Audi A3 e-tron hands-on (video)

Joe Pollicino
J. Pollicino|06.15.12

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Audi A3 e-tron hands-on (video)

It's not often that we spend quality time with automobiles here at Engadget, but our motives are usually geared by electricity when we do. Take for instance, the Audi A3 e-tron concept above. This isn't the first e-tron concept -- if you'll recall, the company's been dabbling with others like the A1 and A2 -- but back in November we learned that the German automaker planned to begin testing this all-electric plug-in in four regions within the US. It hopes to gain insight into how these cars will take to different climates and roadways in the country, while finding out how it will fit into drivers' daily lives. Naturally, the goal is to have something ready for consumers, but Audi figures that it's still about two years away from realization.

After being in the hands of folks within the company, it's decided to let these prototypes loose in the hands of news media like ourselves (!) to show it off and see what outsiders think. As you've probably figured out, we definitely just took this four-door hatchback for a spin near Engadget HQ, and you'll find out all about how it got us around the city in one piece -- with us nearly draining the battery in Times Square in the process -- after the break. %Gallery-158241% %Gallery-158240%

So, this e-tron bit: basically it's the company's next-generation drivetrain, joining the likes of Quattro and TDI. All together, it's short for EV electronic -- sorry, nothing in the way of Tron here -- and the name will apply to its plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. Fans of the LeMans 24 hour endurance race are likely familiar with branding, as it's used on the R18 e-tron Quattro diesel / electric hybrid.

From the outside, the prototype A3 e-tron is very much a last-gen A3. We'd really have a tough time telling the difference between the two if it weren't for its red-accented rims and the eponymous decals plastered on its body. Even the interior is understated and nearly identical to the gas-powered version, with just a few hints of e-tron branding -- sadly the infotainment system is not of the MMI Touch variety. The main distinctions lay with the smooth Alcantara lining on the seats and side panels, as well as a slightly re-tooled set of dashboard panels (we'll detail these in a bit).

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Lift up the hood, however, and you'll find a static, permanent magnet synchronous motor in place of a gasoline engine (the orange cables let emergency workers know what could shock them). Essentially, the only fluids you'll find running through this compartment are anti-freeze for your windshield and coolant for the batteries. Popping the hatch on the back reveals a normal trunk-space -- at first glance anyway. Some of the unit's 30 lithium-ion batteries are conveniently tucked away in this area, nestled underneath the cargo floorboard. Battery-blocks also run underneath the rear row of seats and the center-line of the vehicle itself. You may be thinking, "that's all well and good, but how does it translate it into power and performance?" We're glad you asked.

A light tap on the accelerator had us effortlessly keeping up with aggressive NYC cabbies.

Our Audi representative informed us that the e-tron performs very similar to its sporty TDI. You'll get a maximum 85kW (114hp) of power during peak stages, while its continuous power output is closer to 60kW (82hp). The car features a single-speed drivetrain that sends power to the front wheels, pumping out a healthy 270Nm (199lb-ft) of torque. And yes, it's certainly a pleasantly smooth kick in the pants while you're driving it. The total weight comes in at a feathery 1.6 metric tons, with the batteries accounting for 661.39lbs (300kg) of it. Within those batteries Audi estimates that "26.5kWh of usable energy at 380 volts" can be stored, allowing for a maximum range of about 92 miles. A typical home with 230 volts for charging can get this thing juiced up in about nine hours, but Audi cited it as only five to six hours using the units available in the city's parking garages.

Being electric, it's easy to think the car isn't powered upon turning the key. You don't get the usual rumbling of an idling engine, just the whisper-quiet whirl of the e-tron's motor (Audi is currently engineering an "e-tron sound" so that outsiders will be able to hear the car) and wind whizzing by. Starting from the slow, but bustling, streets of SoHo downtown (A6 trailing us for support) with just under half a charge left, we could already feel how agile the A3 e-tron is. A light tap on the gas pedal accelerator had us effortlessly keeping up with aggressive NYC cabbies, while its regenerative braking usually kept our foot off of the brake pedal. This is where that updated dashboard comes in.

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As you might be able to see, the gauges here look traditional, but the info being displayed is not. Two main odometers flank the left and right side, a center strip provides you with miscellaneous details, while two smaller meters sit above that detail how much charge is in the battery and an estimate of how many miles of range you've got left. The right side is simply for your speed and mileage. Replacing RPMs on the left is a meter that lets you know how much power the car is pumping out, relating to how far you press the accelerator. This gauge also lets you know when the car goes into regenerative charging mode.

Basically, using the car's "engine braking" is what let us stay off the brake pedal. When you ease off the accelerator, the car is able to use its rolling energy to pump charge back into its battery. We're told that you can expect to re-gain about 5-15 miles depending on how aggressively you hyper-mile. Although we weren't braking in the traditional sense, there is a key factor we've yet to detail. Behind the steering wheel are two paddles that feel like traditional shifters, but looks in this case are deceiving. These paddles allowed us to control the level of regeneration in real-time, and we were sometimes utilizing them instead of hitting the brakes as traffic changed. Tapping on the one to the left makes the effect heavier with a more aggressive, jerkier slowdown, while leaning right opened it up to a slower, smoother coast when we lifted our foot up. All in all, the system gives you four levels of performance to swap between, which gets highlighted in the center panel of the dashboard.

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The best example of this was when we turned the A3 e-tron onto NYC's West Side Highway to head uptown while getting a feel for its performance on an open road. Flooring the accelerator got us up to speed nimbly, but coasting wasn't an option as traffic became more congested in spots. In this instance we were slapping the paddles back and forth as a quick way to adjust the car for the smoothest and most efficient ride under the changing conditions. Notably, Audi takes it one step further by offering a trio of switchable drive modes for normal use, efficiency and sportiness. You can also think of these as a way to stay off the paddles if you're sure of how consistent the conditions will be around you.

It's interesting to experience, but we didn't notice any swaying toward the tail-end of the car while accelerating no matter how far we pressed the pedal down. The vehicle seems impossibly smooth in the way it zips around, and even the ride itself feels like you're on a firm cloud. The low placement of the batteries apparently helps the car grip the road tightly, and most bumps -- save for major potholes -- were very hard to feel despite its relatively heavy stature. The A3 e-tron has similar level of sportiness to a Mini Cooper -- minus the feeling of being in a go-kart.

Our only complaint with the concept is its windshield lined with a thin smattering of honeycomb-esque solar material. Essentially, this helps to power things like the AC without the battery, but we found our eyes occasionally focused on it more than the cars in front of us. Once we noticed the solar array, it was hard for us to refocus on the traffic around us. That said, Audi was quick to remind us that this is a concept vehicle, and this distraction feature is something that's there partially for evaluation purposes.

The A3 e-tron has similar level of sportiness to a Mini Cooper -- minus the feeling of being in a go-kart.

Unsurprisingly, after about 30 miles of driving we finally got our first warning that the battery was close to drained, meaning that we'd have about 15 miles left. Thankfully our destination back in SoHo was only handful of miles away, but being stuck in Times Square traffic did have us a bit anxious -- it's not exactly a convenient place to be forced into a pit stop with an electric vehicle. Our rep set the car into its efficiency mode, and we'd be remiss not to point that we gladly couldn't notice a difference in the performance. Better yet, the company will offer roadside assistance, as a normal tow truck and gas station combo will likely be unable to help much if you end up in a jam. Thankfully, we made it back with enough miles to spare for it to get back to a charging station nearby.

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As it stands, Audi sees this as a secondary car for the person who already owns a Q7 or A6 and the like. The main usage scenarios in its mind would be a car strictly for commuting, or even a first car for teens whose parents don't want them straying too far from the nest -- a benefit of that 92 mile maximum range. The plan is to first roll out a hybrid model, with a full-on electric variant following not long after -- again, all in about two year's time. There's no specific word on pricing just yet, but we're told the cost won't be an exceptional premium over that of a specced out gasoline-powered A3. But, rest assured that the A3 e-tron certainly is going to be positioned as a premium vehicle when it hits, "indirectly" competing with the likes of the Nissan Leaf. All-in-all, we're definitely left with a favorable impression of the A3 e-tron, and we can't wait to see how it shapes up as a consumer offering for the US. In the meantime, you can check out the archived press release below for further info on the A3 e-tron's inner-workings.

Edgar Alvarez contributed to this report.

Show full PR text

The Audi A3 e-tron

The Audi A3 e-tron is an all-around vehicle for future mobility. A powerful electric motor and a lithium-ion battery impart to this compact car – which weighs less than 1.6 metric tons – agile performance and impressive cruising range. This technical study has already provided a preview of potential series-production solutions.

The permanent magnet synchronous motor in the A3 e-tron supplies a continuous output of 60 kW (82 hp) and a peak output of 85 kW (114 hp). Maximum torque is a potent 270 Nm (199 lb-ft), with the power delivered to the front wheels via a single-speed transmission.

Energy storage is provided by the lithium-ion battery, which is located in multiple blocks under the luggage compartment floor, under the rear seat and in the center tunnel. It stores 26.5 kWh of usable energy at 380 volts and weighs 300 kilograms (661.39 lb). Water flows around the 30 modules which constitute this battery; the waste heat is utilized to heat the vehicle's interior. At low temperatures, the system is aided by an electric PTC heating element; an air conditioner is activated in hot weather.

The power electronics module in the engine compartment converts the battery's direct current (DC) to alternating current; a DC converter couples the 12-volt electrical system with the high-voltage system. The Audi A3 e-tron can be recharged in about nine hours with a 230-volt household socket.

On a single battery charge, this compact car can cover around 140 km (86.99 miles). It powers the car from zero to 100 km/h (62.14 mph) in 11.2 seconds and on up to a top speed of 145 km/h (90.10 mph). The driver of an A3 e-tron can decide how sporty or economical driving should be by switching among three modes of operation – dynamic, auto and efficiency – as well as four settings which adjust the degree of energy recovery during braking and coasting phases.

This technology study, with a Glacier White paint finish, sports an understated appearance, with its set of wheels and the interior both borrowed from production models. Its special features include seat covers made of an Alcantara/leather blend – which feels warmer than pure leather in cold weather – and a heated windshield. The latter keeps the glass free of condensation and ice while heating the interior much more efficiently than a conventional climate-control system.

The equipment and data specified in this document refer to the model range offered in Germany. Subject to change without notice; errors excepted.

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