Words by Melissa Knight / Photos by Andi Hedrick & Jim Fets for Audi USA
It’s quiet, but while e-boosting it sounds like a spaceship lifting off. It looks and moves like a typical Audi, but its average CO2 emissions are a slight 35 grams per km.* (Compare that to 104 g/km from a Prius.) Audi’s A3 e-tron puts the phun in PHEV—an acronym for plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.
Beam me up, Scott Keogh
American futurists can begin celebrating now. By 2015 you will be able to meet CAFE standards and have “the best of both worlds.” The Audi A3 e-tron combines an electric motor —102 hp, 243 ft-lb torque — with a combustion engine — 1.4 TFSI with 150 hp; the paired system output is 204 hp, 258 ft-lb torque. This Sportback boasts a newly designed S tronic 6-speed dual clutch for enhanced driving pleasure. An impressive compact car suitable for local and long distance trips, it also achieves several benchmarks in the premium plug-in hybrid segment:
- It drives purely electric over 31 miles
- The electric motor reaches a top speed of 80 mph
- It dashes to 138 mph with the combustion engine, which has a 10-gallon gas tank integrated
- It attains an overall operating range of 584 miles
The A3 e-tron always starts in electric mode, and the motor immediately revs at 102 hp, 243 ft-lb torque ensuring you accelerate fast and efficiently. This is what makes e-boosting so thrilling. It’s a 4.9 second sprint to 37.38 mph, and starting at about 2000 rpm, the electric motor output decreases, but that’s when that combustion engine kicks in. The powerful 1.4 TFSI supplies peak torque across the entire speed range from 1,750 through 4,000 rpm, and this explains why the two engine systems harmonize so well. Using the engine and electric motor together, the vehicle can get to 62.14 mph in 7.6 seconds.
Electric Avenue and Hybrid Highways
It only takes a few moments to become familiar with the operations of the A3 e-tron, and it’s fairly intuitive once you understand its vast capabilities. With two pushes of a button I lifted off in EV mode on a busy Santa Monica street, picking up on A3 e-tron’s sportive, dynamic driving behavior. Generally when traveling up to speeds of 60-65 mpg, the electric motor is all you need (assuming there is sufficient energy in the battery). Due to the high electric range of 31 miles, many people will rarely need the gasoline engine.
On a long stretch of Pacific Coast Highway with no cops in sight, I literally put the pedal to the metal and exceeded 80 mph, which prompted the TFSI to cut in via the K0 separating clutch. In this boost mode, the A3 e-tron accelerates the full power of electric motor and combustion engine, and you can delight in the sheer force of 258 ft-lb torque and 204 hp.
Upon reaching Malibu Canyon, I was graced with good karma once again and totally owned the road. Shifting to S-program I tested the car’s ergonomics on hills, valleys and tight curves, and later tweaked the handling and response with Audi drive select via the MMI. Whether straight line highway performance or tracing a canyon apex, the A3 e-tron steers fluidly, rides comfortably, and infuses joy behind the wheel.
When you are traveling on mixed road types and prefer to give attention to the scenery rather than program details, using a button in the driving area, select hybrid. With this feature, the car senses the speed and road type on which you are driving and automatically sets the most efficient driving mode. (EV, Hybrid or Combustion.)
The power meter in the instrument cluster shows the system’s overall output, as well as the status of the driveline and the battery charge. The monitor for MMI navigation shows the energy flows in the hybrid system. In addition, the dashboard efficiency system displays the operating ranges and consumption figures for electricity and gasoline.
If you want to enforce the electric mode just activate EV. Depending on the level of charge, the voltage ranges between 280 and 390 volts. The hybrid hold mode can be selected via a menu in the MMI. This program preserves the electrical energy in the battery. So for example, if you have 10 electric miles available and you know you will need it to drive emission-free within a city you will be entering, the car will hold 10 miles of battery power, until you activate EV.
If the current battery power is not adequate, you can select charge mode. With this program you can charge the battery while driving with the combustion engine, which uses the electric motor as generator to restore energy to battery. In fact, the fastest way to recharge the battery (but not the most efficient way) is to drive at 60-65 mph for about 30 minutes. An average speed of 40 mph may take an additional half hour or 20 minutes to fully recharge. On the jaunt back to Santa Monica, it was exciting to watch the battery recover some of its power.
More about the Battery
It takes 2.5 hours to completely recharge the 12-volt battery when using a high voltage power supply. When using average household voltage, it takes less than 4 hours. For easy use at home, the charging lead can be clipped into a wall-mounted holder. The power socket for a charging cable is cleverly concealed behind the Audi rings that slide to the side.
The lithium-ion battery is a complex system developed by Audi, which consists of 96 prismatic cells arranged into 8 modules of 12 cells. Including the electronic components – the battery management controller and the battery junction box – the battery system weighs 275.58 lbs. (The total vehicle weight is less than 3,484 lbs.) Its housing is bolted to the vehicle floor at five points, and the lower shell is made from aluminum.
An elaborate liquid cooling system ensures that the battery is kept within a suitable temperature range during operation. In scorching summer conditions as well as sub-zero winter temperatures, the A3 e-tron will power-up electrically. Four cooling plates regulate the temperature of the high-voltage battery’s eight modules. The cooling system represents a separate low-temperature circuit in the car and runs on a separate cooler housed in the engine compartment.
In the event of an accident that triggers the belt tensioners or airbags, the entire system disconnects from the power supply. The flat-shaped battery lies under the rear bench seat – an area where the ultra-high-strength steel components of the occupant cell form an especially strong structure. The battery’s housing and interior structure are of an equally sturdy design. The 12-volt battery and 10-gallon fuel tank are located above the rear axle. Both components barely impinge on the roomy trunk size of the A3 Sportback e-tron.
There’s an App for That
Using an iOS or android smartphone, or via a web portal you can remotely monitor and manage a wide range of functions for the A3 e-tron. Call up the car’s status such as the battery’s momentary charge status, the electric range or its current parked location. Program charging schemes, start or stop charging, and set the charging timer to reflect when you next plan to drive the car. You can also specify in detail at what time on which days you want to take off with the battery fully charged.
The climate control planner has similar functions. With the Audi A3 e-tron you can specify a target temperature for the interior according to a differentiated timetable. Adjusting the climate while hooked to the power socket is much more efficient than doing so when driving electrically, because it doesn’t drain the car battery and therefore optimizes the electric range. In addition, it also adjusts the drive components to the appropriate temperature for the conditions.
The web portal allows you to check trip data such as power consumption, distance driven and speed. There are more innovative online services planned for this car as Audi is currently developing an entire portfolio under the Audi Connect umbrella. All of these settings are also programmable via the MMI.
The Truth about Audi Hybrid Technology
Audi has over 20 years of experience in the field of hybrid technology. Flash back to Germany in 1989 when the brand pioneered the Audi duo—a concept car based on the Audi 100 Avant. A 136 hp five-cylinder gasoline engine drove the front wheels, and a part-time electric motor, that could be activated when the vehicle was stationary, developed 12 hp and drove the rear wheels. The battery at that time was made of nickel-cadmium.
In 1997 Audi was the first European company to build a production hybrid: the .** Based on the A4 Avant B5, a lead gelatin battery in the rear powered the car, with a 1.9-liter TDI developing 90 hp and a water-cooled electric motor developing 29 hp. Both units drove the front wheels. The plug-in concept was far ahead of its time and only 100 units were produced. Although it has taken many years for the general market to warm up to the concept of hybrid technology, Audi remains a leader in innovation.
Time for a New Slogan
The A3 e-tron’s electric motor and combustion engine are a perfect couple so you get a dynamic drive over a large range of revolutions per minute. Its suitability for everyday use without restrictions makes it a smart choice for green mobility. Like the other models bearing the new A3 badge, the e-tron has a distinctive aluminum grille and comes equipped with 4G LTE high-speed connectivity. It also has a Panorama roof, and five-passenger capacity. The A3 is already one of the bestselling cars in the Audi model lineup. Just as Audi of America chose the Q7 to be the first TDI model for the U.S. because it could make the most difference in emissions due to its size and popularity, the selection of a five-seater A3 as the first EV proves the same commitment to a sustainable future. The Audi A3 e-tron has it all: Efficient powerful performance, sporty style, and comfort at an affordable price. With the introduction of this vehicle, Audi should consider changing its slogan to “Brilliance in Engineering.”
* Please note: All figures are based on the European model. Audi of America has not announced final performance numbers for the U.S. version that will go on sale here in 2015. U.S. pricing is yet to be determined. At this time, the pricing for the European model is approximately 32,700 Euros.
** 1997 also marked the initial launch of the Prius, in Japan, but the plug-in version was not unveiled until 2011 in Europe.