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Audi A3 e-tron 2013: First Drive – motoring.com.au

What we liked:
>> Invisible integration
>> Slick multi-media set-up
>> Useful full electric range

Not so much:
>> Jerky light-throttle delivery
>> Not much else

The streets of downtown Los Angeles are no place for those short of power and image. That goes for cars, too.

Most cars get both of those things in the same way: they burn stuff to create mechanical energy, and send that through some whizzy, spinning bits before turning the wheels. The Audi A3 e-tron isn’t like that. Unlike most cars, it has the ability to drive its front wheels via two motors at once. One of those motors burns fuel, but the other is an electric motor.

Ah, you say, the Prius and its successors have been doing that for years. True, but unlike most hybrids, the A3 e-tron can double as a pure electric car, something a standard hybrid can manage for maybe two or three kilometres of feather-footed commuting at very low speed. The A3 e-tron can do it for 50km, and do it convincingly.
More http://www.motoring.com.au/reviews/2013/small-passenger/audi/a3-e-tron/audi-a3-e-tron-2013-first-drive-40489

Audi A3 e-tron 2013: First Drive

Audi A3 e-tron
Sneak preview drive
Los Angeles, USA

What we liked:
>> Invisible integration
>> Slick multi-media set-up
>> Useful full electric range

Not so much:
>> Jerky light-throttle delivery
>> Not much else

The streets of downtown Los Angeles are no place for those short of power and image. That goes for cars, too.

Most cars get both of those things in the same way: they burn stuff to create mechanical energy, and send that through some whizzy, spinning bits before turning the wheels. The Audi A3 e-tron isn’t like that. Unlike most cars, it has the ability to drive its front wheels via two motors at once. One of those motors burns fuel, but the other is an electric motor.

Ah, you say, the Prius and its successors have been doing that for years. True, but unlike most hybrids, the A3 e-tron can double as a pure electric car, something a standard hybrid can manage for maybe two or three kilometres of feather-footed commuting at very low speed. The A3 e-tron can do it for 50km, and do it convincingly.

If it’s an eco-friendly image you want to project, nothing does it like an electric car, and if it’s power you want, nothing does it like punching down the road with the power of two motors at once.

Electric cars might have a cult following but their limited range brings on a level of range anxiety that keeps most chequebooks closed and most wallets aimed at petrol or diesel bowsers.

Due to be released next year, the A3 e-tron is Audi’s answer to BMW’s i3 and any other electric challenger on the market. The plug-in hybrid is capable of taking you to and from work and the shops as a pure electric car and then letting its 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine take over on longer hauls.

Essentially adopting the running gear of the prototype Volkswagen Golf Plug-In Hybrid, the A3 e-tron turns into a surprise packet by being far more sophisticated, far more nuanced and far easier to use than the still-emergent Volkswagen machine.

Proper plug-in hybrids like the A3 e-tron will wipe that out, even if you’ll need to write a far larger cheque in the first place. In Europe, at least, a legion of studies show most people are driving between 40km and 50km a day, so the A3 e-tron’s battery pack might demand they fill their fuel tanks every three months, instead of once a week.

Indeed, even on the European NEDC combined fuel consumption cycle, the A3 e-tron uses just 1.5L/100km and emits only 35g/km of CO2. But Audi engineers insist that in real-world driving, most of the cars will go weeks without spitting a thing out of their tailpipes. (To check these assertions, I did some numbers for two weeks around Italy in the second family car and, had it been the A3 e-tron instead of a VW Polo, its internal combustion engine would never have even started.)

Even with a fuel tank of just 40 litres, Audi insists the A3 e-tron will provide a range of 940km.

It’s not slow, either. Audi reckons on the car punching to 100km/h in 7.6 seconds and that doesn’t feel off the mark at all, certainly not when we launched it onto LA’s downtown streets.

Besides looking dorky, the image issue hybrids have had to combat is that they aren’t quick, like a warm hatch of the Golf GTI style. But this one is.

There is 150kW of total system power and 350Nm ready to torture its front tyres, with the stock Audi 1.4-litre turbo-petrol four backed up by 75kW of electric motor. That means its 110kW and 250Nm of fossil-fueled power has a free-energy back up.

Audi sticks the 34kg electric motor, which delivers 330Nm of torque alone, between the back of the petrol engine and the front of the six-speed dual-clutch transmission. The major effect of that is the transmission doesn’t know which engine’s workload it’s dealing with – it just accepts a bundle of torque and sends it out again, so it’s theoretically a smoother proposition than putting the electric motor anywhere else in the powertrain.

It’s soon clear to us that this is still in heavy development, though. Audi sends us out with an engineer to explain the ins and outs of it (and there are many), and one of the key points he reiterates is that the integration software is the area getting the most attention right now.

“The hardware is there, but we are killing ourselves to get the mapping of everything right,” our nameless boffin admitted.

There weren’t any issues at all in the car’s electric mode. It turns on as a pure electric car, moves off with brilliant assurance as an electric car and then runs convincingly in any traffic we can find.

The torque is ultra strong, with instant response every time we take off from the lights, and it doesn’t often feel an urgent need for petrol power. Unlike standard hybrids, the plug-in A3 lets you stand on the throttle in its full electric mode without the software calling in the combustion cavalry.

Nope, that won’t arrive without your intervention. Unlike the Volkswagen Golf’s upcoming plug-in hybrid solution, the Audi doesn’t let you fiddle around with all manner of bits and pieces in the set-up. Instead, it uses its normal Drive Select system to drop you into pre-programmed modes — Electric for electric, Sport for sport and Hybrid for hybrid.

It also delivers a hybrid-hold mode, so you can save the car’s electric charge for an area where you might need it more (say, commuting into a city from the countryside).

Where the Golf PHEV offers five different energy recuperation modes under braking or coasting, the Audi has those differences programmed in from the start.

It’s hard to say whether it’s capable of the 50km of range from a full charge that Audi insists, but our numbers after a 20km drive suggest it’s feasible, especially given that we didn’t feather-foot the thing anywhere.

The only issue we found of significance with the A3 e-tron was the jerkiness of the arrival of the petrol motor, especially from very low speeds. We expected it to be smoother in hybrid mode, but it delivered the sort of disjointed head toss we’d been warned about by our engineer. It’s not yet there.

This, he admitted, was a function of Audi trying to eke more economy out of the 1.4-litre engine that already has cylinder deactivation, direct injection and variable valve timing. With the petrol motor joining teams with the electric one, it has 350Nm anywhere, anytime beneath 2250rpm (yes, we know the numbers don’t add up, but that’s a product of different delivery curves and peaks).

It’s a very strong machine at low rpm and when the petrol motor kicks in it’s also very strong at higher revs. So strong, in fact, that this eco machine has an official consumption figure of just 1.5L/100km (even better in the real world) but can handily run with the GTI crowd. It will hit 60km/h in 4.9 seconds on its way to 222km/h (at higher speeds, the petrol motor takes over completely), so it’s no slouch.

It pulls hard every time you ask it to and there are no problems with the two motors competing with each other. In Sport mode, the electric one does all the low-end carrying, before the petrol one jumps in later on. In Hybrid mode, the two change in and out, depending on what’s delivering the best solution (and it’s sometimes surprising that it leans on the electric motor so much to at low speeds).

At 1580kg, it’s considerably heavier than the stock A3 five-door, but it is carrying 125kg worth of lithium-ion batteries (96 cells housed in eight modules, delivering up to 390 volts) and a 35kg electric motor, along with uprated suspension and brakes.

It carries 8.8kW/h of energy (by contrast, the upcoming Lexus GS300h has a nominal figure of 1.3kW/h), so it takes two hours to fully charge from an industrial socket or less than four from a household socket. Audi is still working on wireless charging.

Typically, that size of battery rips chunks out of the luggage capacity, but the A3 e-tron manages 280 litres with the seats up or a whopping 1120 litres with them folded flat.

Crash safety of big-batteried cars has been in the news lately, but the A3 e-tron’s system automatically detaches the electric system from the car’s power supply in any crash big enough to set off an airbag or a seatbelt pretensioner.

It’s convincing, yes, but it won’t be cheap. Depending on your driving habits, you might have to get the calculator out to see how many years you’ll have to drive the e-tron to recoup your initial investment.

But there won’t be another reason not to buy it, because it’s very, very good right now, and it’s not even here yet.

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