Keeping current

It's a hatchback, but that's not the point. It's a hybrid, but that's not the point, either. Audi's A3 Sportback e-tron plug-in hybrid is the tip of an electrified iceberg for the German luxury brand with a wave of electrics coming our way. And they cannot come soon enough to wipe clean the stain caused by the larger VW Group's emissions cheating scandal, still generating news as this is written. Some 11,000 prior-generation A3 Sportbacks were also powered by offending 2.0-liter TDI diesel engines. You therefore might think of the little A3 as both the dark and the light bookends to the VW Group's emissions saga.

Audi launched the A3 sedan in the U.S. last year and it quickly caught on, grabbing 40 percent of the market in which it plays, with three quarters of those sales going to first-time buyers. These stats are nothing to scoff at, by the way. A new player rarely ends up playing the proper tune in the entry-luxury segment and the A3 has done exactly what it was designed to do for the brand. It's brought new people into the Audi fold, the all-too-rare mother's milk of brand expansion. Now, with the new e-tron plug-in hybrid version, Audi hopes the driving and owning experience matches the upper echelon of the Audi stable, making any concession to its powertrain minimal or nonexistent. 

Keeping Current in the 2016 Audi A3 e-tron Plug-In Hybrid: First Drive

Because of its hatchback design, the A3 e-tron offers better versatility than the A3 sedan. Large and oddly-shaped objects fit better. Europeans continue to question why Americans have an aversion to this body style across automotive genres and logically, we shouldn't. But the full embrace of hatchbacks in 'Murica swims upstream against memories of gas lines, a terrible economy, painfully boring cars and the pathological ennui that beset us Americans in the 1970s and early 1980s. This period bore rotten automotive fruit in the Chevy Chevettes and Ford Pintos of the age. So, Americans still bear the scars of that time. The two toughest nuts to crack with a hybrid vehicle like this, where the expectation of driving refinement is a few notches upstream from the Priuses and Volts of the world, are the transitions of electric drive to combustion drive and back. Here, the A3 certainly segues more elegantly from mode to mode, from drive system to drive system. The A3 e-tron's 75-kilowatt electric motor/generator is driven by an 8.8 kW/h lithium-ion battery pack – all 96 liquid-cooled cells of it – riding along under the rear seat while that other 20th-Century energy storage space in the form of a 10.6-gallon fuel tank tucks below the cargo floor. Because of this, there's no spare tire and Audi fits a repair kit instead. RELATED: See images of the 2012 Audi A3 e-tron

Keeping Current in the 2016 Audi A3 e-tron Plug-In Hybrid: First Drive

But the e-tron's electrons really play a supporting role. The main power player is a 150-hp, 1.4-liter gasoline engine hooked to a six-speed, dual-clutch transmission driving the front wheels (no quattro all-wheel-drive for this hybrid). The A3 e-tron offers four powertrain drive modes, but most driving conditions call for Hybrid mode, wherein the power source delivering thrust (combustion engine, pure electric or a hybrid of both) is chosen automatically for highest energy efficiency. In EV mode, electric-only power is enabled. Hold Battery mode reserves maximum charge or, put another way, expends minimal energy. Charge Battery mode switches on battery charging opportunities like downhill regeneration, etc. to maximum advantage. Time to reach full charge on 120 volts is 8 hours, which drops to 2 hours, 15 minutes when using 240 volts. Inside the battery, 12 cells in each of eight modules net 96 total cells, all tempered by a cooling system throughout the unit. Audi suggests it's a life-long battery and is therefore covered by an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty. The electric motor/generator actually runs the entire electrical system. There's no alternator and no starter motor for the 1.4-liter gasoline engine. That's all done through the electric motor/generator. The turbocharged four-cylinder's 150 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque combines with the electric motor/generator's 102 hp for a total drivetrain output of 204 hp and 258 lb-ft. (Yes, 150 combustion hp plus 102 electric hp equals 204 total; these horses do not stack on top of each other; there's interplay between them resulting in losses when you're going fast and furious.) Top outright speed is 130 mph, and top pure-EV speed is 80 mph, though when soliciting max electric-only speed, I saw only 75 mph, so max electric velocity seems to be charge-dependent. Gunning from a dead stop to 60 miles per hour takes 7.6 seconds, all motors and engines pumping away at full chat. 

Keeping Current in the 2016 Audi A3 e-tron Plug-In Hybrid: First Drive

On pure electric drive, Audi claims 16 to 17 miles of driving range, or enough for the average commute. But there's no guarantee that when you hit traffic and apoplectically curse the traffic Gods, continuing to run the various non-essentials in the car while you have your fit will retain that 16-17 mile range. (For example, the brake booster, A/C compressor and steering assist are all electric, so that the combustion engine need not be running to deliver the goods.) Total combined driving range is an impressive 400 miles with a claimed MPGe rating of 83-86 miles per gallon and with 33 city/37 highway/35 mpg combined for the combustion engine alone. A percentage of power gauge ("powerometer?") replaces the conventional tachometer in the e-tron's instrument panel. It indicates powertrain status at any moment, from actively charging, stasis, or if all systems are at full thrust, pushing the dial into the "boost" zone. Though you might consider this dial merely a visual representation of your throttle position, it is not. A multifunction display between the powerometer and speedometer offer information and graphics on the flow of charging power, cruise control, and even pictograms a tachometer. Overall, the typical Audi-like interior is simple, yet elegant with a touch of sport. The mobile charger pack that comes with the A3 e-tron provides both 120- and 240-volt cables. While customers need not buy it, Audi makes a rather handsome wall cabinet for the cables. A permanent 240-volt garage charger is also available. When plugging the car in, the car's charging port is revealed by a swing-out, four-ring Audi grille badge.

Keeping Current in the 2016 Audi A3 e-tron Plug-In Hybrid: First Drive

Through a smartphone app, the A3 e-tron can inform you about the status of your door locks, lights, trip stats, last parking position, and can even wake the ventilation system to condition the cabin before you reach the car. In the real world when going about everyday driving, the A3 e-tron behaves like a conventionally powered A3 sedan. Very competent, quiet and without much fanfare from the drivetrain and that was exactly the aim. Throttle response is sedate, sometimes even poor, but really no worse than most other hybrids or pure-electric cars. Audi's MMI interface for navigation, climate, audio and all manner of other entertainment on offer inside proves to be among the most intuitive systems in the market. The A3 e-tron is no hot rod but that's not the mission. And while it's also not in the same segment as other small plug-in hybrids, the A3 e-tron's pure-electric range fall shy of the range from other less-expensive cars like Ford's Fusion Energi and Chevy's Volt. The A3 e-tron's pricing picture is rather complicated with incentives and tax credits, but it all starts at $38,825 (including destination charge), of which $4,168 falls away as a Federal tax credit, with another $1,500 dropped if you're in California, making final figures $33,157 for Californians or $34,657 for the rest of us. Uplevel trims add full LED headlights, the aforementioned MMI interface, navigation, voice control, even a 705-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system, all for added cost.

Keeping Current in the 2016 Audi A3 e-tron Plug-In Hybrid: First Drive

An entirely competent Audi, for sure. A compelling plug-in hybrid? For Audi- and other luxury-intenders, yes, but not for the masses looking for a less expensive plug-in conveyance. Audi's play here resides within its own niche. Where some other brands offer plug-in hybrids at a lower cost, they also look, feel and smell like compliance cars; cars forced into production to meet regulations. The A3 e-tron is an Audi for an Audi audience. And there will be more Audi plug-ins in the future, making this the tip of an electric Audi iceberg. 

Specs: Engines: 2.0-liter TFSI; 75kW electric motor Horsepower: 204 total 0-60: 7.6 seconds Base price: $38,825 ($34,657 including federal tax rebate)

Positives: Refined Quiet Excellent MMI multifunction navi/entertainment interface Cargo space

Negatives: Bland for an Audi Shy on EV-mode driving range (16-17 miles) Sedate throttle response

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