Good: long, usable electric-only range, competent chassis
Not so good: more expensive and less fun than a proper hot hatch
Audi's A3 Sportback e-tron requires a little explanation, especially if you've taken the time to read through the technical specifications. Officially, it can return 176.6mpg (1.6 litres/100km) on the combined cycle, while emitting just 37g/km of CO2. I've checked that sentence for typos: the numbers are real. Yet this A3 is powered by a turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol engine and Audi quotes peak power at 204hp and a 0-100km/h time of 7.6 seconds. What sort of black magic is this?
The clue is in the e-tron part of the name, signifying that this model is part of the company's plans to electrify its cars. Behind the four-ringed badge on the snazzier looking grille is a plug socket, enabling owners to charge up the car's 8.8kWh lithium ion battery (mounted at the back of the car). That powers a 75kW (102hp) electric motor mounted within the casing of the dual-clutch gearbox and with that rating it's powerful enough to propel the A3 on electric juice alone for up to 50 kilometres, or at speeds of up to 130km/h. Naturally those two figures are mutually exclusive, as the faster you drive, the quicker the battery charge depletes.
Nonetheless, we found the electric-only range to be very usable in a few days spent mostly in and around town, indicating that it really could be treated like an electric car in that environment. No range anxiety here though, as the petrol engine is always on standby and Audi has made it easy to choose various modes of operation - including holding battery charge or increasing it. Now, let's address the official economy figure. If you drove the A3 e-tron solely within its electric-only range and charged it up before the engine is required for charging, then it'll surpass the combined cycle economy. We saw an 'average' of 300mpg (0.9 litres/100km) at one stage for instance before the battery charge ran out. However, once you journey a little further, using the engine, the economy drops to a more believable 40mpg (7.06 litres/100km). So, for those that spend most of their time in town, the A3 e-tron will cost cents to run.
However, if money is foremost on a buyer's mind, they'll probably not have this Audi on their shortlist. Sure, road tax is incredibly low, but the purchase price certainly isn't. To compensate somewhat Audi has loaded the single-spec e-tron model with equipment, including Xenon lights up front, LED rear lamps, 17-inch alloy wheels, MMI Navigation Plus, part-leather seats, climate control and more, but even so, at a fiver under 40 grand (including the VRT rebate and SEAI grant) it's a costly way to save money.
Hence, it's better to focus on the performance aspect of things. This is a genuinely fast and fun car. No, it's not quite as engaging or exciting to drive as say a Volkswagen Golf GTI, but the chassis has real talent in it, maintaining composure when hurried over poor roads. The steering is fast, if a little artificial in feel, but the body and wheel control are exemplary - there's remarkably little body roll or obvious weight transfer during quick direction changes, raising your confidence in the car and making it rather fun to blast along a good road in.
Enthusiastic hot hatch drivers may not warm to the lack of engagement and the somewhat distant feeling to the experience, but most will welcome the performance and how polished a product this is. Those that like the idea of driving one of the most advanced cars on the road without attracting as much attention as the likes of the BMW i3 will appreciate the A3 e-tron. And, its modest looks mean they'll not have to explain what it is to everyone.