Hybrid cars are going to become a whole lot more common on our roads as The Great Change comes across the car industry. Sure it's all going to take decades, but the inexorable shift away from fossil fuels is underway.
Over the past two decades, carmakers have taken a well-trodden path to highlight their commitment to the coming automotive order – make something stupid-looking that drives like it's going to fall over (Toyota, Nissan, Renault etc.) but then say it doesn't matter because it's green; or go all-out and do something slightly mad like BMW did with its new i3 and i8 range.
Audi has taken its own path. First it showed the completely bonkers-looking R8 e-tron, raced some hybrids at Le Mans and then put a hybrid powertrain into an otherwise normal-looking car, the A3. They must be mad – how will the neighbours know?
There's one e-tron in the A3 range and it starts at $62,490. That lands you in a five-door Sportback hatch with 17-inch alloy wheels, an eight-speaker stereo with DAB, Bluetooth and USB (with annoying proprietary cable), dual-zone climate control, front and rear parking sensors, reversing camera, keyless entry and start, cruise control, sat-nav, e-tron specific LED headlamps and daytime running lights, auto headlights and wipers, auto parking, power windows and mirrors.
It looks like a normal A3, which means restrained, handsome and the opposite of shouty.
Our test car also had the Assistance Package ($1990) which adds lane departure warning, forward collision mitigation, active cruise control and auto high beam; Comfort Package ($1990) which adds heated electric front seats, auto dimming and dipping mirrors; and Monsoon Grey metallic for $1150 bringing the total to $67,620.
The A3 e-tron is unlike many other hybrids and pure electric cars in that it doesn't shout about itself. There are visual differences such as the LED headlights and the wheels but it looks like a normal A3, which means restrained, handsome and the opposite of shouty.
The four rings in the front grille pop out to reveal the plug-in apparatus which is kind of cool but feels a bit flimsy.
Inside is identical to a reasonably well-specified A3, with just one extra button for selecting Hybrid modes. And that's it until you get to the boot which has a slightly higher floor under which hides the battery pack. The boot's capacity drops significantly, from 380 litres to 280. There's no spare, either, just a repair kit.
Seven airbags, ABS, brake force distribution, brake assist, stability and traction controls are standard and are enough to have earned the A3 five ANCAP stars. The additional protection offered in the Assistance Package includes lane departure warning, active cruise and forward collision mitigation.
Audi's MMI with a seven-inch retractable screen runs the stereo, sat-nav and some car settings. The rotary dial is placed on the centre console and is intuitive and easy to use. It includes a scratchpad on the top for jotting out addresses or phone numbers.
Running purely on electric, Audi also claims you can cover around 50 km.
The sound is perfectly fine (you can add a B&O package for $1750) and with DAB, you get crystal clear radio as long as you're not in a tunnel. Our pet hate - the proprietary cable to connect your phone - blights the otherwise excellent MMI system's abilities.
Being a hybrid, there's two power sources. The 1.4TFSI turbo-petrol from the lower end of the range makes a re-appearance, with 110kW and 250Nm of torque, up from 81kW. Added to that is a 75kW electric motor. The combined output is 150kW and 350Nm. Audi claims a combined fuel figure of just 1.6L/100km and a 0-100km/h time of 7.6 seconds. That's a nonsense number because is uses a fully charged battery and no allowance is made for the fuel (electricity) used to charge it.
Running purely on electric, Audi also claims you can cover around 50 km but we never got better than about 30 km before the petrol engine cut in to save the day. Admittedly, the week we had was a typical muggy Sydney week, so the air-con worked the batteries hard.
The purchase price includes the supply of a 16-amp single phase power outlet (aka wallbox) that reduces the time for a full plug-in charge to just two and a half hours. Installation is carried out by an "Audi electrical partner" but, ominously, the press release says that it "in many cases will be a cost-neutral exercise."
As with any electric-capable car, it takes a while to get used to hitting Start button and not hearing or feeling anything. Put the standard selector into D and if you're not particularly attentive, you probably won't notice anything but the lightest of clunks as the transmission engages.
It puddles around town more than happily and very, very quietly. So quietly, in fact, that Elmer Fudd would be envious.
There's three modes to choose from when it comes to the electric propulsion. You can choose to run exclusively on battery (EV), Hybrid Auto (uses both power sources) Hybrid Hold (holds the battery at the current level of charge) and Hybrid charge which, as it suggests, charges the battery using engine power.
The A3's obvious German rival is the BMW i3 and they couldn't be more different to drive. When you lift off in the i3 – and in many other electric and hybrid vehicles – the electric generator takes the opportunity to engage itself to recover energy as you brake. The A3 is the opposite, there's almost no drag when you lift off and the power gauge, which replaces the rev-counter, shows no recovery until you hit the brakes.
That does change when you're in Hybrid Charge, but it's still nowhere near as aggressive as the BMW i3 or the electric-only Tesla.
Apart from that, it drives like a quick-ish A3. It'll cover 0-100km/h in 7.6 seconds, which is pretty reasonable and puddles around town more than happily and very, very quietly. So quietly, in fact, that Elmer Fudd would be envious.
There's a hefty weight penalty between a 1.4 TFSI Ambition and the e-tron – almost 200kg – so it handles and steers a little less enthusiastically. It is offset by that little extra pull from the extra torque available right down low and the six-speed dual clutch behaves just like it does in any other A3.