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2015 Audi A3 e-tron Sportback Review

2015 Audi A3 hybrid mirrors look and superb performance of conventional gas model.

2015 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

Price: not yet available
Engine: 1.5-L turbocharged 4-cylinder, 75-kW electric motor
Power/Torque: 204 hp/258 lb.-ft. combined
Fuel consumption L/100 km: 1.5 estimated, 4.0 as tested
Competition: BMW i3 range-extended, Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, Lexus CT200h
What’s Best: High level of refinement, seamless transitioning between energy sources.
What’s Worst: No all-wheel-drive ? yet.
What’s interesting: Regenerative brake forces not only recapture spent energy, but significantly extend life of mechanical brakes since they’re used a lot less.

VIENNA, AUSTRIA: At 220 metres tall, the new DC Tower 1 skyscraper in Vienna’s Donau City is not only Austria’s tallest building, it is one of the first built to Green Building Standards ? featuring such energy-conserving measures as energy-efficient elevators and a collection of solar panels at its base.

So it was a fitting place to launch the 2015 Audis A3 Sportback e-tron, the company’s first plug-in hybrid.

Audi has already changed the perception that hybrids are boring, frumpy and incapable of serious performance. Its R18 e-tron race car has dominated at the highest level of endurance racing, including multiple victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In fact, the only serious challengers it has faced are similar hybrid cars from Toyota and Porsche.

So it’s no surprise that the company’s new plug-in hybrid emulates one of its mainstream, sportier models, rather than the intentionally unconventional look of some other hybrids, such as BMW’s i3.

The A3 e-tron has very little to differentiate it visually from the gasoline versions. There are very subtle e-tron badges on the grille, front flank and rear end, turbine-style wheel, and a special rear valance that hides the combustion engine’s exhaust pipe. The grille is made up of 14 chrome slats, compared to seven for the conventional A3.

The cabin is well-crafted, featuring soft-touch materials and tight panel gaps. Other than gauges relaying power consumption and delivery feedback, and a drive mode selection button, it’s indistinguishable from any other Audi interior.

However, compared to the open, airy and whimsical design of the BMW i3, the e-tron is a bit sombre.

The A3 e-tron has the same interior capacity as the regular A3. The low placement of the 8.8-kW lithium-ion battery pack not only helps provide stability, but prevents any intrusion into the trunk space.

On the road, it was easy to forget that we were driving a hybrid ? other than the complete lack of noise or engine vibration during pure electric mode.

Powering the A3 e-tron is a 1.4-litre, turbocharged gasoline engine and a 75-kW electric motor. Their combined output is 204 hp and 258 lb.-ft. of torque ? making it more powerful than the conventional A3.

With a top speed of 222 km/h (130 on purely electric power), and a zero-to-100 speed of 7.3 seconds, the e-tron delivers all the fun of a European sporty hatchback while promising fuel consumption of 1.5 L/100 km and emitting just 35 g/km of CO2.

The charge port is located behind the four-ringed grille badge. It comes with two cables: one for household use, which can fully recharge the vehicle in 3.5 hours, and the other for an industrial charge of just over two hours.

The e-tron can travel up to 50 km on electric power alone, for a combined range of up to 890 km with the gasoline engine.

There are four drive modes, accessed through the push of a single button on the centre stack.

The default is EV mode, in which the car silently powers up and serenely glides along for 50 km under electric power at a speed of up to 130 km/h. Stepping on the throttle prompts the gas engine to fire up.

In Hybrid Auto Mode, the gas engine and electric motor work together to provide maximum efficiency.

Hybrid Hold mode conserves the battery’s charge by preventing the electric motor from operating until it’s needed.

This is useful if you want to reserve energy for downtown congestion, where electric power is more efficient during stop and go traffic. Hybrid Charge mode uses the gas engine as a generator, helping to replenish a depleted battery. It’s only during this mode that we notice the regenerative braking working to scavenge energy expended while coasting ? it is fairly unobtrusive in other modes.

On the road, the e-tron feels extremely well put together and refined for its segment. Our route took us through Vienna’s congested traffic, flat rural farmland and up into the Alps, where we encountered a rather spectacular display of green energy: cyclists participating in the Tour of Austria.

Knocking the shift lever over to Sport quickens the throttle response and transmission shifts.

Although the e-tron is fun to drive and handles itself well, it lacks the aggressive thrust of a true sporty hatchback.

Using the wheel-mounted paddle shifters picks up the urgency, and also increases the muted exhaust note. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has a solid heft to it, but the steering itself is rather light.

At 1,540 kg ? 300 kg more than the conventional A3 ? the e-tron is no hot hatch. Instead, it offers a nice compromise between frugality and performance.

We weren’t very good at maximizing energy efficiency, since our fuel consumption was 4.0 L/100 km.

There is a downloadable smartphone app that can analyze and deliver a summary of your trip efficiency, including how much of your drive you spent emissions free. The phone can also be used to warm up or cool down the car remotely, and monitor charge levels.

The A3 e-tron offers all the refinement and handling Audi is known for, with the added bonus of terrific fuel economy.

Canadian pricing is not yet available, but it should arrive here in the second quarter of 2015.

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