Audi has entered the plug-in hybrid segment of the market using its A3 Sportback as a platform to showcase its technology, which the company says will be available locally by 2016. While other manufacturers, such as Nissan with its all-electric Leaf, have gone down this route — ultimately the pinnacle of zero emission driving — the stopgap is undoubtedly that of hybrids. Toyota is the manufacturer that truly placed hybrid technology on a grand scale.
What with the Yaris HSD, Auris HSD and Prius — not to mention Lexus hybrids — having been available for a number of years, there seems to be some method to the madness. Volkswagen will introduce the e-Golf locally in 2015, marking its first foray into EV (electric vehicles) in SA, and BMW plans to introduce the i3 hatch and i8 sportscar models next year — the first premium manufacturer to have such technology available locally.
Chevrolet and Opel have in other markets the Volt and Ampera, which we drove a few years ago and proved to be rather good. Alas, there are no plans to bring that model to SA. Little distinguishes the A3 e-tron from the run-of-the-mill model, which is a good thing in the greater scheme of things, particularly from economies of scale on the manufacturer’s part. In essence, existing components can be used to clad the new technology — something that has been a contentious topic shrouding the initial capital outlay of such models.
Other than a different grille, front valance, model-specific 18-inch alloy wheels, the omission of a tailpipe and e-tron badges on the front fenders and boot lid, you would be hard-pressed to distinguish the model from its conventional siblings. The charge point is located behind the four-ring logo on the grille, which swivels to the left to open. It is held in place by a self-locking plastic pin. Slipping behind the thick-rimmed, flat-bottomed leather steering wheel, the instrument cluster is similar to that of the conventional models, although it features a power meter for the electric motor instead of a rev counter.
Under the skin lies a 1.4-litre turbocharged engine, which musters 110kW and 250Nm. The electric motor produces 75kW and 330Nm. Combined system power is 150kW and 350Nm, the latter being similar to that of the Golf GTI. Power goes to the front wheels via a six-speed S-tronic transmission. Performance is brisk, to say the least, as the model will dispatch the 0-100km/h in 7.6 seconds and a top speed of 222km/h.
Even in EV-only mode — there are four modes — the front wheels scrabble for traction when you mash the throttle, and the traction light on the instrument cluster flicks frantically to keep things in-check. This zero-emission mode, has a range of 50km with speeds of up to 130km/h, which is ideal for the South African commuters who travel a little longer to work than their European counterparts.
Average fuel consumption is claimed at 1.5l/100km, with carbon emissions of 35g/km. We managed a more realistic and still credible 4.7l/100km that included a bout of spirited driving on some winding roads. The lithium-ion battery, located below the rear seats, ensures that the model retains the same passenger and cargo space as its combustion engine-only siblings, something that seems to plague many other hybrid models.
Overall weight gained is a hefty 330kg over the equivalent 1.4 TFSI- powered Sportback model. Thankfully, the platform of the car has been beefed up in order to cope with the added weight. However, driving the model around Vienna in Austria, I found that the added weight was rather negligible, thanks largely to the electric motor offering a huge wedge of 330Nm from standstill.
Apart from the slight whirring of the electric motor and the roar of the tyres while on the move, the cabin is a discernibly quiet. The four driving modes are Electric Drive only (EV); Hybrid Auto, which utilises optimal use of the electrical energy in combination with the combustion engine; Hybrid Charge that charges the battery as quickly as possible while driving; and Hybrid Hold, which stores energy in the battery for later use in situations such as urban driving.
The battery takes two hours to charge with an industrial charger (three hours from a household charger), which is a far cry from the eight hours required by some electric cars. As a range extender, in my view, this is the sort of technology that is viable for a market such as SA, where vast distances are still driven daily. Range anxiety, which is something quite prevalent in electric vehicles, makes them urban-bound vehicles that should not venture too far from civilisation.
Fully electric cars will inevitably be the next phase in mobility, but I am afraid that our market is not quite ready for a full roll out of these models, particularly with our electricity supply capacity, which seems to be bursting at the seams. Should pricing be palatable when the A3 e-tron Sportback is made available in SA in 2016, then it would make a strong case for itself. The next e-tron model, according to Audi SA, will be based on the second-generation Q7 SUV that is scheduled to launch in the first quarter of next year.
The Facts: 2014 Audi A3 e-tron Sportback
Engine: 1390cc turbocharged petrol, with electric motor.
Top speed: 222km/h
Fuel consumption: 1.5l/100km
Arriving in SA: 2016