2017 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron Road Test

 Copyright: Canadian Auto Press Inc.

Extreme thrift, superb style and great performance 

Have you considered a plug-in for your next vehicle? If you like the idea from an environmental perspective, but don't want to give up premium style, luxury and performance, Audi's new A3 Sportback e-tron might just fit the bill.

The new 2017 A3 Sportback e-tron is a PHEV, or rather a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, so it will run purely on electric power some of the time, yet also works as a regular fuel-efficient hybrid for long trips or when you just don't have time or opportunity to recharge.

Opportunity abounds, however. You can charge overnight by plugging the A3 Sportback e-tron into a 120-volt socket at home or via a more powerful quick charger Audi will have installed to your garage wall. Similar quick chargers can be found just about anywhere else these days too, from outside most shopping malls' front doors to hotel parking lots and in front of government buildings, not to mention curbside throughout Greater Vancouver. Quick charging is mostly free, takes an average of two and a half hours with the e-tron, and oftentimes even includes free parking.

Yes, just some of the perks that come with owning a plug-in. Having previously tested numerous PHEVs and EVs, and being a card-carrying member of ChargePoint (one of the organizations managing public charge stations), I immediately took the new A3 Sportback e-tron to Oakridge shopping centre to recharge, and slotted it into one of many free charge spots in the parking garage near the food court. Audi hides the standard 32A socket behind the brand's four-ringed badge on the front grille, so with a quick twist of a rotating release lever the badge pops outward and socket is revealed. A swipe of my ChargePoint card lit up the terminal, at which the plug clamps on to the socket easily. Charging underway.


Zero emissions with no range anxiety  

As noted, an A3 e-tron owner doesn't need to recharge unless they want to, so therefore "range anxiety", a new term for those concerned about being stranded on the side of the road without power, should only worry those who forget to fill the tank with unleaded. When the 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery is low the e-tron works like a regular hybrid, the 150 horsepower 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine and additional kinetic forces, such as brake regeneration, adding electrons to top up the battery which then provides energy to the 75kW electric motor and assistance to the internal combustion engine (ICE) or, if even partially full, deliver EV propulsion all on its own.

Audi claims the A3 e-tron will provide an EV-range of up to 35 kilometers in optimal conditions and an ultimate range of 500 km when its battery is fully charged and 40-litre tank topped off with gas, meaning this is an electric that can get you back and forth to work under clean, ultimately-efficient EV power during weekdays while providing worry-free long-range road trips on weekends. The ski hills are beckoning.

And yes, along with its commendable fuel economy that equals 7.2 L/100km city, 6.6 highway and 6.9 combined when cruising in conventional hybrid mode, or 2.8 Le/100km in mixed city/highway combined EV/PHEV driving, the A3 e-tron gets the Sportback moniker, which is Audi-speak for extremely versatile five-door hatchback. It's shaped more like a wagon, as was its purely internal combustion-powered predecessor, and while compact in size is nevertheless big on the inside.


Highly fuel efficient and extremely practical design 

The A3 e-tron's roomy cargo hold has the advantage of 60/40-split rear seatbacks made better by a large centre pass-through. In comparison most rivals only offer 60/40-split rear seatbacks with no pass-through, and the e-tron is also more accommodating for rear passengers and cargo than its closest competitors with the latter measuring 386 litres when all seats are available for use and 955 litres when laid flat.

I should mention the e-tron's cargo compartment is as nicely finished as in other Audis, with high quality carpeting on the load floor, seatbacks and sidewalls, plus chromed tie-down hooks at each corner, grocery bag hooks at each side, good lighting, and in my tester's case, a very handy elasticized netting to keep smaller items from becoming projectiles during sudden stops.

The quality theme is even more apparent in the passenger compartment thanks to the same level of attention to detail as in the A3 Sedan and Cabriolet cabins, including a nice mix of premium soft touch synthetics in key areas, aluminum trim and switchgear accents, plus supple leather upholstery, while my particular example featured beautifully buffed silver-grey coloured carbon fibre-look inlays across the instrument and door panels.

The interior design is classic Audi minimalism, which means it looks great, the leather-wrapped steering wheel near perfection in shape and feel with nice narrow spokes filled with high-quality switchgear, the primary gauge package boasting a mix of analog dials over colourful digital backgrounds and a large colour multi-information display at centre. The leftmost dial includes expected hybrid info, the e-tron featuring a white needle that points to green "CHARGE" and "EFFICIENCY" sectors or a yellow "BOOST" indicator when heavy on the throttle, yet unlike most electrified rivals it actually acts like a tachometer as well, spinning clockwise when engine revs climb.


Expect the same high level of quality offered in any other Audi 

Four vents circled with knurled aluminum rotating bezels dot the dash, while just above the centre two is a crisp and clear infotainment display that powers up out of the dash top upon startup, and can be powered back down to reduce distraction, especially nice during nighttime driving. If lowered it automatically powers back up when reversing, the rearview camera with active guidelines assisting in such situations, and then when finished backing up it automatically disappears once again. I like this alternative to a fixed infotainment display, which is becoming more common across the industry.

A particularly upscale knurled metal rotating dial on the lower console controls the MMI infotainment system. It's surrounded by a gorgeous set of aluminized rocker switches and buttons, while a handy knurled metal audio volume knob sits right beside. An electromechanical parking brake replaces the old handbrake, and in this e-tron it's a welcome addition.

Everything already noted comes standard in the e-tron, this special model expected to sell in fewer numbers than its four-door sibling and therefore limited to just two well optioned trims. Base models get the Progressiv name in Canada, and despite a reasonable $40,900 price tag come equipped with a good assortment of standard features such as 15-spoke 17-inch alloys on 225/45 all-seasons, auto on/off Xenon plus all-weather headlights that do a better job of illuminating the area in front of the car, LED daytime running lights, LED rear lights, heat-insulating side glass, high-gloss exterior trim, anodized aluminum roof rails, heatable power-adjustable side mirrors, rain-sensing wipers with heated washer nozzles, proximity access with pushbutton ignition, doorsill scuff plates, enhanced ambient lighting, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel with shift paddles, aluminum interior trim, Optic Titanium Grey 3D-design inlays, leather upholstery, heatable powered front seats with four-way powered lumbar support, illuminated drink holders, dual-zone auto climate control, an auxiliary electric heater, Bluetooth, MMI radio plus, satellite radio, a panoramic glass sunroof, electronic immobilization, an alarm, all the usual active and passive safety gear plus rear side-thorax airbags and Audi pre sense basic that preventatively closes windows and pre-tenses the seatbelts in emergency situations.


Performance is surprisingly good for such an efficient car 

Audi Drive Select is also standard, defaulting to Auto mode for everyday driving with a nod to optimizing fuel economy, or can be set to Comfort mode for those nasty inner-city back lanes, the road to the cottage or ski hill, or any other ill-kempt surfaces, Dynamic sport mode that combines all of its electrical and gasoline-powered resources to achieve those aforementioned performance numbers, and lastly Individual mode that let's you preset something totally unique.

As you might expect the A3 Sportback e-tron is an Audi first and a PHEV fuel-miser second, or rather the car feels like a well-sorted sport wagon instead of a doddering hybrid. It's not only quick off the line as noted, but the way it goes about accelerating is more like a conventionally powered Audi than anything hybridized thanks to 258 net horsepower and what feels like more than 184 lb-ft of peak torque. Or maybe it's how immediately all its twist comes into action that results in the potent slap on the backside as the front wheels spin, plus instead of the hybrid sector's usual CVT-strangled pull off the line (or lack thereof) the A3 e-tron's six-speed dual-clutch gearbox actually knows what to do when its paddles get yanked. This is a hybrid that's fun to drive, and believe me, Audi backed up its accelerative forces with good steering wheel feedback, excellent turn-in, plenty of grip through the corners, and no shortage of high-speed highway composure that's even eerily silent when cruising along at 120 km/h (or potentially higher) in emissions-free EV mode.


It's comfortable and refined all of the time 

Of course I didn't drive like it was stolen during my entire test, but rather enjoyed its smooth, linear, quiet EV performance at moderate city speeds more often than not. Of note, the e-tron power unit can be switched between individual hybrid modes as needed, the first being regular Hybrid mode as explained earlier, the second being Charge Sustaining mode in which it relies on the combustion engine for motive power and saves full EV-mode via the battery for later (ideally useful during fast-paced highway driving that depletes the battery quickly), and the third being Charge Increasing mode that uses the ICE to replenish the battery. Normally I really enjoy playing around with these types of features and eking the most from a given charge (and tank of gas), but I must admit the A3 Sportback e-tron was too much fun.

If you want even more excitement you can upgrade the e-tron with a $1,100 or $1,200 Sport package featuring a couple of stylish 18-inch rim options on 225/40 all-season tires as well as more heavily bolstered sport seats, glossy black interior detailing and a black headliner (the price difference depends on the chosen wheels); a $2,300 Navigation package with an upgraded infotainment system featuring MMI touch for tablet-style gesture controls as well as Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, loads of apps such as Spotify, WhatsApp, Google Maps, and Apple Maps, plus a useful charge delay function to minimize electricity costs when recharging overnight (it takes about eight hours when hooked up to a household socket and 2.5 hours on a 240-volt charger); and $500 front and rear parking sensors.

Alternatively you can pay $5,000 to move up to Technik trim that adds those parking sensors, the upgraded infotainment display with navigation, a best-in-class-by-far fully configurable colour TFT "Audi virtual cockpit" gauge cluster, superb Bang & Olufsen 3D audio, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with integrated compass, a heatable steering wheel, Audi side assist that warns when approaching rear traffic comes into your blind spot, full LED headlights, and LED taillights with dynamic turn signals.


A few options allow for a best possible Top Safety Pick Plus rating 

You can upgrade Technik trim with the same Sport packages as well as $200 auto high beams and a $1,400 Technology package that comes with adaptive cruise control featuring "Stop & Go" low speed follow functionality, Audi pre sense front autonomous emergency braking, and active lane assist that pulls the steering back into your lane if you drift to one side. Of note, with all active safety features added it qualifies for a best possible Top Safety Pick Plus rating from the IIHS.

Lastly, not matter the trim you can outfit your A3 Sportback e-tron in one of two standard colours or seven $890 optional metallic hues, while the interior can be done out in standard Black, Chestnut Brown, or Rock Grey (the headliner is always grey unless the Sport package gets added).

We Canadians have long loved versatile sport wagons and hatchbacks, and now with the A3 Sportback e-tron's amalgamation of both body styles overtop a highly efficient plug-in hybrid drivetrain we should all be rejoicing as Audi makes going green fun and stylish. And while there's a price to pay for all this go-fast green goodness, it's a reasonable price that comes with a $2,500 BC government rebate. It's truly a plug-in hybrid that makes a lot of sense.

Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, Canadian Auto Press
Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press
Copyright: Canadian Auto Press Inc.

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