Meet the post-diesel solution
I’ve got to think that when Audi originally planned the introduction of its A3 Sportback e-tron, the PR folks smiled at the thought of presenting it at the NEWBLK gallery in San Francisco. Trendy. Perfect. And that the tech start-up role-playing we’d be doing in Palo Alto the next day would trigger all the right psycho-associations. (During a quick stop at NVIDIA I even got carried away and threatened to barge into a board meeting to pitch a “Great Idea!”—scaring the poor lady at the door, unfortunately.)
However, in the back of my mind the whole time was Rudolf Diesel. On a September night in 1913, the very troubled doctor carefully folded his coat, placed it under the railing of the SS Dresden, and plunged himself into the black North Sea. And in the front of my mind was how, a hundred years later, his famous invention is now sinking fast, too. And how the car I’m driving is suddenly much more than Audi’s first toe-dip in the plug-in water. It’s also a nice, unsuspecting car that’s suddenly gotten pushed into the deep end of expectations. VW and Audi have been saying their future will be electric, not diesel. Now it’s damn real.
Is the A3 Sportback e-tron ready for its unscheduled close-up? A satisfying answer for rattled Volkswagen/Audi fans looking for an alternative to their low-CO2 diesels?
Frankly, the architecture of the e-tron’s hybrid drivetrain isn’t terribly adventurous. My goofy, green lab notebooks are filled with similar sketches from dozens of previous presentations of this same straightforward sequence of components: engine, clutch, electric motor, another clutch, transmission. The battery? It gets stuffed wherever space can be eked out for it. Why we haven’t seen the Germans show the sort of engineering daring regularly displayed by Toyota, Honda, and GM is a real curiosity to me.
The e-tron comes with the usual bag of EV tricks, too, such as using the electric motor to bump-start the engine (thus jettisoning the starter), an electrically powered air-conditioner, a hold mode to delay battery depletion until you want to, a charge mode to forcibly replenish it (via the engine twirling the motor as a generator—inefficient, but a useful option), and sailing, which many of us aren’t used to but which greatly enamors the Germans. Actually, it’s a good idea: When you’re slowing just slightly and don’t really need the brakes, it’s better to coast than regen; it’s a smart strategy for dithering your speed at higher mphs.
To color in this general outline a bit, starting off (with the battery charged) happens via the 102-hp electric motor. (The engine is cold and decoupled.) When the battery’s depleted (or you need full power), the 150-hp, turbocharged, 1.4-liter engine engages while occasionally charging the battery, too, for whenever EV-added acceleration is required. Downstream is a six-speed dual-clutch transmission twirling the front wheels; supplying the e-motor’s juice is an 8.8-kW-hr, liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery that’s invaded the fuel tank’s space original home under the rear seat. (That’s pretty much why it’s 8.8 kW-hrs and not more.) The dislocated tank (now 10.6 gallons) moves to where the spare wheel and tire was (protected by additional structure), and the spare relocates to a can of fix-a-flat. There’s always one chair too few when the music stops with these things.
Oddly enough, perhaps the smartest thing about Audi’s first plug-in is probably the body they choose to wrap it in. Audi’s small, sporty wagon has come and gone over time, but its return here is an inspired reappearance. Whereas most bigger-battery plug-in cars (sedans) demand you relinquish a big chunk of trunk (or a third rear seat in the original Volt), the Sportback’s oversize cavity yields a plug-in hybrid that’s comparatively swimming in cubic feet. The battery barely protrudes from beneath the rear seat, there’s three rear seats (though small), and the aft seatback nearly folds flat for a continuous load floor. Collapse the passenger front seatback, and you can even slide in a surfboard.
However, the niftiest detail for me is the standard-equipment inclusion of a mobile charge cable that allows for both 120-volt and 240-volt pluggability (with a NEMA 6-50 receptacle). The battery’s filling is still limited by its 3.6-kW onboard charge rate (that’s pretty pedestrian), but 240 volts drops the charge time from 8 hours to 2.5âand can happen anywhere you find NEMA 6-50 receptacles (clothes dryers, an RV park). Moreover, the mobile charger’s electronics box snaps into a slick wall-mounted enclosure, so really, this is your garage charger that’s also a grab-and-go mobile unit for whenever you like. (The only thing out there like it is Aerovironment’s aftermarket Turbocord, which I’ve carried around in EVs for the last year or so.) Plugging in is simple and convenient. Pivot the Audi four-ring emblem from the grill, and choose either immediate or delayed charging; it’s particulars are pre-selected from the cabin. There’s the usual app for that, too, of course, as well as for pre-conditioning the car and figuring out where you left it in a parking lot.
Audi claims 16 to 17 miles (26 to 27 km) of EV range. We saw an easy 16 during our drive, which equates to 1.93 miles (3.11 km) per kW-hr; the new Volt squeezes 2.88 miles (4.63 km) from each of its kW-hrs. So either the e-tron is way less efficient that the Volt, or Audi is playing it very safe with its battery’s real-world state of charge. In defense of that 16-17 range (26-27 km), Audi points out that the average daily commute of us average people is—conveniently—14 miles (22 km). I’d counter that that makes as much sense as buying clothes that are average size. We’re all different. My commute is 38 miles (61 km) each way. I’d want the Volt’s 53-mile (85 km) range. You might be delighted with 16-17 (26-27 km). Given how expensive batteries are (though it’s dropping) it’s a shame we can’t pick the car we like and then a battery size we actually need. With the engine running the e-tron’s range stretches to 400 miles (644 km); Audi estimates the car’s EV mileage as 83 mpg-e (2.8 L/100km) and its gas-only mileage as 33/37/35 (7.1/6.4/6.7 L/100km), city/highway/combined. (By comparison, the Volt’s numbers are 42 (5.6 L/100km) combined gas mpg and 106 mpg-e.)
Time to award a gold star: Audi has really gotten it right here to size the electric motor large enough to power an EV in virtually all real-world scenarios; only when we really booted it onto the freeway did the accelerator pedal click past its end-of-travel detent and trigger the engine. And being an EV (for 16-17 miles, at least) it’s a splendid car to drive – like all its ilk, it instantly spits away from a stop, moves with a lush fluidity, and is always eerily quiet. The brittleness of the A3 sedan’s ride is snubbed by the extra weight, yet the car’s handling at ordinary cornering rates remains Audi precise and linear. When the engine inevitably starts, the car devolves into a conventional A3, but that’s still pretty good. A negative? The brake pedal has a mildly gooey regen feel, but frankly none of them are actually good, and I’ve experienced way worse than this. Despite the e-tron’s extra 365 pounds (165 kg), it’s about a half-second quicker to 60 than the EPA-violating 2.0-liter TDI sedan.
At a base price of $38,825 USD it’s an attractive proposition. And an entirely unique one. For about the same money, the Volt is a more sophisticated and efficient plug-in hybrid. (I keep referring to it, as it really is the technical gold standard.) But the A3 e-tron is, well, an Audi, too—a beautifully finished and handsome vehicle reeking with cache and, here in its Sportback guise, far more versatile than the Chevrolet. The Volkswagen group has had a rough time lately, but lucking into having the A3 e-tron queued up for sale in the North America right now is a lucky break.
|2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, wagon|
|ENGINE||1.4L/150-hp/184-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4, plus 102 hp/243-lb-ft perm magnet DC electric motor; 204 hp/258-lb-ft (comb)|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed twin-clutch auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,620 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||169.8 x 77.4 x 56.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.6 (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||33/37/35 mpg (est)*; 83 mpg-e (est, comb)**|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||102/91 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)*; 41 (est, comb)**|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.06 lb/mile (est)*; 0.0 lb/mi (at vehicle)**|
|BATTERY, ELECTRIC RANGE||Liquid-cooled 8.8 kW-hr lithium-ion, 17 miles (est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|
|*Charge-sustaining mode, **Charge-depleting mode|