The verdict on Audi's first plug-in hybrid

The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is theoretically able to travel 100km on just 1.5 litres of fuel.
The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is theoretically able to travel 100km on just 1.5 litres of fuel.PHOTO: AUDI

If you drive less than 50km a day, Audi's A3 Sportback e-tron is perfect for you

The A3 Sportback e-tron is Audi's first plug-in hybrid. This means that the car is happy to move around on battery power alone. But its engine will come to the rescue when the batteries start running low.

Look under the bonnet and you will find a four-cylinder engine shifted to the left to accommodate components of the electric drivetrain. The battery pack lies beneath the rear seats, with the fuel tank moved farther rearwards.

Its 1.4-litre turbocharged engine puts out 150bhp, while the motor produces 101bhp. Together, they develop a maximum output of 204bhp and 350Nm.

In electric mode, you can drive 50km, at speeds of up to 130kmh. Factor in the engine and a full tank of petrol and Audi claims a total range of 940km.

In European combined cycle testing, the car covers 100km on just 1.5 litres of fuel, and emits only 35g/km of CO2. This is because the e-tron, like other plug-in hybrids, is able to ace a large part of the test solely in electric mode.

Charging its lithium-ion batteries takes more than two hours with an industrial socket and just shy of four hours via a domestic plug. Each car comes with a charging system, complete with a smartphone app that tracks state of charge and allows the owner to turn on the air-conditioning remotely.

It is hard to differentiate the car from its non- hybrid sibling. There are subtle e-tron badges and a grille with chrome horizontal strips (instead of plain-finish ones on the regular A3).

The test vehicle came with alloy wheels sporting propeller spokes that are unique to the e-tron. Behind, tailpipes are hidden - a nod to the car's zero-emission performance in most urban driving situations. The connection for the electric charger hides under the four-ring badge on the nose.

The car has four operating modes. Choose "EV" mode and you can drive purely on electric motor (but if you floor the throttle, the engine will awaken).

In "hybrid auto" mode, the electric motor and engine combine to provide the most efficient propulsion.

If "hybrid hold" is selected, the system maintains the existing battery charge for usage at a later time. Audi says this mode is especially handy if you are driving to the city centre where you will want to move around with whispery electric power only (it is also very useful for sneaking into the driveway after a late night out with the boys).

Last but not least, "hybrid charge" mode sees the engine operating the most as it functions like a generator to charge the drained batteries.

Along an 83km test route that started from downtown Vienna, the e-tron proved to be superbly refined in electric mode (which is the default when you first start off). Doing without gear changes, the car was highly responsive, thanks to the electric motor's generous torque.

On open roads, hybrid auto mode revealed an interesting trait. When coasting, both the engine and motor went to sleep. In other cars with coasting capability, only the gearbox is disengaged.

The car was amazingly efficient. Its trip computer declared the car was in electric mode 73.8 per cent of the time; and it consumed 3.7 litres/100km. Not too shabby for a journey that included pedal-to-metal moments.

The car delivered a resilient ride on the highway - relaxed and yet in control of its 2,630mm wheelbase.

Despite weighing 169kg more than the regular A3, the car changed direction decently. It was not particularly agile but not lumbering either. Unsurprisingly, the car understeered when pushed hard.

Acceleration was brisk, with the century sprint completed in 7.6 seconds. Go full bore and the speedometer will hit 222kmh.

I was pleasantly surprised with the brakes, particularly when EV mode was engaged. Pedal feel was very good, not artificial at all. The electrically assisted steering also felt sensitive, perhaps because of the 225/45 R17 tyres which were a great choice where size was concerned.

The potential hassle of devising a charging routine aside, there is little to fault the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron.

It makes a lot more sense than an EV as the batteries will never run dry. And when compared with a conventional hybrid, its ability to be charged from the mains gives it a distinct advantage.

Where overall performance, efficiency and convenience are concerned, it is really like having your cake and eating it.

The writer is a contributor to Torque, a motoring monthly published by SPH Magazines.