SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA — Santa Monica calls out to every engineer in distant Germany who might be working on a squeaky clean electric vehicle. This suburb of Los Angeles is the epicenter of worldwide EV respectability, the place where the Toyota Prius hybrid changed the way that even the most self-indulgent Americans think about cars. No wonder this town is the site for the first appearance in America of the 2015 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, a plug-in hybrid that goes on sale in Europe in spring 2014 and then arrives in the U.S. in early 2015.
When a German engineer gets off the plane in Los Angeles for the first time, he expects to be greeted by a vast forest of churning windmills powering the electric grid, plus an array of solar batteries on the roof of every Starbucks. Imagine his surprise to find that in Santa Monica, electricity is really all about glamor. It’s more about looking and feeling natural than actually being natural. And the Audi A3 e-tron has the right size, the right science, the right price and the right respectability to deliver the right glamor in this town of software engineers and movie executives.
As friendly as a Starbucks on four wheels
The 2015 Audi A3 e-tron combines laid-back, no-hassle convenience with a deeply thoughtful approach to environmental respectability. Get what you want, but still feel good about yourself afterward. As they say in Southern California, it’s so L.A.
What you have here is a plug-in hybrid. A battery-powered electric motor delivers 31 miles of EV cruising with zero emissions. Afterward, the turbocharged, 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine takes over, and the total cruising range can be as much as 585 miles.
We’re told that this combination of EV capability and gas-powered convenience really suits the slightly upscale Audi clientele, which is more likely to live in the suburbs. Audi figures EV cruising range will take care of daily commuting, while longer trips will be taken on weekends. This is why Audi plans to create a range of plug-in hybrid vehicles, but no pure EVs.
EV science at your command
When you look beneath the skin of the front-wheel-drive A3 e-tron, you don’t find any surprises. The four-cylinder engine up front has been jiggled into a slightly offset position to accommodate the electric motor, while the battery pack has been packaged beneath the rear seat and the gas tank has been shuffled to the rear.
At the same time, there’s some cleverness to the detailing. The 1.4-liter engine is turbocharged and intercooled, while special engineering measures reduce the wearing impact of high loads right after cold starts while the vehicle is in motion. A double-action clutch allows the liquid-cooled electric motor to start up the engine in a way that makes the transition between EV mode and engine mode feel seamlessly smooth. The transmission is a six-speed version of Audi’s dual-clutch automated manual transmission with its slow but smooth shifting action. The 276-pound battery pack of 96 lithium-ion cells has its own liquid cooling system, which ensures trouble-free electric starts even when the weather is too hot or too cold.
These are all the little things that should remind you that any electric-related powertrain in a motorcar is not just something that you can buy for five dollars down at Radio Shack. Even so, the only thing that the driver of the A3 e-tron really notices is a smooth delivery of power. The electric motor has an output of 75 kW (101 hp) of power and 243 lb-ft of torque, while the engine makes 150 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. When the motor and engine are working together, you get 204 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque.
This is enough power to get the 3471-pound A3 Sportback e-tron to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds. The car will achieve 81 mph in EV mode (but not for long!), though it’s more likely that you’ll be driving with sufficient sanity to get a cruising range of 31 miles in EV mode and then 585 miles of cruising range overall if you drive like your aged grandma. Flat out, the A3 e-tron will go 138 mph.
We drive with Audi’s answer to Mr. Spock
Well, he didn’t exactly give us the Vulcan high sign, but we did drive with an Audi engineer in the passenger seat as our on-board science officer as we embarked on a two-hour test drive. From Santa Monica, we drove beside the Pacific Ocean to Malibu, then into the Santa Monica Mountains and finally back again on Pacific Coast Highway.
As you’d expect from an A3 with an extra 276 pounds of road-hugging weight from a battery pack, the 3471-pound Audi A3 Sportback e-tron delivers a resilient ride on the highway, relaxed and yet always in control on its 103-inch wheelbase. Despite the weight, the front-wheel-drive A3 still makes its moves predictably when the road begins to weave – not particularly agile, but not sluggish, either.
We were surprised at the action of the brakes, as the electric motor itself provides the braking action and energy recovery, not regenerative brakes at the wheels. The mechanical brakes at the wheels only engage when you step very hard and deeply on the brake pedal. Nevertheless, the brakes are both very easy to modulate and very effective. The electric-assist steering also feels effective, perhaps due to the 225/45R-17 Dunlop Sport Maxx tires. Meanwhile the action of the dual-clutch transmission proves to be one more thing that makes the A3 e-tron feel perfectly normal. And we barely noticed when the engine finally came to life as we drove through the canyons.
Science lesson ahead
The science came home to us when Mr. Spock showed us the way the Audi MMI interface could be used to tune the regenerative effect of the brakes when you lift off the throttle pedal – more when you’re driving fast just like a Mini E, less when you’re coasting in traffic like a Prius. You can even tailor the modes to suit your own personal driving profile.
But whatever driving mode you’re in, the engine, motor, and transmission all combine to deliver enough power to press you back into the seat with some authority whenever you push down hard on the right pedal. On the other side of the coin, you can actually postpone the car’s adoption of pure EV mode, as if you were driving to the center of a city where engine use would be taxed or disallowed altogether. The only thing the A3 e-tron won’t do is creep smoothly in traffic, as the combination of the sudden onset of EV torque and the frequently abrupt engagement of a dual-clutch transmission after coming to a stop is not a happy event.
We’re told that a DC quick-charger fills the battery pack of the A3 Sportback e-tron with juice in about two hours, a 220V home outlet will do the task in 3 hours 45 minutes, and an 110V home outlet will do the job in a bit more than 7 hours.
Another practical consideration is the trunk, which has a slightly higher floor to accommodate the 10.6-gallon fuel tank beneath. What you get is 9.9 cubic feet when the rear seat is up and 39.6 cubic feet when the seatback is down. The truth is, Audi wagonettes have always been short on cargo volume, and the A3 Sportback e-tron is unlikely to confront any utility task more challenging than bringing home organic produce from the Santa Monica farmer’s market.
So what good is it, anyway?
As plug-in hybrids go, the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is a very, very nice one. It is so refined and comfortable that you never feel as if you’ve had to compromise your quality of life to feel like a good person (which is so L.A.). Moreover, as Mr. Spock said to us, “The e-tron flattens the hills, because whatever extra energy you use on the way up, you get back on the way down.”
Of course, the 2015 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron won’t be cheap when it arrives in the U.S. a little more than a year from now, as it costs the equivalent of $51,000 in Germany at the moment.
With a vehicle that uses a lot of new science like a plug-in hybrid, even the little choices made by the engineers are actually big ones. So far, it appears that the Audi engineers are making the right choices.
2015 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron PHEV
- On sale: Spring 2015
- Base price: $51,000 (est.)
- Motor: AC synchronous electric, 101 hp, 243 lb-ft
- Engine: 1.4L I4 turbo, 150 hp, 184 lb-ft
- 0-60 mph: 7.4 sec
- Drive: Front
- Curb weight: 3471 lbs