive: 2016 Audi A3 e-tron

Put EV range anxiety to rest in Audi's green but uncompromised A3 e-tron Sportback

Until charging stations dot every corner, Audi’s A3 e-tron Sportback delivers the perks of an EV without the crippling range anxiety.

Before The Volkswagen Group became entwined in its “Dieselgate” scandal, the organization was hard at work on electrified powertrains for consumers who want to be done dealing with gallons – of diesel or gasoline – altogether.

Audi describes the A3 e-tron Sportback as a transitional vehicle for consumers who want the benefits of plug-in hybrid efficiency without drastically altering their lifestyles, as opposed to those willing to rearrange their lives around charging stations. On the surface, the A3 e-tron promises superb driving range along with high levels of technology and performance.

Audi made it clear that news of emissions-cheating devices by its parent company had shocked and angered the brand, so the question is: Can a focus on electrically-assisted platforms help clear the air?

Paving the road to an e-Life

With 75 percent of A3 buyers upgrading from non-luxury models, Audi needs its plug-in hybrid version to deliver improved efficiency without pricing out its present buyer demographic.

2016 Audi A3 e-tron
Miles Branman/Digital Trends
Miles Branman/Digital Trends

To accomplish this task, Audi mimics the European-only Golf GTE’s powertrain instead of engineering a totally new setup at far greater cost. The A3 e-tron pairs a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine with a 75kW lithium-ion battery-powered electric motor for a combined 204 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. This matchup motivates the A3 e-tron to 60 mph in an efficient 7.6 seconds and on to a top speed of 130 mph.

If you’re doing the math, then you’ve realized by now that the A3 e-tron is a quick little hatch indeed. Moreover, thanks to the petrol power, while you’re enjoying the A3 e-tron’s electrically-assisted performance, you needn’t fear being stranded by the side of the road.

Thanks to your petrol-powered comrade, while you’re enjoying the A3 e-tron’s electrically-assisted performance, you needn’t fear being stranded.

Audi claims the A3 e-tron will return a combined MPGe of between 83 and 84 and an electric-only range of 16 to 17 miles, which means the five-door model can genuinely be an all-purpose vehicle for many. With the average commute in the U.S. hovering around 14 miles, the A3 e-tron’s electric range is enough to get you to work, charge up while you’re there (which takes 8 hours via a 120V outlet or 2 hours and 15 minutes via a 240V outlet), and get you back home. Should you want to embark on a road trip, you aren’t handicapped like you would be, for example, in the 83-mile-range Volkswagen e-Golf. Speaking of road trips, if you and your peers can fit in a standard A3, then the e-tron version won’t disrupt your plans. Audi has engineered the battery placement beneath the rear seat bench, so passenger and trunk space is relatively unhindered, and you can still fold those 60/40 rear seats.

Of course, with an extra 400-ish pounds to lug around compared to the standard A3, the e-tron loses a bit of its characteristic fun-to-drive factor, but not much. The A3 e-tron is more prone to understeer and body roll, but the steering response, brakes, and six-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission are standard-issue Audi-refined. Though the e-tron only comes in front-wheel drive guise, its electric torque doesn’t overwhelm the front tires in the slightest.

High-tech looks are more than skin deep

You’ll be able to distinguish an A3 e-tron from a standard A3 hatch thanks to a few design cues. At the front, the e-tron wears a single-frame grille, S-line front bumpers with chrome intakes, and standard Xenon headlights. Moving rearwards, the plug-in hybrid A3 sports e-tron-specific wheel designs in 16, 17, or 18-inch sizes, S-line side sills, a rear diffuser, roof spoiler, and LED taillights. The look is notably upscale, with the chrome accents and clean lines giving the A3 e-tron new intrigue compared to the standard hatch.

Inside, the A3 keeps things interesting with a high-tech infotainment system, pleasantly comfortable seats, and multi-texture surfaces. Audi has been a pioneer for Google-powered connected car services, and the A3 e-tron’s Audi Connect system offers a 4G LTE hotspot and apps like weather, news, Google search, navigation, voice search, Sirius XM traffic, and more. To access the vehicle’s features, you can either press the voice search button on the steering wheel and speak your desire or navigate through the options via the dial, buttons, and Audi’s scribble-deciphering touch pad. The Audi Connect system becomes a cinch to use after a few short minutes and the voice-recognition software rarely misinterprets your mumbled instructions.

The A3 e-tron’s driver display gauges are distinguished from the normal A3’s by replacing the tachometer with a “power meter” that shows remaining battery juice and when you’re using electric, hybrid, or pure gasoline power. To swap between the four driving modes, there’s a drive mode toggle on the center stack for EV, which maximizes the electric driving range, Hybrid, which is the most efficient power delivery, Hold Battery, which preserves charge for later use, and Charge Battery, which uses the gas engine to restore the battery.

Beyond the drive modes, you can use the gear lever to engage sport mode, which maximizes energy recuperation. Leaving the system in “D” lets the car “glide,” disengaging the powertrain from the front wheels to reduce friction and therefore improve fuel efficiency. For further customization, you can find Audi Drive Select modes to optimize the ride for Comfort, Auto, or Dynamic settings, or any combination of the car’s steering, handling, or throttle response characteristics. I decided not to calculate all the available permutations, but doesn’t that sound like a fun homework assignment for your middle-schooler?

Finding a chair at the hybrid convention

Now that the A3 e-tron has made its case among a jam-packed hybrid marketplace, where does the entry-level luxury plug-in fit in?

It’s difficult to put your finger on direct rivals for the Audi A3 e-tron. Surely BMW’s i3 range-extending hybrid is a challenger, though it’s really a sub-compact contender. There’s also Lexus’s CT200h, which is in the same segment, though it’s powered by a more traditional permanent hybrid drivetrain.

Perhaps the A3 e-tron’s closest competition comes from three vehicles produced by non-luxury automakers. Ford’s C-Max Energi, Chevrolet’s Volt, and Toyota’s Prius plug-in hybrid all offer pure electric driving range with gas-powered generators and various driving modes depending on efficiency goals.

Its inability to fit an existing category makes the A3 e-tron a potential sales success. Priced at $38,825 (including destination, but before a $4,168 federal tax credit), the e-tron undercuts the BMW i3 by a solid $4,000, its advanced powertrain helps to validate its $6,000 price premium over the Lexus CT200h, and its handsome looks and German pedigree distinguish it from its non-luxury counterparts. Of course, as with all luxury marques, the moment you start checking boxes on the options list, things get out of hand. Assuming you can restrain yourself, the 2016 Audi A3 e-tron is a provocative plug-in with the refinement of a German-engineered five-door.

Not everyone is ready to forfeit the convenience of a traditional vehicle’s lifestyle in favor of zero emissions driving, be that via hydrogen fuel cell or battery-powered electric powertrains. Unless you’re in a position to pay more than double for a Tesla, we’re still a couple years away from an affordable EV with a range approaching that of a gasoline-powered car. Until then, the Audi A3 e-tron isn’t just relevant, it’s enticing.

Highs

  • Serious e-drive pep
  • What range anxiety?
  • Nimble handling despite added weight
  • Intelligent battery placement means typical hatchback utility
  • Comfortable, high-tech cabin

Lows

  • Optional packages cost a pretty penny
  • Plastic-like feel to the leather-wrapped steering wheel
Cars

Formula E races aren’t just exciting, they’re driving EV tech into the future

Formula E made its annual trip to the Big Apple, showing just how far the all-electric racing series has come. The cars are faster, and the racing is closer, but the tailpipe emissions are still at zero.
Cars

I used to be a die-hard petrol-head, but Jaguar’s electric SUV converted me

Simply put, the Jaguar I-Pace is the first electric vehicle I’ve driven that hasn’t made me miss an internal combustion engine, or even once consider that I’m in an electric car. Regardless of how it is propelled, the I-Pace is a…
Cars

Hooked on gas? Porsche is about to give you a good reason to go electric

Porsche's Mission E concept won't change much as it transitions to a production model named Taycan that's scheduled to arrive in 2019. That means the sedan will keep the sleek design and its 800-volt charging system.
Cars

AWD vs. 4WD: What’s the difference between the two and which is right for you?

Although four-wheel drive (4WD) and all-wheel drive (AWD) are related, they are actually quite different in how they operate. Here, we talk about the fundamental differences between the two systems, and what it means for you as a driver.
Cars

How Lexus, one of the industry’s hybrid champions, is preparing for the 2020s

Lexus predicts significant shifts will reshape the automotive industry during the 2020s. The hybrid champion is preparing to branch out into electric cars, it's investing in autonomous technology, and it wants to keep focusing on SUVs.
Cars

Cadillac’s new 2020 CT5 sedan lets you Super Cruise across America

The 2020 Cadillac CT5 proves the General Motors-owned luxury brand still cares about sedans. Introduced at the 2019 New York Auto Show, it's optionally available with Cadillac's Super Cruise technology and a lineup of turbocharged engines.
Cars

The evolution of NASA’s moon buggy is even wilder than where it landed

In 1971, NASA launched the first car to go to the moon. They also sent astronauts to drive it. The further you dig into their design, the more amazing the rovers, which still reside on the moon, become.
Cars

Toyota’s futuristic golf cart will transport people around at the 2020 Olympics

Toyota is reinventing the golf cart for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The company designed a vehicle named the Accessible People Mover that will transport visitors, athletes, and staff members from venue to venue.
Cars

Younger motorists may be banned from night driving in U.K. safety push

The U.K. is considering banning newly qualified motorists from driving at night in a bid to boost safety on its roads. Other measures could include banning passengers under a certain age from traveling with young drivers.
Cars

The 2020 Chevrolet Corvette arrives with supercar specs and a bargain price tag

Chevrolet completely reinvented the Corvette Stingray for the 2020 model year. While the first seven generations of the car came with a front-mounted engine, the eighth-generation model switches to a mid-engined layout.
Cars

The five key things we learned during the 2020 Chevrolet Corvette’s unveiling

Digital Trends attended the mid-engined, 2020 Chevrolet Corvette's unveiling in Los Angeles. Here are five important points that stood out to us after seeing the car in person, and chatting with the people who developed it.
Cars

Built-in coolers, tents, and kitchenettes make these the best cars for camping

For a successful camping trip, you’ll need a tent, s’mores, and some quality humans to share them with. A good car can transform the entire experience, though, so we’re counting down 15 of the best cars for camping.
Cars

Cadillac drivers can now find and pay for parking from their dashboards

Cadillac hopes to make parking easier with a new embedded feature that allows drivers to find, reserve, and pay for parking spaces from their dashboard. It's the latest new feature of General Motors Marketplace.
Cars

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Wearable chargers and A.I.-enhanced keyboards

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!