Audi of America
Of all the Leafs, Volts, Teslas and Karmas, Audi’s E-tron moniker is most redolent of sci-fi films and the utopian promise of a brave, new, petrol-free world.
But like a long-gestating James Cameron epic, the purely electric A3 E-tron hatchback I drove Tuesday in Brooklyn and Manhattan won’t reach American audiences until 2014, according to Audi executives. And even then, it will be based on an entirely new chassis and body, and will take the form of only a sedan. Audi recently said that a plug-in hybrid version of that A3 would beat the full E.V. to showrooms.
Those developments made it doubly difficult to judge Audi’s electric progress against faster-to-market competitors. Yet on a workaday crawl through Manhattan, the A3 E-tron did offer a feel for Audi’s electric philosophy: fewer leaf-sprouting display screens and other electro-gimmicks, and more attention to transparent operation and luxurious feel.
The Audi manages to pack 26.5 kilowatt hours of batteries, 2.5 kWh more than the Leaf, below its hatch floor and transmission tunnel without losing a whit of trunk space, a nice upgrade from cargo-challenged models like the new Ford Focus Electric. Eliminating the gas engine or TDI diesel also gives the electric A3 nearly 50-50 weight balance, a significant edge over the nose-heavy standard models, with their 62-38 ratio. Even so, at 3,600 pounds, the E-tron weighs about 400 pounds more than the gasoline version, and the low-weighted, bricklike feel of the Leaf and other E.V.’s was apparent here as well.
A big electric motor provides the equivalent of 134 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque, good for a squirt from zero to 60 miles per hour in roughly 11 seconds, Audi claims. That’s decidedly slower than petrol-fueled models, but as with most E.V.’s, the instant-on torque makes the car feel plenty quick in traffic — that is, up to 89 m.p.h., the A3 E-tron’s limited top speed.
Audi cites an optimal 92-mile driving range, but closer to 70-75 miles in average real-world conditions. And while this Audi featured a 3.3-kilowatt onboard charger, Jeff Curry, a brand spokesman, said a production version would be upgraded to the 6.6-kW units quickly becoming the industry standard. Those units can zap a battery full in about four hours, and Audi says D.C. charge capability, which can deliver an 80-percent charge in 30 minutes, is also part of the plan.
Instruments are blessedly simple, including a driving-range meter nearly identical to a typical gas gauge. And in every other respect, the Audi feels like a typical Audi, with pleasing steering and a quiet, rock-solid structure.
The E-tron’s coolest feature? Like the Fisker Karma, this car allows the driver to adjust the intensity of energy-capturing regenerative braking, here offering four preset modes to the Karma’s three, which can be selected with paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. For drivers like me who don’t always want ultra-aggressive deceleration the instant I lift off the throttle, as in BMW’s electrified Mini E, I can choose a gentler setting that is more suited to freeways and other high-speed situations. It’s something that every E.V. should imitate.
Mr. Curry said Audi had 17 A3-based E-trons in the country, with engineers and company employees testing them to work out the bugs.
Other automakers, notably BMW with its Mini E and its 1 Series-based ActiveE, take a different tack, recruiting actual consumers — “electronauts,” in BMW’s parlance — to lease small numbers of E.V.’s in test fleets and provide real-world feedback. Those consumers, given access to rarecars and even rarer access to company executives and engineers, get nearly giddy over their personal role in the electric future, morphing into spokespeople for the brand and ideal prospects for coming models.
So why can’t early adopters raise their hands and wrap them around this juiced Audi, even in modest numbers?
“We don’t beta test on our customers,” Mr. Curry said. “We want to use our own learning to finish the car for the market, rather than have people deal with teething problems.”