In a world where the rise of the electric vehicle seems to be at the forefront of government vehicle policies, I’m sure many wonder (like myself) how the infrastructure will cope. Then, when you also consider the range anxiety, charge point accessibility and various other unknowns… are we really ready for electric vehicles now?
This is where Plug-in hybrids come in, offering a modest electrical range (enough for a trip to the shops and back, or a reasonable commute) backed up with a traditional combustion engine for longer jaunts. Win/Win? Well, with the technology we have available today, it certainly looks appealing, none more so than when it’s been developed and built by Audi. With a premium build and packed with technology, is the Audi A3 TFSI-e the ultimate compact car of today?
If you ignore the ‘e’ badge on the boot, the spec sheet for this Audi A3 TFSI-e could read off like any other. There’s a 4-cylinder, 1.4 petrol engine producing 150PS, which drives the front wheels via a 6-speed automated dual-clutch transmission. There’s a fuel filler at the back, with the car running on standard pump petrol from a 40-litre internal tank.
The eagle-eyed will then notice the additional ‘filler hatch’ at the front, underneath which there is an electrical charge port. This allows the supplementary 13kWh battery to be topped up between journeys, with which around 30 miles of EV-only mileage can be achieved. The electrical side runs at 400v, and thanks to the modest size of the battery can be topped up via a standard UK plug in a matter of hours.
This electrical energy can then be deployed in a number of different ways; to provide total driving power for short journeys (zero combustion usage), to run in hybrid with the combustion engine to minimise fuel usage on longer trips, or to provide ultimate performance by running in unison with the combustion engine. The underlying benefit here is flexibility; the electric side is quick and easy to charge, suitable for short journeys and thanks to the combustion fall-back won’t cripple you with range anxiety for longer trips.
Carrying around the additional weight of essentially two engine types isn’t to the detriment of outright performance either; put your foot down and the petrol and electric unite to deliver a potent 203 PS (201Hp), more than enough for overtaking slow traffic or a bit of fun on country roads.
So aside from the electrical ‘fill port’, the ‘e’ exterior is as-per a standard Audi A3. The same could be said for the inside, with the only notable differences being the addition of an ‘EV’ button for selecting the drivetrain mode (battery charge, hybrid, EV only) and an additional ‘fuel gauge’ for the battery charge level. This neatly sits opposite the petrol gauge on the driver’s cluster creating a seamless and easy to read snapshot of available energy levels.
Moving away from these specific tweaks, this is my first experience of the latest Audi interior refresh. The centre section carries the now common-place central touch screen, on which the interface feels snappier and more responsive than ever. Rather than the all-touch layout of the premium Audi A6/A8 line, the Audi A3 splits climate/vehicle controls out to a lower panel of physical switches. Whilst it may look less space-age, the layout works well and is easy to use whilst on the move.
The steering wheel is the same fantastic design as most recent Audi’s, whilst the gear selector has been tweaked and is now a nice, simple chrome rocker in the centre section. A new design of air vent flanks the steering wheel with a beautifully engineered open/close mechanism, which latches shut with a satisfying click. Whilst it’s important not to get too hung up on the details, this new air vent design is incredibly slick and Audi deserve kudos for its implementation.
The premium feel extends through the rest of the interior, whether it be the S-line seats (optional extra), door trim or dash surround. Whilst the Audi A3 may be a more budget-friendly Audi, there’s clearly been no skimping on quality.
Exterior design and practicality
Size-wise, the Audi A3 TFSI-e offers a good balance between overall vehicle size, room for passengers and luggage. The rear seats have just enough legroom for adults, whilst some clever sculpting of the roof means that headroom is ample even for those on the taller side. Reading lights and air vents ensure those in the back get an Audi-esque ride despite the more compact sizing of the Audi A3.
Boot size is also as you’d expect for a vehicle of this size class, although it’s worth noting that a fair chunk of this is lost to the bag of charging cables. Obviously, you don’t absolutely have to carry these around, but it’s worth bearing in mind as they’re not small! They did at least come well packaged in a zip-up bag, which has built-in tethers to hold it to the boot floor – handy for stopping too much sliding around.
The test car came dressed in a beautiful Daytona Grey, a pearl effect paint that compliments the tinted rear windows from the S-Line trim level fantastically. Locking and unlocking the car is met with the usual Audi pizzazz from the lights, with a dynamic animation running on both front and rear clusters. The car on test also came fitted with the excellent Matrix LED headlights (a £675 upgrade I would recommend to all) which makes night driving a breeze.
18” rims on all four corners sit extremely well within the arches (a recommend upgrade over the 17’s). The rest of the car is typically Audi, which is to say it’s an extremely sleek design with formidable build quality, resulting in nothing bad to note or report.
On the road
Firstly, electric driving is simply superb. I’ve driven a fair few EV’s, but this is the first hybrid I’ve driven with a true EV mode, which instantly makes you aware of the engine on/off driving difference. Road/tyre noise becomes dominant, but even then it’s far quieter than your ears expect any car to be and the performance the Audi offers in pure-EV mode is very usable for around town and keeping up with traffic. Whilst the headline range may seem restrictive, the reality is that once you break it down the majority of journeys people undertake are well within the 30 miles, and it’s particularly satisfying when you get from A to B with zero need for the combustion engine.
When required though, the 1.4 4-cylinder seamlessly springs into life. No doubt a considerable amount of work went into the calibration and setup of running both electric and petrol in a single drivetrain, but the end result feels well refined and incredibly smooth. Slow speed work, creeping forward at junctions and between traffic lights is all handled by the EV side, which results in silky pull-aways before the petrol side is introduced.
Pushing your foot to the floor engages both powertrains (there’s a very slight lag as the Petrol engine scrambles to catch up with the instantaneous motor), but the resulting surge of acceleration is quite superb. The performance belies the headline figures, as the reality is that the electric motor is providing plenty of low down punch, making the drivetrain feel far more responsive. Whether it be overtaking slow-moving traffic or joining the motorway, this Audi A3 has you very well covered.
Assuming a charge point is available to manually top up the battery, using the automatic mode for battery power injection and recharge is definitely the best and smoothest way forward. Utilising the in-car satnav resulted in efficient use of the battery across the journey, arriving with the battery fully utilised after a long drive with accuracy typical of German engineering. Fuel economy seemed to reflect the electrical benefits, with long drives (~120 miles) returning a commendable ~55mpg despite enthusiastic driving. Shorter journeys flagged up figures well over 100mpg, as the A3’s drivetrain strangled petrol usage in favour of electrical efficiency.
With the hybrid system taking care of efficient propulsion, attention turns to the rest of the Audi A3 TFSI-e, which is also superb. The ride and suspension were well suited to the far from perfect UK roads, whilst the steering offers a good amount of feel in Dynamic mode (although lifeless in comfort). The hybrid drivetrain doesn’t reward high revs and precise gear changes as a normal petrol drivetrain would, as the hybridisation instead offers more of a torque ‘wall’ which can be extracted with ease. That’s not to say the 6-speed DSG gearbox isn’t fast though, because it is, as well as being smooth and enjoyable to use via the paddles behind the steering wheel.
Driving this car around felt a bit like reviewing two cars in one. On the one hand, this is the latest shape Audi A3, which brings a number of subtle interior and exterior upgrades over the previous generation, all of which I found to be a step up. In fact, for the size of the car, it’s very hard to find fault anywhere with the Audi A3 itself.
And then we have our second item; the drivetrain. Again though, it’s very, very hard to find fault here. In fact, using this as a plug-in hybrid actually raised some big questions for me and also completely sold me on the technology. The implementation by Audi was so seamless, it just seems obvious that this is a route all manufacturers should be taking until the infrastructure is ready for fully electric vehicles. Charge times are acceptable, range anxiety none existent and yet you still clean up the CO2 emissions for the majority of journeys. It may not be the technology of the long term future, but it feels entirely compatible with the infrastructure we have available today and that’s surely the point.
The engineering and technology inside this car blend together superbly. Not only have they sold me on the plug-in hybrid concept, it made me want the Audi A3 TFSI-e as my practical daily more so than any other car I’ve reviewed. I guess that’s where the only real issue comes in – all that technology doesn’t come cheap! As reviewed, the Audi A3 TFSI-e would cost a fairly hefty £36,825. I’d best get saving…