Review and road test of the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2016 - 2020)
PLUG & PAY?
By Jonathan Crouch
So, what do you think of electric cars? Interesting? Intriguing? Definitely the way forward? But would you actually buy one on the used market? If the answer to that is still 'no', then it might be time to think again. In this A3 Sportback e-tron 'Typ8V'-series Plug-in hybrid model launched back in 2016, Audi set out to re-define what an electric car could be, mixing pokey petrol power with real-world battery range and frugality. Does it make sense as a used buy? Let's find out.
5dr Hatch (1.4 TFSI PHEV)
We live in a changing world. And drive, if we can, cars that reflect our growing need for cleaner, more frugal motoring. Cars perhaps, like this one, Audi's A3 Sportback e-tron, launched in 2016. What we got here was the brand's very first production plug-in hybrid model, an example of technology that seemed to blend the efficiency and some of the cost savings of all-electric power with the range and flexibility of a conventional diesel. Back of the turn of the century, we were all told that ordinary Prius-style petrol/electric hybrid models would do that, but it didn't quite work out that way. That hybrid concept was good, but the way that it used an inefficient combustion engine to re-charge its system batteries wasn't. If though, owners could plug their hybrids into a mains outlet and let a power station do the job instead, a much better solution was promised.
So it was that plug-in hybrid models were born and developed to a simple concept. That of a normal petrol engine beneath the bonnet also boosted by rechargeable battery packs under the back seats. Plugging these into a mains supply with the car parked up for a few hours would then give owners enough electrical power to cover most short journeys. Should the battery power get too low, in would come the petrol engine, so there would be no question of the kind of 'range anxiety' you'd get in a fully-electric car.
Sounds ideal doesn't it? If you only ever used a car like this for short journeys, you'd hardly ever have to fuel up. Unfortunately though, this technology proved to be expensive to develop and it took some time for the industry to figure out how to price it within reasonable bounds. Audi was aided in that by being able to share development costs with its Volkswagen Group sister brands. Hence the way that back in 2016, with the aid of a government grant, the company could offer this car for not much more than the cost of a comparably-sized well-specified diesel automatic model from the same segment. And the Ingolstadt maker claimed that buyers comparing this car to something conventionally fueling from the black pump would find it to be twice as frugal - and twice as clean. It was quite a prospect.
The A3 Sportback e-tron sold until late 2019, when an all-new fourth generation A3 model was launched. For the last year of production, it was badged as the A3 Sportback 40 e-tron.
What You Get
Unless they happened to notice the subtle badging or the near-invisibility of the rear exhaust pipe, a passer-by would never be able to distinguish one of these from any ordinary 'Type 8V'-series third generation A3 Sportback model.
Of course there are other differences if you really know what you're looking for. Take the air intakes in the front air dam, purpose-designed for the A3 e-tron and there to help keep the regenerative brakes cool. In fact, heating and cooling took up a great deal of the designer's efforts with this car. The whole engine was moved about 60mm to the right to make space for other ancillaries and there's a very clever exhaust manifold design that helps warm the mechanicals and reduce the power they'll draw from the 8.8kWh battery on short journeys.
That battery's carefully mounted in a safety cell beneath the rear seats and feeds a 75kw electric motor that boosts the 1.4-litre petrol engine. The motor has also been very precisely placed, sandwiched between the flywheel and the specially modified 6-speed dual-clutch auto gearbox that this model has to have. You might think that all these things would add quite a lot to the total weight - and in one sense you'd be right. A plug-in hybrid A3 weighs over 200kgs more than a conventional diesel one. It's just as well then, that this car was based on a third generation A3 design that was class-leadingly light thanks to its clever MQB platform and the thoughtful mixture of steel and aluminium panels used in its construction. That's why this e-tron model's total weight still manages to measure in at a pretty reasonable 1,540kgs.
We mentioned earlier that the designers mounted the battery pack beneath the rear seats. Well that's where the fuel tank would usually sit in a normal A3, so that item had to be re-sited beneath the boot floor. All of which, as you might expect, had an inevitable effect on luggage capacity. Raise the tailgate and you'll find that the 380-litres you'd normally expect an A3 Sportback to provide has fallen to just 280-litres here. Worse, the positioning of that fuel tank means that e-tron buyers lose the useful dual-height boot floor that conventional versions of this car would normally get. On top of that, you've to cart around a large bag full of charging paraphernalia you might need at your destination.
Still, on the plus side, there's a low loading lip, the cargo floor is flat and the width between the wheel arches measures fully 100cms, so you might well find yourself being able to fit in more than expected. You're certainly better off than you would be in this car's closest rival from this period, BMW's i3. You can also make good use of the space you do have if you have a car whose original owner specified the optional 'Through-load facility' ski-hatch and added in the 'Storage & luggage package' which gives you various extra nets and fastening points, plus a storage compartment under the rear seat. If all of that's not enough, then pushing forward the rear bench frees up a decent 1,220-litres of space.
At least e-tron buyers have no compromises to accept when it comes to rear seat passenger space, which is identical to that you'd find in any other A3 from this period. Even a six-footer sat behind an equally lanky driver will have plenty of leg and headroom. You won't really want to be transporting more than a couple of such folk though. True, this rear bench can just about accommodate three adults, but the prominent centre transmission tunnel will severely restrict any middle seat occupants above school age. Which, to be fair, is the case with just about every car in this class.
Up-front, you've an interior that'll be familiar fare to anybody who speaks fluent Audi design language and as usual with A3s, it's a cabin that wouldn't disgrace a car costing twice this one's price, everything clear, classy and easily accessible. As with the exterior, there's very little to set this e-tron model apart from any other A3 from this period. Indeed, at first glance, the only changes are found in some discreet badging and a provided 'EV' button, which is rather a stretch away towards the passenger side of the dashboard. It should have been sited down here by the s tronic auto gearstick. You use it to toggle through the four different driving modes: all-electric 'EV', 'Hybrid Charge' (to charge the battery as you drive), 'Hybrid Hold' (to keep the battery charge until you need it) and 'Hybrid Auto' (if you simply want to leave the system to do its own thing).
You can also access these modes via the 'MMI Navigation plus' display, a 7-inch colour electrically-retracting screen that glides out of the dash and prevents all but the most vital controls from cluttering up the minimalist dashboard. It delivers one of the most useful and informative Energy Flow monitors you'll find on a PHEV from this period. Plus the large round dial by the gearstick you'll use to access all the system's main functions also doubles as a touchpad upon which you can trace commands with your finger. Distinctive cabin touches include four air vents, styled to look like miniature jet engines and made up of no fewer than thirty individual parts including bright metal outer rings that are shaped for perfect grip.
What to Look For
Most owners in our survey seemed happy - but we came across a few issues. One owner had to replace two modules under warranty after 8,500 miles. The first was called a '5F module' and had to be replaced because the MMI infotainment screen was playing up and sometimes wouldn't retract into the dash. Another time, the car stopped charging at a public station after filling up to around half charge status. And the engine check light came on with an error that read 'AC charging system fault please contact service'. It turned out that this was a problem with the charger module. In another instance, we heard of an owner complaining about a faulty air conditioning compressor. Another e-tron owner complained of multiple issues. He found the bonnet latch defective, the 'check engine' warning light kept coming on, and there were various problems in getting the e-tron app to work.
The issue with the 'check engine' light coming on seems to be fairly common, so look out for that on your test drive. Some other A3 Sportback e-tron owners complained that the iPod connection doesn't always work and another complained about a faulty air conditioning switch sensor. Another owner had a problem with the MMI infotainment unit with an error message coming up saying 'SF control unit defective'. This is apparently the dual SIM card reader and is also the main control unit of the MMI system. In another case, an owner got a 'brake servo alert' message saying 'RPM Max alert', which led to the engine shutting down.
Otherwise, it's just the usual issues with 'Typ8V' third generation A3 models. With these, the most reported faults relate to problems with the alarm system and the central locking. And issues with rattly interior trim and non-engine electricals. Look out for bodywork scrapes and kerb damage to larger-spec alloy wheels. We've had some reports of issues with wear to the side bolsters of the leather seats, as well as squeaking front brake pads, so it's worth looking out for both of those.
Many A3s will have been company or lease cars and, as a result, you should check the condition of the bodywork carefully. The high-quality fit and finish of an A3 also makes it an ideal candidate for clocking, so ensure the history is absolutely verified. There were two manufacturer recalls on the A3 in this period. Check that any necessary remedial work has been carried out on affected cars. On some A3s produced in August 2017, there was a problem with the rear hub carrier not being manufactured to the correct standard, so in extreme circumstances, the car could lose a rear wheel. A recall was issued to replace the carriers on affected cars. Poor welds attaching the rear head restraint to the rear backrest of some A3s made between May and September 2018 posed a safety issue. Affected cars had to have the whole backrest replaced.
(approx based on a 2018 A3 Sportback e-tron - Ex Vat) An air filter costs in the £9-£15 bracket. An oil filter costs in the £5-£12 bracket. Front brake pads sit in the £24 to £66 bracket for a set; for a rear set, it's in the £24 to £54 bracket. Front brake discs sit in the £50-£83 bracket; for a rear pair, you're looking at the £43-£80 bracket. A headlamp (bi-xenon) costs around £454 and a rear lamp is around £68-£81. A pair of wipers is around £25.
On the Road
The days when you simply got into a car, twisted the key the ignition, selected a gear and set off seem a bit of simplistic after you've had a spin in an A3 Sportback e-tron. It's one of those models that really rewards a little previous homework in the familiarisation of how the drive systems work and so on. Which means that if you're one of those people who see reading the manual as some sort of dreadful failure in your ability to operate a vehicle, you need to get real. Cars like this one are sophisticated electronic devices and understanding exactly what you're dealing with will pay dividends.
If you don't, then to be honest, you'll be confused from the start. There's no ignition key slot and once you press the Start/Stop button that does gets you going, the silence that ensues can leave you unsure as to whether the powertrain's been activated or not. Proof that it has comes with a dash needle that springs up to its 'Ready' position in the so-called 'powermeter' that sits where the rev counter would normally be in the instrument binnacle in front of you. You're all set to experience what this A3 e-tron has to offer.
The idea of a 'powermeter' is hardly unique: you get one in a gas-guzzling Rolls Royce for example. In this eco-friendly conveyance though, this strangely-segmented dial's purpose is inevitably somewhat different. An 'Efficiency' section covers the first 30% of the gauge, which is where you're supposed to keep the needle for planet-friendly frugality, the needle occasionally straying into the lower 'charge' section during braking or at a cruise as the recovery systems scavenge discarded energy to recharge the battery. Push a bit harder and you'll be moving further up the dial into either the '% Power' or, under hard acceleration, the 'Boost' segments. Also incorporated into the layout is a battery meter showing your charge - and you'll quickly find your eyes flicking from this to the near-identical fuel gauge at the base of the speedo. In other words, there's an awful lot to take in, with the result that you're often left with the nagging doubt that you're unwittingly doing something very inefficient.
The chances of that are minimised if you accept that the electronics know better than you do and leave this A3 in the simplest of the four hybrid driving modes that e-tron motoring offers - the 'Auto' setting. You switch into it by selecting the appropriate display from the 'Car' menu you'll find on the MMI infotainment system's retractable dash-mounted screen. Or alternatively by toggling through the options offered by a provided dash-mounted 'EV' button. 'EV', in fact, is the other hybrid mode you'll be using most frequently, restricting the vehicle to near-silent all-electric motoring until the battery range runs out. If you've completed a standard two hour fifteen minute charge from a home wallbox or public charging point, that range is supposed to be able to take you up to 31 miles (NEDC) before the engine seamlessly cuts in, though that won't be possible if you approach the quoted all-electric performance figures - rest to 62mph in 12.7s en route to a top speed of 81mph.
We mentioned the engine. You might be keen to see how that works with this package. In every other kind of hybrid from this period we've driven, the set-up seems to default to conventional combustion power at every opportunity. Here though, the opposite is true. This Audi, rather endearingly, tries its hardest to use the charge from its 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery as often as it possibly can. And preserve it whenever possible with an effective brake energy recuperation system. It can even use its engine to top the battery cells up on the move if you select the 'Hybrid Charge' option. And it's able, if requested, to conserve their charge until the inner city driving you might have to do at the end of a journey - providing you select the 'Hybrid Hold' mode.
And efficiency figures? Well first the headlines. At launch, Audi claimed an unlikely-sounding 176.6mpg combined cycle fuel NEDC figure for this car, along with a squeaky-clean 37g/km of NEDC-rated CO2. In ordinary motoring, if you leave the hybrid system in its 'Hybrid Auto' mode where it decides how best to manage its power, you should get in excess of 60mpg on a regular basis. That's assuming you keep the instrument cluster's powermeter in its most frugal 'Efficiency' zone.
If you've never thought much of electric mobility as an automotive solution, here's a car we think might convert you. Choose carefully though.
This model didn't really bring us anything we hadn't seen before but it scored in the way that it made something so complicated so universally acceptable. There's no weird bodywork. No confusing digital read-outs. No odd driving technique to master. It is, in short, very much an A3 as you might have always known it. Just one with a little extra to offer.
Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (2016 - 2020) review by Jonathan Crouch