Right after test driving the Renault Zoe, I had the opportunity to test drive an Audi A3 e-tron. It offered me a good chance at an acute view between a fully electric and a plug-in hybrid electric car.
My first car was an Audi. I like the design/look of Audis. And, knowing the A3 e-tron was supposed to be quite sporty, I was very excited to test drive the car. I expected to like it more than the Zoe.
For sure, the A3 e-tron (base price of $37,900 in the US, before any federal, state, or local incentives) has a sportier general feel and handling, and the interior was a little more “plush” than in the Zoe, but man, plug-in hybrids don’t compare with fully electric cars. (I’ll reserve my judgement for extended-range electric cars until I drive the Chevy Volt.) I’m not sure if it’s the engine kicking in a little when you “step on it,” if it’s something to do with the small battery, or what, but the A3 e-tron (like the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV) didn’t have the spunk and clean, smooth, powerful initial acceleration the Zoe (or Leaf, e-Up!, i3, Model S, etc.) had. It wasn’t as lame as the Mercedes A180, Mercedes C180, and BMW 320i that I had recently rented (and I was quickly reminded of that when I got back into my A180 rental and when renting a C180 again today), but it clearly wasn’t on the same level as a fully electric car.
Specs certainly don’t tell everything. A BMW i3 apparently has 170 horsepower while the A3 e-tron has 204 horsepower but the i3 feels much, much better off the line.
Yes, I’d choose an A3 e-tron over any comparably priced gasmobile in a heartbeat, but no, I don’t think I could ever buy or lease a plug-in hybrid.
The difference genuinely came as a bit of a surprise to me. I expected basically the same experience when driving on electricity as with a fully electric car — not a muted experience. I know a number of our electric-driving readers have emphasized the difference between plug-in hybrid acceleration and fully electric acceleration (like when I wrote up this comparison of the quickest accelerating electric vehicles), but I thought the distinction was mostly important to them because of the implied emissions. Now, I’m not so sure… maybe it was mostly about the performance.
I do think the A3 e-tron is still a great option for someone who doesn’t feel like they can make the full leap to a 100% electric car just yet, especially for those living in Europe without good Volt options. It is sporty, comfy, fairly affordable, and looks good. It’s just not for me.
Stepping away from the driving experience, I have to admit that the visualizations/infotainment were less than I anticipated as well. No default backup camera. No cool visualizations like I’ve seen in nearly every other EV I’ve driven. In all honesty, it seems like Audi didn’t care too much to highlight or enhance the new electric driving experience. I often wonder if efforts like this aren’t more counterproductive than if the automaker (in this case Audi) hadn’t built the plug-in hybrid model at all. The stark contrast between other electric models and this one left me feeling like the A3 e-tron was nothing special… and maybe that’s Audi’s aim.
As far as comfort goes, the front seats were more comfortable than the seats in the Mercedes A180 I had rented, but probably comparable in quality to the Mercedes C180 and BMW 320i (but a bit different, so it would depend on personal taste). They were not as comfy for me as the very basic but well designed seats in the Renault Zoe — but like I said when reviewing that, perhaps that is due to my particular body type.
The A3 e-tron comes with 3 driving modes. On on, you just drive on gas; on electric mode, you “just” drive on electricity (but with support from the gasoline engine at certain speeds and I think when accelerating in some cases); and on the hybrid mode, the engine recharges the battery while you drive on gas.
Of course, the A3 e-tron comes with regenerative braking, but there is only one mode and it’s really weak. I couldn’t even feel it in action! I much prefer the multi-mode options available in the i3, Outlander PHEV, VW e-Up!, and some other models, and I hugely prefer the stronger options, with the A3 e-tron falling on the opposite end of the scale.
You could add on Audi side assist, adaptive cruise control, active lane assist, and a panoramic sunroof for some extra cash, which I’d say is a strong + with the e-tron. It didn’t have parking assist by default but that could be added on as well.
I hesitate to write much about the sales experience since that can vary so much from person to person, and the salesman had only been on the job for one week, but there are perhaps a few things worth noting. The car had almost no charge when I got there (despite the fact that I reserved the test drive a day before) and was nearly out of gas as well. The salesman started out the test drive by driving it up and down the road himself in hybrid mode in order to put some juice in the battery. The gas light eventually started blinking since it was almost out of gas, but whatev…. I expressed my preference for the fully electric drive quality during and after the drive, and the salesman (who had before told me he didn’t know much about electrics) said he didn’t really think the infrastructure was fully ready for fully electric cars. Given Audi didn’t have one to sell, I wouldn’t expect much more and will give him a pass there, but he didn’t try particularly hard to follow up and sell me on the A3 e-tron. Generally, he didn’t seem to care a great deal about electric driving (whether it was a fully electric or PHEV), but maybe it’s just that he got the sense I wasn’t going to choose the e-tron. Or maybe he just needs to learn and experience a bit more.
The Audi A3 e-tron website has some nice features. In the UK, it noted that the average trip is just 7 miles, while the electric driving range of the A3 e-tron is rated at 21 miles. The US site I’m looking at right now shows that it’s quicker to charge an A3 e-tron than a laptop or tablet:
In the end, my take is, if you want a lunchbox with a nice package and electric capability, an A3 e-tron is a good option; but if you want a lunchbox with electric capability and a really good lunch inside, go 100% electric.
Top Images by Robert Basic (CC BY-SA 2.0), Bottom Image by Audi