Audi A3 Sportback e-tron 2014 Road Test

It might look like any other A3 Sportback, but the e-tron represents a significant step forward for Audi. You see, the A3 Sportback e-tron is Audi’s first plug-in hybrid to actually make it into production and sees the German firm capitalise on the technology (and publicity) it used to score victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the first car maker to do so with a hybrid powertrain.

On paper, the A3 Sportback e-tron looks impressive, emitting just 37g/km of CO2 and delivering a claimed 176.6mpg. That means it qualifies for free road tax, exemption from the London Congestion Charge and a BIK tax rate of just five per cent. The A3 hybrid is powered by a 1.4-litre petrol engine and a 75Kw electric motor, with the two combining to offer 204PS and a range of 584 miles. As well as its hybrid powertrain, the Audi can also run exclusively on electric power, with a range of 31 miles at speeds up to 80mph.

From the exterior, the e-tron looks pretty much like any other A3 Sportback. Admittedly, there are a few small logos (ignore the large print on the paintwork, this was exclusive to our demonstrator) but for the most part the Audi is standard fitment, with alloy wheels, a rear spoiler and LED headlights. Audi has also hidden the charging port, locating it behind the grille – which folds out neatly to display the socket. The batteries themselves are situated beneath the floor of the rear seats.

Climb inside and you'll find a cabin almost identical to the standard A3 Sportback, with high quality materials throughout and a comfortable set of sport seats, clad in of cloth and leather. The decision to put the batteries beneath is a clever one, as it means there's no intrusion into the cabin, with plenty of head and leg room in the front and rear. The boot is also the same as the standard model, with 280 litres of space, which increases to 1120 with the seats folded. 

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The dashboard gets a few small updates, with a battery charge indicator where the rev-counter would otherwise be. There's also an EV button that lets the driver scroll through the different drive modes. All models get a 5.8-inch colour display screen as standard, which electrically pops up when the ignition is started and Audi’s MMI (Multi Media Interface) system can be operated via a central dial. The MMI controls all of the main functions - stereo, navigation and Bluetooth – plus it allows the driver to monitor the hybrid system.

The A3 e-tron can be driven in four modes - EV, hybrid auto, hybrid hold or hybrid charge. Select EV mode and the Audi will run on electric power only, while hybrid auto manages the hybrid system automatically and engages the battery wherever possible. There is also a hybrid hold option, which allows the driver to protect the battery charge for use later, say in a town or city centre.

The fourth option - hybrid charge - uses the engine to recharge the battery; however, we should point out that this is the least efficient mode for replenishing the battery because it increases revs and works the engine a lot harder. For the most part, the e-tron is charged via a set of leads, which are supplied with the car.

A full charge from a domestic power socket takes four hours, but this can be cut to around two hours with a wall box or a public charging point. Audi has also created a free smartphone app for the e-tron, which lets the user pre-program the charging times, set the car’s air con and access the vehicle’s data logs. 

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Audi’s big selling point for this car lies in its claim that it is ‘a car for everyday use’ and in this part it is very good. The hybrid system is quiet and smooth, while the car's nimble dimensions make it ideal for city driving. In EV mode, the Audi is superb, with silent but punchy performance that rivals the BMW i3. The A3 Sportback e-tron is also powerful, with the petrol engine and electric motor combining to produce an impressive 350Nm of torque, which makes for plentiful acceleration. Thump the throttle and the A3 will cover 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds, before reaching a top speed of 137mph. 

Power is distributed to the front-wheels via a six-speed automatic gearbox, which is built into the electric motor. For the most part, the ‘box works well, but can get a little noisy, holding the revs high before gear changes and struggling to understand which gear it needs when traversing between electric and petrol power. However, for the most part, it does a decent job and the e-tron excels in urban environments. 

Take the A3 out of town though and things get a little more problematic, with the chief issue being the car’s increase in weight. Obviously, bolting on an electric motor and a heavy battery pack will have some impact on a car’s handling, but the Audi really struggles with tight or twisty roads. 

We found it to lurch in high speed corners and wallow in tight bends, at lower speeds. The problem becomes compounded by a full tank of fuel, which leaves the Audi feeling rather cumbersome and difficult to handle on B roads. There’s no denying the powerful combination of the engine and electric motor, but the chassis is simply not set up to cope with it. At least not with front-wheel drive. On the plus side, it does settle down on the motorway and is really good in urban environments. 

Prices start at £34,950, but the A3 Sportback e-tron will qualify for the Government grant, which will lower the list price to £29,950. That puts it on par with the Lexus CT 200h and for us, in everyday driving, the Audi is the better car. It's quieter, more comfortable and more rewarding to drive, but just lacking in handling when it comes to tackling anything more demanding than motorways or urban roads. 

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