The selection of plug-in vehicles available to US buyers continues to grow steadily – it now stands at 27 models, with several more expected this year. The latest entrant to the market is the 2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, the German luxury brand’s first plug-in model available in the US.
Every time a new plug-in car goes on sale, the EV press pours out the pixels pontificating on whether it will end up being an electric success story, or be written off as “just another compliance car.” The ranks of the former are few, and it’s becoming more and more obvious that this has little to do with the relative quality or value proposition of the vehicles in question, and much to do with an automaker’s commitment to marketing them, and producing them in sufficient quantity.
Of course, it will take a couple of years to tell if Audi’s new PHEV is destined for stardom or not, but as it arrived in US dealerships right around the turn of the new year, there were already some encouraging signs.
The A3 e-tron went on sale in Europe about a year ago, and has been moving quite well. According to the EV Sales Blog, it sold 11,711 units in Europe in 2015, earning the #7 spot among all plug-in models, and handily beating PHEVs from Volvo and Mercedes. Audi tells us that its new plug-in represents over 1% of the brand’s total sales in Europe – and a whopping 25% in EV-friendly Norway and the Netherlands.
Here in the US, the A3 e-tron is rolling out to all 50 states right away – unlike many competing plug-ins. Of Audi’s 287 US dealers, all but 6 have opted to sell the e-tron, which requires special training for mechanics and sales staff (less encouraging: reports that some dealers have asked Audi to produce a non-plug-in version).
Another reason for optimism – again, unlike so many other plug-ins on the market – is that the A3 e-tron carries only a small price premium over a comparable non-plug-in Audi. MSRP starts at $37,900, and the e-tron is eligible for a federal tax credit of $4,158, which brings the net cost to within $3,000 of the base MSRP of the legacy A3.
The A3 Sportback is the first of several models planned for the e-tron sub-brand. Charged spoke with Ajay Chawan, Audi of America’s Electric Mobility Program Manager, about the company’s plans for the plug-in Audi. Chawan has worked in the auto industry since the 1990s, and before joining Audi, he was the US Production Launch Manager for the Nissan LEAF.
“The goal for this vehicle was to make it, first and foremost, an Audi,” said Chawan. “It has the profile an Audi customer expects, as far as finish, overall performance, handling, look, feel, touch. So, to that end, when the decisions were being made about what kind of hybrid systems we wanted to go with, we decided to go with the parallel hybrid, and that enabled the car to have the performance and driving dynamic that it does.”
Audi designed the e-tron’s two power plants to work together as a seamless system – and judging by the first drive reviews, it succeeded admirably.
The disc-shaped electric motor is integrated into the six-speed S tronic transmission, which drives the front wheels. The motor develops peak torque from zero to around 2,000 rpm, and the gas engine’s maximum power kicks in between 1,750 and 4,000 rpm. The electric motor starts the combustion engine via a clutch.
“One of the biggest engineering efforts that we put into this car has to do with the transition of the electric to combustion and back,” Filip Brabec, Audi of America’s Director of Product Management, told Green Car Congress. “When we start the engine with the electric motor, we increase the output of the electric motor to accommodate starting the engine. We have a clutch that engages and connects the two, that gets the engine going. Once the oil pressure builds up to a sufficient level, we run the engine at zero load, at which point we disconnect the two again. Once the engine catches up with the electric motor, we engage again. That’s how we make sure the transition is very smooth throughout.”
The battery pack is made up of 96 prismatic cells arranged in eight modules of twelve cells each. The e-tron is designed to be driven on electric power in broiling summers and sub-zero winters. The pack features a liquid cooling system that can also cool the power electronics and charger if necessary.
Audi deserves kudos for the portable charging unit that comes as standard equipment with the e-tron. Some automakers may steer plug-in buyers to custom-installed home charging stations, but most A3 e-tron drivers will find the portable charging unit quite adequate. It has a control unit with a graphical display, and two power cables with 120 V and 240 V plugs. It can be mounted in an optional lockable wall box.
The A3 e-tron illustrates the difference that tires can make to fuel economy ratings. Equipped with the standard 17- or 18-inch all-season tires, electric range is 16 miles, and combined fuel economy is 35 mpg. The optional Ultra package includes 16-inch low-rolling-resistance summer tires, which increase the range to 17 miles and fuel economy to 39 mpg.
Four ways to drive electric
The A3 e-tron features four user-selectable driving modes. “When you start up the car, it’ll start in EV mode, where it’s operating purely on the battery,” Chawan explains. “The second mode is Hybrid mode, and that’s what I call the ‘set it and forget it’ mode. The car will automatically change between electric or gas, or electric plus gas, depending on how you’re driving.”
“The third mode is Hold Battery. This is designed for a lot of city driving. For example, I live in the suburbs and I drive into Washington DC. I’ll use my gas motor on the highway, but once I get into Washington gridlock, I’ll switch it over to EV mode. If you’re sitting in traffic idling, you’re not burning fuel – you have a battery pack that you’re minimally draining as you’re waiting at a red light. Hold Battery enables me to tell the car what I want to do.”
“The last mode is Charge Battery. So, if I’m working late in DC, I drive home on the highway, my battery’s depleted because I’ve been driving around in DC all day, I can use the gasoline motor to charge my battery while I drive home. Once I get into my neighborhood, I can put it into EV mode and quietly sneak into my driveway without waking people up.”
Dealing with the dealers
By now, it’s been well documented that conservative and EV-skeptical auto dealers represent a major obstacle to plug-in sales success. Any automaker that’s serious about selling its electrified models needs to find a way to bring its dealerships on board. Chawan told us what Audi is doing to get its dealers excited about the e-tron sub-brand.
“This was an opt-in program, where we presented the vehicle and the program to our dealers, and we invited them to participate,” said Chawan. “I’m exceptionally pleased that just about everyone is carrying the car.”
Audi did a combination of regional training, bringing dealership staff to venues across the US, and local training at individual dealer locations.
“We would get them behind the wheel of the car, just so they would understand what it was like to drive it, and what were the key differences between an A3 e-tron and a conventional vehicle – what were the unique selling propositions about this car. We took a car to dealers, so that everyone at the dealership – from the receptionist to service techs to porters – could see the car, put their hands on it, and take it around the block.”
The attractive price point is no accident. “We wanted to make the A3 e-tron a mainstream car. We didn’t want this to be a niche car. We wanted to make sure it was priced competitively in the space. So, it fit well within the Audi portfolio, as far as the price goes, and also within the overall marketplace.”
“Plugging in changes everything, and there’s no looking back.”
On the advertising front, Audi has already attracted some attention with a clever campaign that compares its decision to plug in the A3 to Bob Dylan’s historic decision to plug in his guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival (Audi was a sponsor of the 2015 festival). A promotional video features interviews with aging festival founders who recall that, while some of the crowd may have booed the new technology, others recognized it as a force to be reckoned with.
Taking a page from the typical EV-maker’s playbook, Audi has also been organizing events to market the e-tron to selected trendy demographic groups that seem likely to be interested in plug-ins. “For a pre-market introduction, we went on an 8-city tour with a fleet of 30 cars, with the mission of getting as many people as we could behind the wheel,” said Chawan. “That’s what’s going to convince people that this is a viable car to drive.”
“We have an experiential marketing team, and we’ll work with them to find a venue and have an event. We’ll set up a program for a day or a couple of days – we have professional drivers available and then, most importantly, have a list of prospective customers that we would reach out to directly, and invite them to come out [for a test drive].”
“This is a different driving experience, and you can’t really describe it to somebody. It’s something that a consumer has to experience firsthand. So what we tell them is get behind the wheel of the car, and just see what it is to drive an electrified car versus your conventional combustion engine car, and you can see and feel the difference. Then, on paper, you can quantify it costs less per mile. It’s usually 4 cents per mile to drive electric, versus 16 for gas.”
This article originally appeared in Charged Issue 23 – January/February 2016. Subscribe now.