Overall rating: 4.5/5
While rough around the edges, the A1 e-tron prototype shows that Audi's electric future is not too far away. To reduce fleet emissions it plans to offer an electrified version by 2020. Though this A1 e-tron is not quite as cool as the original car to bear the name (that was a range extended electric car powered by a Wankel rotary engine), it is closer to what will actually make production. Could Audi be the company to bring useable electric cars to the masses?
In the Metal:
The e-tron prototype is based on the current Audi A1 so, decals aside, it looks no different. It is underneath the sheet metal that all the changes have taken place with the only real clues being an MMI screen in the interior that has been set up to show what part of the powertrain is providing propulsion and an extra gauge in the instrument cluster to display battery charge. Other than that it is as you were; even the transmission, despite being a single-speed unit, carries over the automatic gear selector form the rest of Audi range.
Under the bonnet of the A1 e-tron is a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine that produces 130hp and 200Nm of torque. In time the engine will become a standalone powerplant, but for the e-tron it is joined by two electric motors.
The first of these is a 50kW unit that primarily acts as a starter motor and alternator but can, in certain circumstances, combine with the engine to deliver more power for short bursts. The second, an 86kW electric motor, stands separate from the first and provides the dual element of the Dual-Mode Hybrid name. When activated, which in our short time with the vehicle was most of the time, it solely powers the front wheels with the A1 e-tron effectively acting as an electric vehicle (EV). On start-up the e-tron starts in this eerily silent mode and can continue to do so up to 130km/h when the petrol engine cuts in automatically. Should you require more performance the system will automatically couple the petrol engine, with its associated motor.
The test car was in early development and hence still a bit rough around the edges so we can forgive the fact that the switch between modes (the coupling and decoupling of the engine) was not the smoothest operation and that when the engine was running it had a very un-Audi like three-cylinder thrum. But as a concept it works brilliantly - it's an EV for shorter journeys or a regular hybrid for longer ones.
Audi reckons that when optimised (the electric pack alone weighs 250kg so is still some way away from production) the A1 e-tron will be capable of returning 1.0 litres/100km with CO2 of 23g/km. After a heavy day of being driven by a motley crew of ham-fisted journalists the fuel consumption of our car was 1.9 litres/100km, which still equates to less than 50g/km.
What you get for your Money:
Even if you could buy the car we tested you would probably not want to. A boot full of electronic components and suspension not tuned to account for them meant the ride was stiff, the MMI system crashed more times than the average iPhone and the acoustics have not been tuned to the new engine. This was an early development prototype however and when the A1 e-tron does hit the roads it promises to be a polished product, ideally suited to commuters who can travel to work in EV mode safe in the knowledge that should a charging point not be available they can still drive home that evening. Factor in the ultra-low running costs and CO2 and it seems that Audi's electrification plans have merit.
The e-tron is only one part of a wider electric future that Audi envisions. Also tested at the Audi future lab was an A6 BiTurbo that featured an electric rather than mechanical first-stage turbocharger. With instant spool-up the car's 850Nm of torque is available much lower down the rev range. While this has obvious performance advantages it also have an efficiency one as drivers do not have to go so far into the rev-range to tap into the power.
Audi is also working on an Intelligent Hybrid Electric Vehicle (IHEV) that uses a 48kW electric motor to keep the climate system running at a constant temperature, even when the engine is shut off during free-wheeling or coasting. In combination with a predictive satellite navigation system that reads the road ahead and makes adjustments accordingly Audi reckons customers can expect a 10 per cent drop in fuel consumption.
If Audi can keep the costs down when it comes time to bring the A1 e-tron to market it could be onto a winner. The Dual-Mode Hybrid that combines the best parts of a petrol/electric hybrid and a pure electric vehicle really works and could be the ideal solution for urbanites who want the benefits if an EV without the downsides.