Munich, while more synonymous with BMW, has its airport located between the city and the town of Ingolsdadt, the Audi HQ, and Audi makes no attempt to be subtle about its presence at this lovely, airy airport. Every type of A3 was on show at the forcourt- sedan, convertible and sportback — and different engines as well. The variant that caught my eye, however, was the Vegas Yellow S3 convertible, primarily because it was a horrid day, but mainly because the car was parked next to a charging station. Audi has been a pioneer of hybrid technology, but unlike Toyota, it has not really deployed its skills on road cars, concentrating on their 24 Hours of Le Mans winning prototypes instead .
Minus a small badge on the hatch, there is no way you can tell this car apart from a regular A3 Sportback. The charging point is neatly hidden behind the four ring logo, which slides sideways to reveal the point. Inside too, there are few visible signs that you are driving anything but a ‘normal’ car. However, when you start the car, the only indication that it is running is Audi’s utterly brilliant virtual cockpit screen firing up.
Audi has tried to keep the driving experience as standard as possible. The 96 liquid-cooled lithiumion batteries, located just above and in front of the rear axle, combine with a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine (which produces 150 horsepower) to produce a combined 204 horsepower. The engine is where you expect it to be, but as a cutaway of the A3 e-tron showed us, a large part of the engine bay is taken up by the power electronics. The battery pack and displaced fuel tank do not dramatically compromise luggage space, but they eliminate any possible space for even a space-saver spare tyre.
In all-electric mode, the A3 e-tron has a very limited range of around 50 km. You can stick to the ‘Hold’ mode, which basically conserves electric power for other times you might need need it (some European city centres are considering outlawing fossilfuel powered vehicles) In ‘Charge’ mode, its a ‘regular’ hybrid, recuperating energy while braking and coasting. However, the limited battery range is compensated with the fact that you can charge the car in four hours. India is yet to build the high-voltage fast-charging stations this requires, so one can expect a six to eight-hour charging time — fine for an overnight charge, not that great if you need to charge it at work.
This is not a sprightly car. The weight of the batteries and their location take away from the finesse of the handling, compared to even the 1-litre A3. Audi’s expertise in hybrid technology is apparent when you drive the car in hybrid mode — it starts off the line in electric mode before the engine kicks in. Coupled with the virtual cockpit, the leather, a good sound system and high-quality plastics, this car feels like an Audi. At sedate speeds, not just inside the city but on country roads, the excellent electronics and the Volkswagen Group’s brilliant dual-clutch gearbox make this car feel seamless in a way that even the BMW i8 does not quite manage.
And then there is the fuel economy. Amazingly, the A3 e-tron, driven in all sorts of modes, consumed (according to the car’s own computer) only 2.7 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres, or a staggering 37 kilometres per litre, in Indian economy speak. This will be expensive car, though — in Germany, it is expected to cost almost as much as the new S3. The limited range of the battery makes it a questionable choice over longer distances, where the regular 2-litre TDI would be a better bet, and if Audi really wants to make an ecological statement, may we suggest the brilliant little 110 horsepower 1-litre petrol engine, with great fuel economy (over 20 kilometers per litre on German roads)? It goes like a scalded cat and is half the price of the e-tron.