Here’s a neat little recipe for a car. Take one part premium badge, one part economy car, make it not only a hybrid but a plug-in hybrid with 14 miles of all-electric range, move it with a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox, and make sure it tops out at almost $50,000, before tax credits. Never asked for that sandwich? Well, we now have the 2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, and the weird mixture sort of works.
Except for that price. But we’ll get to that later.
(Full Disclosure: Audi wanted us to drive the A3 e-tron so bad that they flew me from New York to San Francisco to drive it for what felt like an exceedingly brief period of time. I spent more hours in the airport than actually driving this car. It’s definitely unusual for one of our first drives, but then, so is the car. Anyways, we went to some Asian fusion place for dinner, and then for breakfast I had potatoes. Just, potatoes. That was my choice though.)
You might be wondering right now, though, why we’re even writing about it. Jalopnik is traditionally all about weird beaters, and wacky racing, and supercars, and speed, also tanks sometimes, and going fast, and feeling like you’re going fast but not actually going fast, and generally having nothing but fun. But in reality, Jalopnik isn’t all about nothing but fun.
Sometimes it’s about things that are serious, or even dire.
And right now Audi’s parent company, Volkswagen, and even Audi itself, are both in a pretty serious, dire situation. VW had banked much of its environmental reputation on its diesel technology, selling it to the masses as “clean diesel.” But as we know by now, its diesels were actually anything but clean. They were tremendously dirty, spewing pollutants at noxious levels all while rigging their software for government tests.
Much like your elementary school arch-nemesis, they could apparently be a total terror for the air you breathe when no one was looking, but turned into a blessed angel the second the teacher was minding the class.
And up until this past September, diesel looked like the future for Volkswagen’s lineup of clean cars. It remains to be seen not only whether or not people will buy Volkswagen’s diesels, but whether or not VW can even bring the cars into compliance.
So whereas a plug-in hybrid like A3 e-tron once may have been an afterthought in the automotive conglomerate’s vast lineup, it may now be the first step towards playing a major part for the future of the company.
The first generation of the Audi A3 sold in America was a weird little critter, and for that reason, it never sold very well. It was a hatchback, only, and with an available diesel engine when that sort of thing was still unusual for the company over here. Perhaps because of that, it sold fewer than 10,000 units a year for its entire run, though the A3 TDI was popular among a small subset of people who bought into it.
But then in 2014 Audi launched a new A3, one that was available in America as a sedan only, and with a gasoline engine, only. And so far it has sold like hotcakes. In just the first 10 months of 2015, Audi’s already managed to sell almost 30,000 of the things, and that’s before we even get the hotted-up versions.
Audi would have seemed to have figured out exactly what the American public had been clamoring for, and that which us auto journalists have been clamoring against, for years. When it comes to entry-level luxury cars Americans don’t like hatchbacks. And they like gasoline engines, to the exclusion of all good sense and taste, forever and ever, until the inevitable death of the universe extinguishes us all.
And that seemed just fine.
But Audi, for all of its thick competition with relative titans Mercedes-Benz and BMW and the ultimate quest for Teutonic product line-up rationality, can’t give up its weird history. It apparently loves its customers with weird tastes, which is why they made the Audi A3 e-tron.
It’s available as a Sportback, only. And as a plug-in hybrid, only. And I sort of like it.
Its system is simple enough, from a consumer standpoint. A pan of batteries sits underneath the rear bench seats, but above the rear axle. I would explain it all myself, but truth be told Audi already did a better job of it in this handy-dandy graphic:
The 102-horsepower electric motor pairs with a 150-horsepower 1.4-liter internal combustion engine. You’ll find that the A3 e-tron gets a maximum of 204 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, all sent through the front wheels. I know, I know, it doesn’t add up, but just go with it.
Though it’s not fully electric, Audi maintains this is a better setup, as it’s not limited by electric range in something like a Tesla. In fact, they say it’s much better, because the A3 e-tron’s electric range (at around 16 or 17 miles) is just slightly more than the average American commute of 14 miles, which is great if you just want to go to work on electric power alone and then never come home again.
But in all seriousness, a plug-in hybrid in general isn’t a bad way to go if you want to experience the instant torque of an electric vehicle, but for some strange reason you still have major anxiety about electric range and/or you live in a rural area. How may people, though, do you think will live in a rural area and buy an Audi A3 e-tron?
(None, is the answer you’re looking for, at least until Audi comes out with a plug-in hybrid Ford F-150, so don’t worry about it.)
Charging it isn’t too much of a worry either, as Audi provides both 120-volt and 240-volt cables free of charge, and they plug into a charging port which hides behind the four Audi rings in the grille of the car, and which actually feels like it’s made out of weirdly cheap plastic.
Audi estimates that the whole electric-and-gasoline-shebang together will get the equivalent of about 84 miles per gallon, but if you’re driving on the gasoline engine alone, it’ll get a positively regular-hatchback-like combined 35 miles per gallon.
The act of driving the A3 e-tron itself, though, isn’t like most hatchbacks. Well, it is like most hatchbacks. And it isn’t. Allow me to explain.
To the right of the steering wheel, right next to Audi’s regular drive mode buttons (which allow you to choose Comfort, Dynamic, Automatic, or Individual, but really just seem to involve varying degrees of steering effort), there’s another button, which when pressed opens up a menu allowing you to select EV, Hybrid, Hold, and Charge modes.
Some of those sound simple enough. EV mode makes the car use all-electric power, and once that’s done, it’ll just switch back to using the gasoline engine. Hybrid mode is also what it sounds like, as the engine and the electric motor work together like in any other hybrid.
Hold and Charge are where it gets interesting, and it encourages you to think about how you use your car, in a way that few other cars do, which is nice.
Hold actually makes the gasoline engine do all the work, preserving your battery for later, such as when you’re on the highway and you’re not going to be using the electric battery much anyways, so you’d want to save it for when you’re in a city. Charge, well, tries to charge the battery as much as possible.
I would use all of that, because I’m a bit daft, but you probably wouldn’t. But then again, if you’re buying one of these you’re probably a bit daft, too, so you’d use it all the time.
And that’s all very nice, I suppose, but it doesn’t really speak to what the car is actually like. The interior is all very standard Audi A3, which is to say it contains vast multitudes of dreary, drab black plastic, which screams WHY YES THIS CAR WAS ORIGINALLY CREATED TO FIT AN AUDI BADGE UNDER A $30,000 PRICE TAG, WHY DO YOU ASK? The screen that disappears into the dash at the press of a button is a neat party trick, though, and is much better than whatever the hell that Android-tablet-slapped-randomly-onto-the-dash that Mercedes is doing these days.
Which, like I said, is all very Audi A3-ish. The suspension is surprisingly pliant, and it’s matched with equally surprisingly comfortable Audi A3 seats.
But driving it is where it deviates from the standard. Not that it’s bad, mind you, it’s just slightly odd. The dual-clutch transmission, which in normal day-to-day driving about town functions much like an automatic, doesn’t have a torque converter. So when you lift your foot off the brake, it doesn’t crawl like a torque converter automatic does. Or rather, it does crawl, eventually, but there’s a brief split-second where you just sort of sit there, and then all the torque from the electric motors makes it creep along quite aggressively.
Off the line, it’s not going to set your hair on fire, as it’s an Audi A3 that’s put on a bit of weight. You do get that constant-torque sensation from the electric motors, so it does pull strongly, and the steering can be set from feather-light to near-Popeye levels of effort, all without diminishing what feedback there is. The wheel itself is thin, too, which I like in these days of every car making you feel like you’re grabbing two sets of pool noodles between your hands, and almost makes you feel like you’re turning the steering of something from the 1980s, which is a good thing.
It’s weird, but you get used to it. That sort of sentiment continues to the brakes, which are a bit grabby, and the transmission itself. Most Audi DSGs now come with an assortment of paddles behind the steering wheel, for when you want to change the gears yourself, it being some semblance of a manual transmission and all.But this one has no paddles behind the steering wheel, meaning if you want to switch it up all by your lonesome, you need to fiddle with the stick in between the seats.
Then again, I’m not sure you’d even want to change the gears yourself, as deliciously quick as the gear changes can be. That’s because Audi found the sort of wisdom to eliminate the tachometer, replacing with a strange efficiency gauge.
The efficiency gauge is actually pretty neat, as it comes with a little mark for BOOST, and I love things that say BOOST. In this case, it’s when you hit the kickdown button with the accelerator pedal, and the electric motor and the engine start working together to provide that little bit of extra BOOST.
But then when you want to actually shift up, after using all that BOOST, you have to do it by sound and feel, like you’re in an old Isuzu pickup.
Like I said, odd. But “odd” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” I like cars that are different, that taste a bit funny. They have character, and they’re unlike anything else on the road.
And Audi wants you to think that this car is completely unlike anything else on the road, it being a plug-in hybrid hatchback with a dual-clutch gearbox and an all-electric mode that will let you drive to places. Because in that sort of vacuum, the price of the Audi makes sense.
That price, however, is why I fear no one will buy it. The Audi A3 E-tron starts at $37,900, before tax breaks, but even then, that brings you down to about $32,000. And that’s about Chevy Volt money, if you’re the sort of person that would cross-shop an Audi and a Chevy Volt.
But let’s say you want your Audi A3 to not feel like it was built to get down to a certain price. Let’s say you want it with whiz-bang technology features like radar-guided cruise control, and an upgraded sound system, and you would like slightly bigger wheels and slightly better seats, and the natty red paint found in all of these photos.
And that’s where you have a problem, because now your Audi A3 E-tron costs $48,525.
Or, in other words, less than 1500 bucks away from $50,000. Which is, frankly, a lot. For $50,000, you’re no longer in fun-little-hatchback territory. Even if you wanted a hybrid.
For $50,000, you’re actually in Infiniti Q50S Hybrid territory. And no, that one’s not a plug-in, and it doesn’t have an all-electric mode that will take you all the way to work (but not back). So it’s not quite as eco-friendly as the Audi is.
But it’s a lot bigger, it’s got a lot more gizmos, it’s a lot nicer on the inside, and, oh yeah, did I mention the Infiniti’s got 360 horsepower?
For those counting, that’s 156 more.
The two cars aren’t a direct comparison, but they certainly are close. And if you demand a plug-in option, not only do you have the aforementioned Chevy Volt, but there’s plenty of competition from cars like the Honda Accord Plug-in (which starts at $39,780), the Toyota Prius plug-in (starts at just a hair under $30,000), and the Ford Fusion Energi, which could be very nice but I’ve never seen anyone actually buy.
And that’s what makes me sad about the Audi A3 e-tron. Volkswagen is dipping its toes into the plug-in hybrid market with a quirky little weirdo, and it’s not bad at all.
I’m just worried I’ll never see one.
Photos credit: Audi