► Plug-in hybrid A3 tested
► Hot-hatch power, eco economy
► Closest thing to an A3 electric car
The 2014-onwards Audi A3 e-Tron looks largely like any other A3 of its generation, but beneath the surface lurks a plug-in hybrid system, similar to that fitted in the VW Golf GTE.
Based on the five-door Sportback, the A3 e-Tron’s chrome grille and larger, more aero-friendly 19-inch alloys are the only visual clues that this is a petrol-electric model. And don't worry, the stickers pictured in our gallery are purely for the press demonstrator.
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How powerful is the plug-in hybrid system?
Under the conservative skin is a 148bhp 1.4-litre petrol four-pot teamed with a 99bhp electric motor, while under the rear seats – but, critically, ahead of the rear axle – is a lithium-ion battery pack.
Total combined output? A handy 202bhp – the most powerful A3 at the time bar S3 and RS3 hot-hatches – yet with a claimed 188mpg and 35g/km of CO2, it’s supposedly more efficient than a contemporary plug-in Prius.
With a 584-mile theoretical total range, and a promise of up to 31 miles of that under electric power alone, the e-Tron certainly competes well with even the latest plug-in hybrid models. It's also so far the closest thing Audi has ever launched to an A3 electric car.
What's the A3 e-Tron like to drive?
EV mode is the default setting when you set off, but you can actively select electric or petrol propulsion on the move as well. Say you’re driving from Birmingham to London: you can save the electric power for the capital’s congestion zone, sipping petrol instead on the motorway, where the engine is at its most efficient.
The e-Tron will take such a journey in its stride, too. The driving position is identical to the regular A3, apart from a few buttons and the green-lit instruments.
The wheel-mounted shift paddles, no longer necessary for gearchanges, can now be used to select the amount of regenerative braking desired, so you can top up the battery as much as you want or use full power.
In EV mode there’s little noise, but the instant torque is great for gaps in traffic. It’s a smooth transition when the petrol engine takes over, but the superb refinement (as opposed to silence) is maintained. Here the throttle’s responsive, and the A3’s quick, with a 7.6sec 0-62mph claim.
When it comes to corners, the steering is responsive but lacking feel – no change from any other A3 – while there’s a surprisingly comfy ride, good body control and firm roadholding. Even in the wet it still grips well, but the it feels heavier than a regular A3 (it’s 349kg heavier, in fact) under throttle and around corners. In isolation it doesn’t feel hefty or overweight though.
You can also drive the e-Tron at proper speeds in EV mode: it comfortably managed the 80mph speed limit in Germany with no trouble at all. Blend in brilliant levels of refinement and Audi’s built a genuine, premium eco-hatch.
Is it worth buying one?
So the A3 E-tron was progress for Audi, but more a tentative step than a revolution, especially given production ended in 2018, just four years after it entered the UK market.
Still, it has the advantage of familiarity while being a subtle execution rather than a grandiose statement. If you can find one at a good price it's worth a look.
Read our review of the latest Audi A3