At a moment in time, when the automotive business is looking all shaky and EV charged, highlights Iain Robertson, it is heart-warming for fans of quality cars that Audi can reveal a consumer-satisfying version of its ever-popular A3 model line.

While SUVs seem to predominate on every carmaker’s ever-lengthening list of latest models, it is interesting to note that, even in a depressed new car scene, there is still a valid place for convention. Small cars, or city cars, are going through several important changes at the moment, not least in respect of the archetypal 1.0-litre ‘triple’ that has powered base models from every brand from Alfa to Volkswagen since the turn of the Millennium. Some are significantly better than others but worries about durability and omnipresent exhaust emissions are causing a rethink.

In the class a half-step above, which I tend to refer to as ‘Baleno-size’ and is vaunted heavily by the South Korean and Japanese manufacturers, business remains fairly stable, if only at a modest ebb. However, the Focus/Golf sector, which is supported by the vitally important UK fleet market and still sells in decent numbers to private buyers – although, to be fair, most of them no longer use their own money for acquisition, relying instead on ultra-competitive lease and rental deals – retains its commercial peak, which means that more than one player can command a sizeable chunk of the UK’s Top Ten Best-sellers. As far as the rest of the dimensional classes are concerned, they fluctuate (mostly downwards) and make observers wonder why some carmakers bother at all, especially during these ‘troubled’ times.Audi-A3-40TFSi-e-5

Of course, Audi, as a brand member of the world’s largest car company, also has its Best-in-Class crown to polish and protect. As VW’s executive model range, it is invariably in direct competition with both BMW and Mercedes-Benz. While Lexus and Jaguar would love the crumbs from the ‘premium brands’ table’ and they do survive (just), neither of them produces comparable models, which means that the German trio can do almost whatever they wish, as long as none of them upsets the apple cart.

Therefore, any development of an existing model has to define its role very carefully, to be certain of maintaining momentum. The Golf-based A3 wins accord by ensuring that its build quality is unbeatable. The application of similar but notionally better-quality materials is essential and this extends to the definition of dashboard graphics, the tactility of soft-touch mouldings, as well as their eye appeal and even the smell within the car. Of course, leather helps in the latter respect but, while influenced by big brother brand Bentley, it is worth mentioning that Bentley has also upped its game by paying close attention to Audi quality. It is important that the brands within VW Group can learn and advance from each other’s experiences.

Although I remain mildly discombobulated by Audi’s numerical engine grades, the latest 40 TFSi plug-in hybrid also happens to be the range’s punchiest, without opting for S, or RS derivatives (where, strangely, the numbering mechanism seems to be absent). Yet, Audi UK’s logic is eminently understandable, as the firm’s UK director states: “Compact hatchbacks are particularly well suited to urban environments, as are electric vehicles, so combining the two formats in a state-of-the-art package that displays all the essential Audi hallmarks creates an attractive proposition for daily commuting and city driving.” Andrew Doyle continues: “The beauty of the new A3 Sportback TFSI e is that it can also reach the city limits well before it reaches its own!”Audi-A3-40TFSi-e-2

Make no bones, I really like hybrids, mostly for their self-charging and power assist capabilities. Factor in plug-in technology, by which a larger lithium-ion battery pack can be fully recharged either domestically (four hours, from ‘flat’), or at several of the available (when they are available) public charging posts, and Mr Doyle’s cute turn of phrase starts to make sense.

In essence, a 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine offers a peak power of 147bhp and develops a cool 184.4lbs ft of torque, which is available between 1,550 and 3,500rpm. In itself, this power unit provides an abundance of mid-range grunt. However, link it to a ‘permanently excited’ synchronous electric motor that is both lighter and more compact than its predecessor, and a greater power density results. Interestingly, it produces a whopping 243.4lbs ft of torque and, as before, it is integrated into the housing of the six-speed S-tronic, twin-clutch, automated-manual transmission.

Together, the 1.4TFSI unit and the electric motor deliver a system output of 201bhp, with a system torque figure, under maximum boost, of 258.1lbs ft. If all those numbers are just confusing, perhaps the outright performance will help to underscore the plug-in hybrid’s potential, as it can sprint from 0-60mph in just 7.3 seconds, on its way to a top whack of 141mph. It is impressive but, according to the WLTP test results, it has the potential of returning up to 282.5mpg (!) with a CO2 output of no more than 31g/km, which is relatively jaw-dropping. The S-tronic ’box drives the front wheels and is equipped with an electric oil pump that maintains lubricant supply and enables gearshifts to continue, even when the engine is deactivated temporarily.Audi-A3-40TFSi-e-3

The A3 40TFSi e can operate for around 41 miles on pure electric power, to a maximum of 87mph, before the petrol engine kicks in. For added surety in built-up areas, it also produces an acoustic vehicle alert system to warn pedestrians of its presence. If the appropriate setting is chosen (S) in the four-mode Drive Select programme, the A3 can also be driven in ‘single-pedal’ mode, by which energy is harvested and fed back into the battery, without needing to depress the brake pedal, other than to stop.

Conclusion:       Boasting a fully digital cockpit that can be tailored to a driver’s specific requirements, plus full connectivity and ADAS equipment, the Audi A3 40TFSi e delivers on all fronts and ensures that, if a fully-electric Audi is still a step too far for some consumers, a part-electrified alternative can act as a viable halfway-house. Prices start at £33,060.