Same great hatchback flavor. Now with less fuel!
That's the theme behind Audi's forthcoming 2015 A3 Sportback e-tron, a compact hatchback due in early 2015 that will be the first ever plug-in hybrid from the German automaker.
Audi A3 fans will tell you that this model range is about to hit a significant growth spurt. Previously, it was only available in the U.S. as a four-door hatchback with either a turbocharged four-cylinder or a turbocharged-diesel engine. The car was a relatively small-time player in Audi's lineup but attracted a loyal following of drivers who appreciated the premium feel in a compact package.
PHOTOS: Audi A3 e-tron prototype drive
For 2015, Audi has big things planned for the A3 lineup. Because the A4 has grown in both size and price over the years, it's opened up room at the bottom of Audi's lineup for a new entry-level sedan. Thus, the 2015 A3 will come in sedan form in the U.S. for the first time. A diesel, convertible and high-performance S3 version are also planned.
Similar changes are happening over at Mercedes, with the brand recently launching its compact CLA sedan to widespread popularity with buyers. Starting at a hair over $30,000, both the CLA and Audi A3 seek to lure in a younger driver and those who might not have considered the brands to be within their price range.
Audi will spend much of 2014 rolling out the mainstream versions of the A3. But things get electric in early 2015, when the Sportback e-tron version will hit showrooms. Based on the same platform as the sedan, this version will only come as a hatchback, making it somewhat of a spiritual successor to the outgoing diesel A3.
This plug-in A3 is powered by two sources. A 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine makes 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. This is paired with an electric motor for a total output of 204 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Audi's S-Tronic six-speed, dual-clutch transmission moves this power to the front wheels, and the car will scoot from zero to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds.
The 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery pack that powers this motor is wedged under the rear seats, so there's no noticeable penalty in terms of the A3's cargo room. Plus, the seats still fold down for bonus room. The weight of the batteries has been kept to a minimum, helping the A3 e-tron weigh in at a very reasonable 3,483 pounds.
In addition to better handling, this relatively low curb weight for a plug-in hybrid also helps the car's efficiency. Just how green the A3 e-tron will be has yet to be determined; Audi hasn't completed final testing for the U.S. It does expect a final rating of above 100 MPGe and said the electric-only range will be 31 miles. The car's total range is 584 miles.
The A3 defaults to electric-only driving when you start it up. Quiet and crisp, the electric motor is plenty for city driving and can even take the car up to 81 mph.
Once the battery is drained, the gas engine takes over while recharging the battery at the same time. In either mode, the car felt plenty eager, and drivers in a particular hurry need only to press hard on the gas pedal to engage both systems for maximum power.
What was most impressive about the dual-power sourcing was how seamlessly the A3 would switch between the two. While this A3's handling isn't outright sporty, it feels much like the outgoing hatchback it's replacing. The pre-production prototype we spent half a day in could use additional suspension tuning, but with about a year to go before this car hits the market, count on Audi to iron out the kinks.
Otherwise, there was little to indicate that this tester didn't roll out of an Audi dealership. Inside, the cabin was tightly bolted together and previewed the updated interior all A3s will have. A slick screen rises out of the center of the dashboard with a sleek row of (dual) climate control buttons arranged below it.
The switchgear is kept to a minimum thanks to the A3's reliance on a rotary knob on the center console just aft of the shifter. The overall effect is minimalism balanced with 21st century tech in a way that can appeal to anybody.
The deciding factor on this A3 e-tron's success will likely be what kind of price Audi slaps on the hatchback. The A3 has never been cheap: the previous generation started at around $31,000. With the extra tech crammed into this e-tron model, that starting price will likely rise above $40,000.
At that point, it's a justifiable purchase, considering the going rate for something like a Honda Accord plug-in hybrid is around $40,000. There's a great balance of efficiency, practicality, tech and refinement in this A3. But if the asking price creeps anywhere past that point, the A3 e-tron risks demanding too much green to go green.