Prototype drive: Audi’s A3 e-tron electric car

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A small slice of Audi’s future recently began testing on U.S. roads around the country, but if you look too hard for these prototypes, they’ll probably drive right under your nose.

That’s because rather than spend precious development dollars on a uniquely-designed body that’s more science experiment than it is a practical application, Audi went and hid an all-electric drivetrain under the skin of its well-known A3 hatchback.

Jeff Curry, the head of Audi’s electric vehicle strategy in the U.S., brought one of the 17 A3 e-tron prototypes to Santa Monica this week for a few hours of driving.

Sneak a look under the hood and you’ll notice the turbocharged four-cylinder gas or diesel motors have been replaced by an electric motor routing about 134 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque to the car’s front wheels. The motor is powered by a pair of lithium-ion batteries that pack about 26.5 kilowatt-hours’ worth of juice, and top-speed is about 90 mph.

Range on this e-tron is around 90 miles in optimal conditions, and Audi says this A3 would get about 102 miles per gallon equivalent (for comparison, Nissan’s Leaf gets 99 mpge, while Ford’s Focus EV is rated at 105 mpge).

As with many electric cars, the A3’s batteries are mounted low for optimal weight distribution. In order to keep the orientation of the traditional A3’s cabin intact, one battery is mounted in the center tunnel between the left and right passengers, and another battery is below the load floor in the trunk area. Thus, when you sit in the A3 e-tron, you notice almost no difference between its interior and the interior of the gas-powered model you can buy right now at your local dealer.

The instrument panel has been kept refreshingly simple. The only changes come in the form of the tachometer being replaced by a gauge showing how much power you’re drawing from the battery. Meanwhile, the trip computer has been revised to show real-time stats on range and battery life. All told, the cabin’s construction and layout is as solid as any other Audi. Nothing about it would indicate this A3 is a hyper-limited prototype.

This is no accident, says Curry.

“We want people to have a really easy entry into plug-in vehicles, Curry said. Not this huge radical step but something that’s really easy to integrate into your daily life, so that’s why we based it on the A3.”?

Other changes include paddles on the steering wheel that allow drivers to choose one of four different brake-regeneration modes. As you dial up through the settings, the amount of energy the car captures and uses to recharge the batteries (and therefore, the amount of resistance you encounter when you take your foot off the gas) increases. Finally, there are three driving modes that allow the driver efficient, normal or sporty driving dynamics.

Around Santa Monica’s neighborhoods and up PCH into Malibu, the A3 e-tron is similar to other EVs. Acceleration is smooth, if not neck-snapping (three passengers will slow any car down a bit) and it’s always quiet, save for the faint whine exhibited by any electric motor. The brakes are nicely balanced and avoid the tendency to grab hard that some regenerative systems are known for.

One appreciable aspect are the selectable regeneration modes. In heavy traffic or around town, you can often avoid using the brakes at all, and instead keep the system in its most aggressive mode. The moment you take your foot off the gas, the car slows down appreciably. If you’re traveling down a long hill, you can also slip the transmission into B, which will also kick the regenerative system into this aggro mode.

Handling is Audi-tight, despite this A3 e-tron weighing some 400 pounds more than a gas-powered model (batteries aren’t made of cotton, kids). The car’s planted feel comes from the battery placement, which also evens out the car’s weight distribution to an almost 50-50 balance.

If all this sounds like something you’d be interested in driving, you’re a bit out of luck. Unlike pilot programs run by other manufacturers that are testing alternative-fuel technologies like BMW’s ActiveE electric cars or Mercedes-Benz’s F-Cell hydrogen fuel cell, Audi’s e-tron program is only for Audi employees (Curry included; such are the perks when you run a company’s EV program).

Curry says this is a deliberate move. “The idea for us is we don’t want to use our customers as guinea pigs. We want to do all the testing internally before we put these cars with our customers. That’s sort of just a philosophy that’s different than some other manufacturers,” Curry said.

So what’s the point?

“Over the next 18 months we’re testing these cars on U.S. roads to understand how they integrate normal driving with American roads and the conditions and situations we typically use and drive here, which are different than in Europe or China or other main markets we’ll launch the cars to,” said Curry.

This means if you’re keen to get your grubby little paws on an electric Audi, you’ll have to wait until 2014. That’s when an all-new A3 will come to our shores. The car will be available with the traditional gas (and possibly diesel) power plants, but a plug-in hybrid will also be offered. It’s that plug-in model that will use what Audi learns about daily EV use through data gleaned from these prototype A3 models.

The 2014 plug-ins will have a four-cylinder, turbocharged engine that’s paired with an electric motor and battery. Curry says total range is expected to top 350 miles. Also, in a departure from the A3’s history up until this point, 2014 models will be available as a sedan. This is because the continued growth of the A4 has created room at the bottom of Audi’s lineup for another sedan.

A full-electric A3 is still under consideration, Curry said.

“We’re looking at that. We haven’t made any decisions on the full EV. We want to start with the plug-in hybrid, which we think is a good balance between getting EV but then also being able to drive a full range. But you know, for sure, obviously we’re testing it in this version, so it’s something that could be done,” Curry said.

Audi’s e-tron program won’t be limited to the A3, either. Curry says that later this year, Audi will unveil a limited e-tron production of its R8 supercar.

“That car is ... very, very fast,” Curry said with a smile.

It’s clear Audi hopes to use that upcoming R8 to dispel the notion that electric cars must operate at the expense of grin-inducing fun (something Tesla’s Roadster did quite nicely).

“The whole idea of the e-tron is it’s not sort of an eat your vegetables kind of thing, there’s a performance aspect to it -- there are some really fun things about driving these vehicles that people aren’t tuned in to,”? Curry said.