Driving Audi's Electrifying E-Tron

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 13, 2012

NEW YORK CITY—I’m standing in front of Grand Central Station, it’s pouring rain, and up drives the Audi A3 e-tron, the cutest little electric car you’re ever going to see. Audi has just 17 of these cars—based on the popular A3 hatch—in the U.S., and most of them are out in Golden, Colorado in an in-house test program.

The Audi A3 e-tron meets the press on a rainy New York afternoon outside Grand Central Station. (Jim Motavalli photo)I’m the fourth journalist to get behind the wheel of the A3 e-tron, after a few colleagues at the New York Times and PlugInCars.com. Conditions are, as you might imagine, less than ideal. Manhattan traffic is slow moving in the best of times, but rain reduces it to a crawl. When there are brief gaps in the wall-to-wall cars, I swoop forward triumphantly for at least half a block. There are perhaps 30 of these cars in the world, with some in Germany and China. Unlike test programs at BMW and elsewhere, there's no current plan to put them in the hands of consumers--instead, the company's own engineers are putting them through their paces.

I can say, given the conditions, that the A3 e-tron is quiet, rattle-free, and leaps off the line, especially in performance mode. A nice feature, which shows what you can do with modern electronics, is a three-second hill hold: The car stays where it is for that length of time when you lift off the brakes, then starts rolling.  It has excellent stopping power—if the brakes didn’t work, I’d have probably merged it with a lunging New York cab. A test on the autobahn will have to be for another day. Here’s a look at the car from Jeff Curry, Audi's director of e-mobility in the U.S.:

A nice feature of this A3 is dial-in performance. Using steering wheel paddles or a button on the dash, the driver can choose normal, energy-efficient and high-performance modes (you’ll pay for the latter; range drops into the 70s). Also controlled from the driver’s seat is the level of regenerative braking. That’s a great idea, because some companies really go crazy with it, and others don’t add enough.

The A3 is a good platform for an electric, though not optimized for weight. There’s no sunroof, in a nod to saving a few pounds. There is ample room for four, and plenty of storage. “It’s a real A3,” says Audi spokeswoman Genesa Garbarino. “There’s no compromise in interior space.” Under the hood is a 26-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion pack of unknown origin—Curry says, “We don’t have a production partner for the battery yet”)—that gives the car approximately 94 miles of range, a top speed of 90 mph, and 199 foot pounds of torque from zero RPM.

The battery pack doesn't compromise storage in the battery version of the A3. (Jim Motavalli photo)Audi has a plethora of electric car prototypes, but the only vehicles confirmed for production are the ultra-performance R8 e-tron (which will be made in very limited numbers beginning late this year) and a plug-in hybrid version of the very A3 e-tron for 2014. I can’t tell you much about that car, because Audi has revealed little. At least for now, Audi has no plans to produce a battery-only version of the A3, but Curry told me, “We wouldn’t be testing the A3 electric if we weren’t considering it for production.”

Audi made unwelcome headlines last week with stories claiming that, in the face of slow early sales of the Volt, Leaf and others, it was cutting back its electric dreams and abandoning the A1 and A2 e-tron programs. But Curry says neither was ever planned for production; indeed, only one A2 was built, for the show-car circuit.

The A2 was (perhaps we should put it in the past tense) an all-electric bristling with LED technology, featuring a 31 kilowatt-hour battery (24 kWh usable) and 114 horsepower from the electric motor driving the front wheels. It claimed a 124-mile range, and a zero-to-60 time of 9.3 seconds, with 93 mph as the limited top speed. The key to that decent range is shedding pounds: A mix of aluminum and carbon fiber means a body weighing slightly more than 2,500 pounds. Even the wheels were lightweight, 4.5 pounds each.

The A2 e-tron maximizes weight savings for battery range of 124 miles. (Audi photo)The A1 was something entirely different, a plug-in hybrid of sorts with a tiny Wankel rotary engine of just 254-cc (a quarter of a liter) and weighing only 254 pounds. Because it gets some juice from the Wankel, it gets by with a smaller li-ion pack of just 12 kilowatt-hours. Since Audi is now saying that its first A3 e-tron will be a plug-in hybrid, the configuration merits a second look.

But Curry told me in New York that the production version won’t use the Wankel engine, which he describes as an interesting experiment. It’s not even clear who’s actually producing Wankel engines these days. So we’re back to square one with Audi’s forthcoming plug-in hybrid. Given the company’s technical focus, I’m sure it will be some kind of tour de force.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter