(Pocket-lint) - The electric era is upon us. The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is the first hybrid car the company has put onto its production line, combining an electronic motor with established 1.4L TFSI petrol hybrid to deliver that Audi Sportback experience but with a greener edge.
But are we Brits quite ready for the electric era? Perhaps more than the collective average may think: the A3 e-tron can near-silently get around distances up to 50km in electric-only mode. Need that bit more, then the petrol engine can kick in on command when it's needed for both power, safety and a bit more audible grunt.
Sounds like the perfect marriage, so what's to lose? A bit of extra cash up front is the answer. We've been driving around the fields and hills of central Austria to explore whether the Audi A3 e-tron is the hottest hybrid on the market right now that's worth the up-front investment to save on both cash and emissions in the longer term.
Green costs green
Let's get it out the way up front: the A3 Sportback e-tron costs £34,950 which, minus the £5,000 government OLEV (Office for Low Emission Vehicles) grant, will mean a £29,950 start price in the UK when it arrives in the winter months of this year. The lowest spec standard A3 Sportback 1.4L TFSI starts at £18,900 on the road, so the difference is significant.
Whether that works for you long term will depend on where and how you need to drive. We did a city tour section of driving on electric power alone which not only meant zero fuel, but zero emissions too. And with its 6-speed S Tronic automatic gearbox the A3 e-tron glides around beautifully; this is no milk float, for using electric power alone it can reach 80mph.
For some prospective customers there are obvious benefits. If your work commute is 12 miles each way then you could get there and back on electric alone, without charging up and without spending a penny on fuel. Even motorways are no issue given the speed and power available.
From a UK capital perspective, should you need to dip into London Congestion Charge zones then there's added incentive: the A3 e-tron produces 35g/km of CO2, which is well below the 75g/km threshold to be exempt from the charge. Given the Congestion Charge is £11.50 a day for non-residents, that could save you £57.50 every working week.
A true Audi
Despite the extra weight compared to the standard 1.4L A3 Sportback - the e-tron adds a 34kg electric motor, 125kg battery and extras mean it totals around 300kg more - the hybrid model doesn't cut back on speed. It's actually the faster car off the mark, delivering 0-62 in 7.9 seconds and topping out at 138mph. So no skin off anyone's nose there.
When you need that power it's easily available too. If in electric-only mode then dumping your foot to the floor will click the petrol motor into action. We used it to accelerate past a slow-coach combine harvester and the sudden injection of power and control was obvious; as a petrol-led drive it felt like a "proper" Audi - bar a slight click when the clutch automatically syncs between electric and petrol, typically around the 50kmph mark.
For the money there's the argument that you could buy a BMW i3 instead and pocket the change. But then you'd have to drive around pretending to be Judge Dredd all day, every day. The thing that will sell the A3 Sportback e-tron to a given audience is that it looks just like the kind of car you would find on today's roads. It's got the look and feel of an Audi, just like the A3 Sportback but with a greener secret side.
READ: Hands-on: BMW i3 review
Whether the Sportback was the optimum body to convert to petrol or not is questionable, as it doesn't have the cutting lines and side-on curvature of some other models from the range. The rear hides away the rear exhaust and there's a new bumper arrangement to give a slightly different look. Viewed front-on and we love those A3 headlights, complete with swooping slats that almost appear as extensions of the front grille - there's this great and aggressive look without the sense of the design team trying too hard.
A comfortable place to be
Sit inside and the A3 e-tron is a very comfortable place to be as either driver or passenger. The cushy seats deliver a comfortable embrace, while there's ample room on the central reservation arm rest and enough leg room for long drives to feel effortless.
There's a bit less room in the back, but it's ample space for a family of four and the 5-door setup ensures easy access. Even boot space is good for a hybrid car - this isn't one of those hybrids where you'd be lucky to store a slice of Edam in the back - providing 280-litres for shopping or luggage. However, that is 100-litres less than the standard 1.4L Sportback.
Perhaps most comforting of all is the noise. Or, more accurately, the very lack of it: it makes for a really comfortable electric-only ride. Audi quotes it's quieter than a luxury Saloon or Sedan, which we rather like - no meaningless figures or nonsense, you just know you're getting a truly quiet and comfortable ride.
At the controls
As with other Audi models in the company's range there's a load of tech on board. Sit the contactless key into its cradle and hit the start/stop button to fire-up the engine (or motor) and - assuming you option the £1,495 MMI Navigation System - a 7-inch display rises from the dashboard. Very nifty.
It's not a touchscreen, though, which many tablet users - us included - may otherwise automatically think. Instead you'll want to refer yourself to Audi's four button and jogwheel-meets-trackpad controls to navigate through the various options. The large jogwheel can accept finger-trace input, so if you're searching for a location in the sat nav, for example, then trace letters individually on the pad and the system will read that input back to you. "M" it says out loud, our eyes still firmly fixed on the road, as we try and hunt down the location to the Melia hotel.
Using the system takes some getting used to, but within a couple of hours you'll know where everything exisits within the layout. From drive style, to navigation, music and more. From November there should even be 4G connectivity as part of Audi Connect, which connects to the internet to retrieve various information such as weather and news - it's the hub and heart of the car.
It's also the visual route into the electric vs petrol options, with four modes available via the EV button on the dashboard. There's EV (Electric Drive) for electric-only action; Hybrid Auto which uses battery charge but lets the car decide when petrol and regenerative charging options kick in; (Hybrid Hold) which retains the battery charge through a combination of coasting, braking and sensible driving; and Hybrid Charge which increases the battery charge without the need to locate a plug.
Learning to drive
Why the car isn't always set to Hybrid Auto we don't really know - we feel that should be the case, with the other options available but behind an "advanced options" submenu. Because knowing which of the four options you want, mastering the regenerative braking to pump energy back into the battery and being a far more considerate and aware driver - in consumption terms - than you might typically be takes some practice. For many it'll be like learning to drive again. But for the green benefits and cost savings that makes sense.
In Austria that doesn't seem a problem because nobody seems to speed, nobody gets about thirty centimetres from the tail-end of your car's bumper, and it's a wholly different experience to the intense M25 and country lane driving experience we're more used to in the UK.
Like we've mentioned, we hit zero emissions and fuel consumption in a city drive. A longer 106km route saw our consumption - and this was when hitting all the buttons and testing out a lot of (the wrong) options - hit around 5-litres of consumption. Not bad, but some diesel engines could knock out a similar performance, although wouldn't be a patch on the overall CO2 emissions.
Now Audi claims you can get 1.5-litres per 100km in optimum conditions. But that would mean no aircon, no extras draining the battery for maximised longevity, and as much clever driving on your part as possible. But, in fairness, a competitor managed the same 106km route with 2.6-litres of consumption - halving our experimental efforts. That's our inefficient British road manner costing us.
In the same breath it shows the A3 e-tron is not a car trying to shy away behind an electric veil. If you want to do longer distances and want it to respond and feel just like a non-hybrid Audi then the A3 e-tron delivers the performance aspects. It's a considered partnership between electric and petrol that you'll need to work at to produce the most from.
The thing we respect the most about the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron is the fact it's going into production. Because whether you're a already on board with the green movement or not, if Audi - and some of its competitors - hadn't embarked on pushing research and development into this category then it just wouldn't exist.
And there are a lot of positives to draw from it all. If you're after an electric-petrol hybrid that looks like a "normal" car - not some other-worldly spaceship or trainwreck-design tricycle - then this is among the best of the bunch. Its 50km electric-only range is pretty decent, but the power and control of the 1.4L petrol is never out of reach when needed.
However, the price of investment won't suit all given how much more the e-tron is than the standard Sportback. Plus the UK's current electric industrial recharging infrastructure isn't up to much in all areas, despite the incentive government subsidy grant making some headway into purchase sense. You can plug in at home, of course, with a full charge made in just over three hours, but given that most Londoners these days live in small flats in condensed areas with on-road permit parking, the wonder of a garage is but a distant dream for many. In forward-thinking towns outside of the capital or on the continent we suspect there's a wider potential user base.
It's the first of a generation and the price shows that. But just like all technology the price-to-performance ratio will continue to improve. The A3 Sportback e-tron isn't just a stepping stone to world electric, it's a significant bridge. And it's a car that doesn't compromise what drivers want: comfort, efficiency, kick-ass tech and that four-ring badge on the front with performance that doesn't fall short of the expected mark.