Test-driving Audi's new A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid

Audi built an A3 that gets over 80 miles per gallon in the right conditions. That's the biggest thing you need to know about the new plug-in hybrid A3 e-tron. Yet with hybrids and electric vehicles it's easy to get waylaid by batteries, range and the compromises that come from adding an electric engine to an established platform. But it's that mileage that gets the drivers in the seats of these cars. That, and the sense you're doing your small part for the Earth. Driving this car, you can have style and power with a dollop of the green lifestyle. Oh, and on the freeway, it can eat a Toyota Prius or Chevy Volt for breakfast.


At first glance, the plug-in hybrid resembles its diesel- and gas-powered counterparts. But upon closer inspection, the e-tron badge gives away the electric power plant attached to the 1.4-liter gas-powered engine. Other than that, it's just another Audi you'd see lined up at the valet of a trendy restaurant. The interior, however, is a bit more forthcoming. The tachometer has been replaced by an energy-focused dial that tracks power usage and a remaining-charge gauge. It's a real-time indication if your commute is an eco-friendly jaunt or a 204hp-testing blast down your local highway (traffic permitting). If you're the type of person who buys an Audi, it's probably the latter.

That's the pitch behind the A3 e-tron: It's a plug-in electric hybrid without compromise. That means taking its popular, entry-level model and adding an electric motor instead of coming up with a new, low-powered commuter Audi. "I think what the segment's been missing is a real proper Audi," said Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America at a press event this week. "You don't want the car to be qualified. People just want to buy a car."


For the most part, the vehicle delivers on Audi's promise of no compromises. While the battery adds additional weight to the vehicle that slows it down compared to Audi's other A3 models, it still hits a respectable zero-to-60 time of 7.6 seconds. Punch the accelerator on the freeway when you're in hybrid mode and you'll be rewarded with enough torque to pass slower vehicles and get into the HOV lane. On surface streets the EV mode is more than adequate to navigate trips to the grocery store and the first few miles of a commute.

That's if cruising the neighborhood comes in under the car's pure-electric 16-mile range. At 8.8 kWh, the battery pack isn't really built for long distances on its own. It's more of a supplement to punch up fuel economy and keep the gas engine off during quick trips. For comparison, at a little more than double the size, the 2016 Chevy Volt's 18.4 kWh battery delivers a claimed 50 miles on a single charge.


But this is why you get a hybrid: When the power runs dry, petroleum is there to get you where you're going without the range anxiety. To control that battery output and how it's recharged, Audi has added four new driving modes to the vehicle, including EV, Hybrid, Hold Battery (for saving battery power for later and going full gasoline) and Charge Battery. A dedicated button allows you to access the modes for on-the-fly adjustments. It also has four driving settings that are accessible with a single button. That kind of fine-tuned driving experience seems ideal for true car geeks, but by the time you get the perfect combination of modes, you're probably at your destination.

After driving the car for two days, I ended up settling on Hybrid as the go-to EV mode and Auto for driving. The car already starts up in EV mode and ends up in Hybrid as you drive. Frankly, I got tired of pushing buttons for a tad bit more control on how the battery is depleted or charged. I suspect most owners will feel the same way after a few days of tapping at the dash.

While the engine will charge the electric motor, plugging it in at home (or better yet at work, free power!) is more efficient and cost effective. Grabbing a full charge with a standard wall outlet will take eight hours, but using the included outlet-to-Level 2 adapter cuts that time to two hours and 15 minutes. Getting to that plug requires a quick twist of a knob in the Audi logo at the front of the car.

Of course there's an app for the car. There's always an app. It offers additional control over how and when the car is charged. For example, you can schedule charging for off-peak hours to save you some dough.

The car isn't all great gas mileage, fancy hidden ports and passing other hybrids, though. The handling doesn't quite feel tight enough. In my test drive, I found it had a bit more body roll than I would expect out of an A3 and like most front-wheel drive vehicles, I encountered understeer while pushing through a cloverleaf onramp. If you're looking for a more balanced all-wheel-drive version you're out of luck, there's no Quattro option available for the e-tron. For fans of wagons, there's also some bittersweet news.

This is the only A3 Sportback available in the US for 2016. The TDI version is in flux (for obvious smog-test-cheating reasons) and Audi told Engadget that it has nothing to share about future Sportback models. So if you prefer a wagon body type over a sedan (like myself), it's either the e-tron or nothing for now. Which could be fine if you're OK with a little bit of compromise when it comes to your bank account.


The base model will set you back $37,900, while the better-equipped high-end "Prestige" trim package starts at $46,800. Like all EV/hybrid vehicles, there are available tax credits in the United States; Audi estimates the federal credit will be $4,168. Californians will get an additional estimated $1,500 rebate.

With the credits factored in, the total ventures into roughly the same price range as the quicker (zero to 60 in 5.8 seconds) and roughly 250 pounds lighter, $34,200 2.0-liter A3 sedan with Quattro all-wheel drive. Now instead of compromise, you have to make a decision: Do you want better gas mileage and the satisfaction that you're sort of helping the environment in the only Sportback available in the US, or do you want more power and better traction?

Really, Audi is competing against itself with this car. It's roughly $4,000 to $10,000 more than the Volt, Prius and Ford C-Max plug-in hybrids. None of those cars have the refined styling, power and fun of the A3. This is Audi's first step toward a completely electric car -- a tiny step that doesn't stray too far from what's already working for the German automaker. This car isn't for someone looking to reduce their carbon footprint with a reasonably priced vehicle that looks like it was designed for a very bland future. It's a car for someone who takes the twisty backroads to get to work even though it takes longer and who wants to feel like they're doing their part saving the world while hitting up clubs downtown on a Saturday night.