First Drive: Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

Audi A3 e-tron

With fuel economy topping many car buyers' wish lists, plug-in hybrids are becoming increasingly popular, as they offer reduced fuel consumption over standard rivals, without the range anxiety experienced by many electric car users – with a typical electric model only capable of around 100 miles between charges.

The latest petrol-electric hybrid to touch down in the UK is the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron. This five-door hatchback is powered by a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine aided by an electric motor. Thanks to this addition power swells by 53bhp over the standard 148bhp A3 1.4 TFSI, while claimed economy jumps to an impressive 176.6mpg.

As a plug-in hybrid the A3 e-tron competes with models including the Toyota Prius Plug-In, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and Volvo V60 Hybrid, plus range extender electric cars – where a petrol motor keeps the car running if it runs out of charge – such as the BMW i3 Range Extender.

What is it?

The A3 Sportback e-tron is a five-door, five-seater plug-in hybrid, which offers 30 miles of electric-only driving and claimed fuel economy of 176.6mpg. With an electric motor the car offers emissions free driving around town, provided the battery is charged – which can either be achieved by plugging the car into the mains, or using the petrol engine to add extra charge.

This well-equipped model is based on the standard A3 Sport and gains a few extras, such as sat nav. Prices start at £34,950 – though this drops down to £29,950 after the government's £5,000 plug-in car grant. However, this figure is still nearly £6,000 more than the list price for a turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol A3 with an automatic gearbox.

The e-tron has been available to order since August with the first deliveries starting in January 2015.

What's under the bonnet?

The e-tron has a 148bhp petrol motor under the bonnet, along with an electric motor hidden underneath the rear seats. Together they produce 201bhp – enough to launch the e-tron to 62mph in 7.6 seconds, with the addition of an electric motor nearly trebling fuel economy over the standard 1.4-litre petrol equivalent.

Audi A3 e-tron

Audi A3 e-tron

What's the spec like?

This hybrid A3 receives all the same equipment as Sport and a few extras, meaning that most of the kit you could want comes as standard.

Featuring on all e-trons are sat nav, LED headlights, rear parking sensors, automatic headlights and wipers and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Any rivals?

As a plug-in hybrid the A3 competes with the Toyota Prius Plug-in and Vauxhall Ampera, along with the Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. Another petrol-electric alternative is the BMW i3 Range Extender, which returns claimed economy of 470.8mpg and sprightly acceleration.

The Prius is slightly more affordable than the Audi but offers around 40mpg lower claimed economy and much less impressive performance. The Ampera compares more positively with claimed fuel economy of 235.4mpg and performance which lags only slightly behind the German model.

What's it like to drive?

The A3 e-tron's on-road performance is a story of two halves; when driven gently on smooth roads the car is quiet, comfortable and economical, with around 70mpg showing up on the trip computer relatively easily – though this is still drastically short of the car's official economy figure.

Up the speed, however, or take to rougher roads and the A3 e-tron's ride is firm, with the car thrown around by ruts in the road, and lots of road and tyre noise makes its way into the cabin – even on the standard 17-inch alloy wheels. Despite the firm suspension, the car doesn't handle corners too well, with the body bouncing around disconcertingly and the steering failing to provide much feedback.

While under gentler driving the petrol engine is unnoticeable, it can become noisy when driving harder and performance can feel a bit underwhelming, with the engine taking a second to kick in at times. If you set the car to charge the battery economy can also drop to below 40mpg – comparable with the much cheaper standard 1.4-litre petrol model.

AOL Cars Verdict

The e-tron makes sense for drivers who cover longer journeys and cruise at lower speeds, where they can get relatively close to the car's impressive 176.6mpg claimed economy figure – and recoup the higher purchase price with lower petrol costs.

Those who cover 10,000 miles per year, however, would have to wait nearly 10 years to be better off running the e-tron on fuel bills alone, making it a niche purchase.

The A3 has many strengths as a car, but this model's high price, slightly bumpy ride and uninspiring handling around bends mean that the standard 1.4-litre petrol car makes a more sensible – and better value – option for most buyers.

The knowledge

Model: Audi A3 Sportback e-tron 150PS S tronic
Price: £29,950 (after £5,000 government grant)
Engine: Turbocharged 1.4-litre, four-cylinder, electric motor
Power: 201bhp
Max Speed: 137mph
0-62mph: 7.6 seconds
MPG: 176.6mpg
Emissions: 37g/km