Audi A3 e-tron first drive

Audi A3 e-tronWhilst sales of pure electric powered cars are increasing slowly, hybrids with petrol or diesel partner engines remain interesting but not appealing,

the modest leap in customer demand has moved to plug-in hybrids. These combine electric mains top-up with petrol/hybrid powertrains. 

In 2013 total UK sales of PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles) were around 350 units. In 2014 these rocketed to a total of 7,914 sales and for the first four months of this year sales have switched on to reach over 7,500 vehicles. 

Why this surge in sales? There are now many more models to choose from with demand being driven by business users because of lower CO2 related Benefit-in-Kind tax. Also there is the Government’s £5,000 Low Emission grant to buy one of these relatively expensive to purchase PHEVs and manufacturers have to lower the average CO2 emissions across their range of petrol and diesel models so plug-in hybrids are currently the way to go. 

The leader by a long way of the PHEV sales pack is the Mitsubishi Outlander large SUV 4×4 with its petrol engine and two electric motors plus its plug-in electric facility. In a year since its introduction it has already attracted 11,000 UK registrations, the vast majority of which have gone to company cars users and business fleets because of the comparatively low 5% Benefit-in-Kind personal tax these low emission vehicles incur. The Outlander for instance emits only 44g/km of CO2 and has an official 148mpg figure giving a combined range of 510 miles of which 32.5 miles can be done in pure electric power mode. 

There are other benefits that PHEV vehicles offer such as a 100% write down allowance in their first year of ownership for businesses, they have no VED road tax cost and are exempt from the London Congestion Charge. 

The down-side is they cost more to buy over a conventional petrol or diesel car and the Government recently announced in The Budget that the Benefit-in-Kind tax rates will rise by 2% next year, another 2% in 2017/18, 3% in 2018/19 and another 3% to reach 16% in 2019/20. It is also understood that the £5,000 purchase grant is coming to the end of its offer and with a new Government in control future tax-hits on the motorist can be expected as they try to balance our budget deficit. 

Whilst Mitsubishi is leader of the PHEV sales pack, there are now numerous other plug-in hybrid models on offer with more joining the market sector on a regular basis. Some of the other leading sales contenders so far are the BMW i3/i8, Audi A3 e-tron, Porsche Cayenne, Toyota Prius+, Mercedes S-Class, Porsche Panamera, Vauxhall Ampera, Volvo V60, Porsche 918 Spyder and most recently the Volkswagen Golf GTE. 

The PHEVs will not suit all owners in pure terms of miles-per-gallon or their higher purchase price. The benefits are lower CO2 emissions for all users and lower taxes for business users but unless full use is made of the plug-in electric charge facility the real life mpg figures are hard to achieve. On long motorway journeys the fuel economy is rarely as good as a modern turbodiesel. They do best on commuter trips where the electric charge mode can be used most of the time or on stop/start local driving situations where the petrol/hybrid system can ‘harvest’ during slowing down and braking some electricity to top up the battery pack. 

The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron
I have just had a longer driving spell with Audi’s first PHEV plug-in hybrid, the A3 Sportback e-tron. The A3 is Audi’s best selling model range with 45,581 sales last year putting it into the UK’s top ten sales chart for the first time. It finished the year in eighth position. The A3 range comprises of three door hatchbacks, the five door Sportback, four door saloons and the cabriolet. Depending on the body style chosen there is a wide range of petrol and diesel engines on offer ranging from 1.2-litre TFSI petrol to the 2.0-litre diesel to the 2.0-litre TFSI petrol 300hp quattro. 

But there is only one e-tron model, the high spec A3 Sportback which combines a 1.4-litre, 148bhp, four cylinder turbocharged petrol engine turbocharged petrol engine with a 101bhp electric motor and with the plug-in electricity supply function for the 8.8kWh lithium ion battery pack mounted beneath the rear seats. The electric motor is positioned between the petrol engine’s flywheel and the six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission. Total system output is 201bhp and 350Nm (258lb ft) of torque. It is priced at £29,950 after the Government’s plug-in discount. 

As for performance the headline figures are an official 584 mile range, it will run on only electric power for 31 miles, top speed is 137mph and 80mph in electric mode. The zero to 62mph takes a sporty 7.6-seconds and the official fuel consumption is 176.6mpg with CO2 emissions of 37g/km. That means these official figures makes VED road tax a nil cost, company car Benefit-in-Kind tax is just 5% and it is free for the London Congestion Charge. 

Audi A3 e-tron Audi A3 e-tron Audi A3 e-tron Audi A3 e-tron

During my In real life test driving spell, a 200 mile journey using mainly motorways resulted in just 45.7mpg and the return journey using A/B roads resulted in 44.5mpg and both journeys started with the battery fully charged. On further commuter trips with the battery again fully charged, covering country roads and in-town stop-start traffic, the fuel economy was better at 88.5mpg but again was not close to the official figure. My 10 days driving road test average overall was 53mpg. 

The problem I found was that the battery with its fully charged 31-mile range just doesn’t offer enough capacity to have any meaningful input on longer journeys. It will initially give good fuel economy running in conjunction with the petrol engine but once the battery level is low the e-tron reverts mainly to using the petrol engine and the fuel economy suffers. The e-tron just does not ‘harvest’ enough electricity to top up the battery during normal driving unlike the Prius+, Mitsubishi Outlander or even its sister car – the VW Golf GTE. The relatively small capacity battery does mean short charging times with just over two hours from a public charging point or around four hours from a domestic 13-amp plug/socket. Where the e-tron will work best is with users doing a daily commute round trip of 31-miles or less when a daily charge from a home electric supply will give better fuel economy. If the e-tron system could ‘harvest’ more power on the overrun and braking modes it would be a more viable plug-in hybrid for more people. 

Retail customers in particular will be better off buying the A3 Sportback 1.4-litre TFSI petrol 150hp Sport which can return 60mpg and costs over £7,000 less to buy and company car users could choose the 2.0-litre TDI 150hp turbodiesel Sport which is £5,700 cheaper and will return 68mpg. Even taking into account the higher road tax or Benefit-in-Kind tax these conventional models incur they are a much cheaper proposition. With only just over 300 e-tron UK sales for the first three months of this year customers would seem to agree that the extra cost of the plug-in hybrid A3 is not worth the extra purchase cost. 

The A3 e-tron has four driving modes to select from. These are pure electric power only, another to preserve the battery power, one to increase battery power life by using the petrol engine as a generator whilst driving along and during my test period I found this reduced the fuel economy by 9mpg. Finally there is the mode that will be used most of the time by the majority of drivers which automatically uses both petrol and electric motors according to the driving conditions. 

The A3 e-tron is easy to drive, it accelerates briskly due to the low down torque of the electric motor before the petrol engine switches in giving a near seamless power delivery. There was sometimes a subtle vibration when the engine cuts in but generally it was very quiet. 

With the weight of the battery pack the e-tron feels significantly heavier than conventional A3s. That extra bulk does mean it is well planted on the road and if the Comfort setting is used it was a relaxed drive at cruising speeds. The extra weight did show up during cornering where the five door hatchback had a tendency to ‘wash out’ wider through bends than standard A3 models. The battery pack being situated under the rear seats has meant the fuel tank has been positioned under the boot floor. Part of that compromise means that the tank has been reduced to 40-litres and the boot space to 280-litres. Around one third of the boot space is taken up by a case holding the various mains charging cables so that is another compromise. 

The interior of the car is well equipped with one relatively high level of specification for the e-tron which includes sat-nav but being an Audi there is still a long list of extra cost options which includes cruise control costing £225, Audi parking display at £250, heated front seats at £260, a panoramic sunroof at £950 and 18-inch wheels at £995 which also increase the CO2 emissions to 39g/km. 

There is no doubt that as manufacturers are forced by legislation to reduce the average CO2 emissions of their entire range of models more use will be made of hybrid technology used in conjunction with petrol and diesel engines and so doing away with the range anxiety of electric only powered cars. Adding the plug-in electric facility does facilitate a significant reduction in CO2 emissions and tax costs but in real-life it is not the most cost-effective A3 Sportback model available for most people. 

MILESTONES: Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, 1.4 TFSI 150hp, S tronic, 5-door. Price: £29,950 (after the Government plug-in grant). Powertain: 1.4-litre, direct injection turbocharged 148bhp petrol engine, 101bhp electric motor, combined torque of 350Nm, 6-speed S tronic automatic transmission. Performance: 137mph (80mph in electric power mode), 0-62mph 7.6-seconds, driving range up to 584-miles (up to 31-miles electric power only), 176.6mpg (44.5 to 88.5mpg with an overall average of 53mpg) CO2 37g/km, VED road tax £0, BIK company car tax rate 5%, zero cost London Congestion Charge. Insurance group: 29. Warranty: 3-years/60,000-miles. Dimensions/capacities: L 4,312mm, W 1,785mm, H 1,424mm, boot/load space 280 to 1,120-litres, 5-seats/5-door hatchback. For: Cleanest emission A3 model available, a low tax company car, used in the right conditions it can deliver eco-friendly frugal fuel economy but only if the mains charging facility is used, Congestion Charge free, with its petrol engine it does away with electric car range anxiety, usual Audi high quality, high spec, comfortable ride. Against: Difficult to recommend for retail customers due to its high price over other petrol/diesel A3s, didn’t produce anywhere near the official fuel economy figure, small boot.   Miles Better News Agency

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