Weekend with a 2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

History of the Audi A3 e-tron

The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron’s story started back in 2011 when Audi built a small fleet of battery-powered, all electric concept cars based on the second generation Audi A3 Sportback. The concept had an estimated range of around 90 miles and had a top speed of 89 MPH. In 2012, Audi had brought over 17 of those concept cars to the US as part of testing the vehicle and determine viability. One of those concept cars made an appearance at Audi Expo 2012; though, it was only on display and no test drives were provided.

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Audi A3 e-tron EV Prototype at Audi Expo 2012

Not too long after the all-electric A3 Sportback concept was brought over, Audi announced that they would develop and produce a plug-in hybrid version of the A3 Sportback, christened the A3 Sportback e-tron. The new A3 Sportback e-tron would be rolled out as part of the 3rd generation A3, built on the new MQB platform.

As part of the roll-out of the A3 Sportback e-tron in the US, Audi of America had a fleet of four A3 e-trons that were making their rounds and they chose to make Audi Club Northwest’s Quattrofest 2014 one of their first stopping points. That was when I had a chance to do a photoshoot of the four e-trons.

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Four Audi A3 Sportback e-trons at Quattrofest 2014

For the US market, the 2016 A3 Sportback e-tron started sales in the second half of 2015.

My Experience with the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, I learned that Audi Wilsonville was getting an A3 Sportback e-tron to join their fleet of demo and service loaner vehicles and I was given the opportunity to spend a weekend with one. I went down to pick up the keys and they had the A3 e-tron all charged up and ready to roll.

When I got into the car, the onboard computer listed an estimated electric-only range of 25 miles; which, seemed a little bit too optimistic. According to the EPA, the A3 e-tron has an electric-only range of 16 miles (17 miles when equipped with the optional ultra package). Of course, your mileage may vary. I already knew that the electric-only range will not get close to 16 miles, considering that the weather here in the Portland, Oregon metro area has been hovering in the 80s and 90s. That meant, I would be using the AC, which is an electrically driven system, most of the time that I would be driving it.

Before I set off, I picked through the MMI system and figured out the e-tron specific settings and controls. On the row of switches below the air vents, there is an “EV” button that allows you to cycle through the e-tron driving modes. The e-tron driving modes can also be set in the MMI menus as well.

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e-tron Mode Selection in the MMI System

The A3 e-tron has four different driving modes: EV, Hybrid, Hold Battery and Charge Battery. The names of the driving modes are self-explanatory:

  • In EV mode, the A3 e-tron will be powered solely by the batteries and the electric motor.
  • In Hybrid mode, the A3 e-tron will primarily run on electric power and will use the turbocharged 1.4-liter petrol engine to assist when necessary and to prevent the charge level of the battery from dropping too low.
  • In Hold Battery mode, the A3 e-tron uses the petrol engine a little bit more to keep the battery charge level from decreasing any further.
  • In Charge Battery mode, the A3 e-tron will run almost entirely on its petrol engine and increases the amount of energy sent to the batteries by way of regenerative braking. It will switch over to battery power when the vehicle is stopped; but, it will do so less often versus in the other three modes.

Starting up the A3 e-tron, it will automatically switch into EV mode. While driving in EV mode and the battery charge level gets down to the lowest level allowed by the battery management controllers, it will switch over to Hold Battery mode.

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e-tron Gauge and Fuel plus Battery Range Display

Since I do not have access to a charger where I live, I ended up driving the A3 e-tron in Hold Battery and Charge Battery modes most of the time. In doing so, I was able to get an average of 26.4 MPG, with mostly city driving. Of course, the way I was driving also had an impact on the mileage, as I was trying to use a bit more regenerative braking to charge up the battery and had the transmission in S mode for part of the drive back home.

As you can see in the photo above, the tachometer gauge is replaced with a e-tron specific gauge showing whether or not you are driving efficiently, how much relative power you are using and when you are charging the batteries via regenerative braking. If you do want a tachometer, there was digital one available in the center information display. While it’s not as fancy as the one in the new Virtual Cockpit, but it will do in a pinch. There is also a battery charge level indicator within the e-tron gauge. All of this allows you to switch the center information display to show trip information and you won’t be stuck in the Drive Select screen to see the same information in graphical form.

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e-tron Gauge and Digital Tachometer

One thing that I noted when I switch the transmission to S mode while in Charge mode, the e-tron system will switch it over to Hold Battery mode. Also, when breaking in a lower gear, you can start to hear the regenerative braking do its job; especially, if the windows are down. I actually like the sound of the motor/generator kicking into generator mode.

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Gauge Cluster

As far as how the A3 e-tron felt while driving, the steering felt fairly light overall and the combined electric motor and petrol engine did not feel underpowered in nearly all driving situations. There is a good amount of oomph off the line when getting off the line in electric mode. I managed to get the front wheels to chirp twice when mashing the accelerator pedal to see how it would fare on a metered on-ramp.

Since the A3 e-tron is front-wheel drive only, there is the typical oversteer; but, it did not have the typical heavy front-end feel. The reason for that is the 8.8 kWh battery pack is mounted below the rear seats, balancing out the weight of the A3 e-tron. And, since the A3 e-tron is not a hatchback-on-stilts that crossovers tend to be, the ride quality was very much like a normal car, not floaty and not stiff.

While I wouldn’t call the A3 e-tron a sporty by any stretch of the word, but it drives better and has a lot more pep than its semi-competitor: the Lexus CT200h. I only say “semi”-competitor because, while it is a five-door hatchback, the CT200h is not a plug-in hybrid and is powered by rather lethargic petrol engine.

One thing that I immediately like about the new A3 Sportback e-tron is how much more open and spacious the new Sportback compared to the previous A3 Sportback. In the previous A3 Sportback, the top of my head would come within millimeters of hitting the headliner and the seats felt a little too small for my large build. With the A3 e-tron, I had room to spare and the seats did not feel cramped.

One of the reasons why I wanted to pick up the A3 e-tron the weekend that I did was that I needed to move some stuff from work to home; as, the office that I worked in was being closed and I would start working remotely. I knew that I didn’t need a crossover to haul my monitor, chair (rather a Swopper stool) and a couple of boxes.

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Starting to Fill Up the Cargo Area

The Swopper stool fit perfect in the rear cargo area, after easily removing the cargo cover, laying down and kept it somewhat in place with several boxes. Loading and unloading the A3 e-tron was very easy as the cargo floor is lower to the ground, compared to crossovers and SUVs. This was especially helpful when dealing with the Swopper stool and a large LCD monitor.

During the trip back, I probably hypermiled it a bit more than I normally would, as I also tried to smooth out the ride to prevent things from shuffling around too much. During the process, I was able to increase the battery range by 2 miles by way of regenerative braking. This would prove to be helpful the next day’s trek in the A3 e-tron.

The EV-only Experiment

On Sunday, after running a couple of quick errands in the A3, I made the trek out to University of Portland’s Merlo Field for a Portland Timbers 2, also known as T2, match. I switched the e-tron to Charge Battery mode on the way there to make sure I had the battery as fully charged as possible.

After the match was over, T2 beat Orange County Blues FC 2-1, I finally had the chance to see how far I could drive the A3 e-tron solely in EV mode. I chose to take the normal route home, which was about 30% surface streets and 70% highway and freeway miles. The route would be just over 17 miles in total, one more than the EPA rated 16 miles. The onboard computer showed the same optimistic 25 mile travel range in EV mode.

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Audi A3 Sportback e-tron Engine Bay

If I were the only one in the car, I probably would have not had the AC on to eek out every tenth of a mile as I could get; but, because that was the case, the AC was kicking and added to the drain on the battery. To compensate for some of that, I hypermiled as much as I could and made use of regenerative braking wherever possible.

Another thing that probably did not help my cause was having to climb up the Sylvan Hills on US Highway 26, or Sunset Highways as us locals call it. I saw the battery range drop 4 miles from the point where I entered the tunnel and when I reached the apex. At that point, I knew that I could stem the tide a little bit by using regenerative braking as much as possible on the way back down.

By the time I passed the US Highway 26 and OR Highway 217 interchange, I was down to an estimated 3 miles left with another 3 miles to go. The battery charge gauge had already changed to show one red bar left. As I went up the off-ramp for my exit, the miles left counter hit zero. I started to hypermile even more and tried to eek out every opportunity to regen brake; alas, when the trip odometer hit 15.2 miles, the e-tron switched over to Hold Battery mode and the engine kicked in.

So, instead of heading home, I made a quick detour to a local grocery store and searched for a charging station. The store had two Blink charging stations (only one was working) on the east side of the building. After spending about 5 minutes registering myself as a guest (half of that was fighting the poor touch screen on the Blink charger), I plugged in for about 15 or so minutes. I used that time to do a little bit of grocery shopping.

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Charging Up the A3 Sportback e-tron

When I got back, the e-tron showed a range of 2 miles. At that point, I wanted to get out of the heat and head home. I kept the e-tron mode in Charge Battery from that point on, until I dropped the A3 e-tron back at Audi Wilsonville.

The $49,000 Question

The A3 Sportback e-tron that I got for the weekend came with the Premium Plus trim and was equipped with the Technology and Sport packages, Bang & Olufsen sound system and Aluminum roof rails. Adding in the Florett Silver paint and destination charges, the A3 e-tron had a sticker price of a hair under $49,000 before any tax credits, rebates or any other incentives. Lesser equipped A3 e-trons start at just under $39,000, but can easily climb into the $42,000-44,000 range with a few options.

That price includes a 120V/240V charger, but it does not include any installation or the charging cabinet with integrated slot to hang the end of the cable in to.

As mentioned above, I’m an apartment dweller and don’t have access to a charging station where I live. In order to have a place to plug in, I would have to pay extra to rent a garage and pay for a circuit to be installed in it.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be able to justify the price tag of the A3 e-tron that I got to drive; much less, most A3 e-tron configurations I would consider. In part, the amount of commuting that I do has basically become naught now that I’m working from home. Even if I were to continue to work from a shared workspace across town, I wouldn’t be able to justify the extra cost of the A3 e-tron over a similarly built A3 sedan.

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Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

I could see things working out better for those that live in the city and/or have a commute that better suits an EV-only or plug-in hybrid; plus, having access to a charger at both ends of the commute. Otherwise, the pay-back time on an A3 e-tron over a non-etron A3 would be well beyond the 5-6 year duration that I would probably own an A3 e-tron. Maybe leasing an A3 e-tron might make a little more financial sense and it would allow you to move into a newer e-tron, hopefully with improved all-electric range, at the end of the lease.

If what lead up to “Dieselgate” did not happen and the original product plans were executed upon, I would pick up an A3 Sportback TDI that Audi had planned on bringing over to the US. While the e-tron provides up to 16 miles of emissions and petrol-free driving, the lower upfront cost of the TDI makes it a better option for me. Alas, the A3 Sportback TDI is not an option, much less an A3 TDI sedan at this point in time.

At the end of the day, the A3 Sportback e-tron is a very good, albeit expensive, option if you are looking for something that bridges the gap between a traditional vehicle and an all-electric vehicle.

Final Words

I want to thank Audi Wilsonville for giving me the opportunity to take the keys to an A3 Sportback e-tron for a weekend. Always nice to have their support in being able to try out different Audi models that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

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