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A3 Sportback e-tron: Audi’s high-wattage wizard

About the author

Michael Taylor has been unleashing his clean-striking, slightly quirky views on new cars, news, personalities and features for more than 20 years. A former magazine editor and newspaper motoring editor, Taylor has been based in Italy since 2006 and is an avidly curious student of the world’s car industry.

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The streets of downtown Los Angeles are no place for those short of power and image. That goes double for the cars.

Granted, even Los Angeles’ vehicles must still burn fuel to create mechanical energy, and send it through whizzing, spinning bits before the wheels ever turn. The Audi A3 e-tron isn’t like that. Unlike most cars, it has the ability to drive its front wheels via two motors at once. One of those motors combusts fuel, but the other is purely electric.

Ah, you say, the Toyota Prius and its cohort have been doing that for years. You’d be right, yet the A3 e-tron doubles as a legitimate battery-electric car, something that standard hybrids can manage for at most a few precious miles, and only then at very low speed. The A3 e-tron can do it for 30 miles, and do it rapidly.

Due for a limited global release in 2014, the A3 e-tron is Audi’s answer to the BMW i3, a car that can be configured in gasoline-electric hybrid or purely electric guises. Like the far less glamorous Chevrolet Volt, Audi’s plug-in hybrid can operate as a pure electric car and then let its 1.4-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine take over on longer hauls. Essentially adopting the running gear of the prototype Volkswagen Golf Plug-In Hybrid, the A3 e-tron is nevertheless more sophisticated, nuanced and easier to use.

Audi claims that typical commuters would fill their fuel tanks every three months, instead of once a week. Indeed, even on the European NEDC combined fuel cycle, the A3 e-tron pulls 1.5 litres/100km – roughly equivalent to 157mpg on the US’s EPA cycle – and emits just 35g of CO2/km, but Audi engineers insist that in real-world driving, most of the cars will go weeks without spitting a thing out of their tailpipes. Even with a fuel tank of just 40 litres (10.6gal), Audi insists it will supply a range of 940km (584 miles). It’s not slow, either. Audi reckons the car will punch to 100kph (62mph) in 7.6 seconds, which didn’t feel off the mark at all on Los Angeles’ highway onramps.

A total of 201 horsepower and 258lb-feet of torque stands ready to torture the front tires. Audi sticks the 34kg (75lb) electric motor between the back of the petrol engine and the front of the six-speed dual-clutch transmission. The major benefit to this configuration is that the transmission doesn’t know or care which power source is at work; it merely accepts a bundle of torque and sends it out.

For all those bona fides, the near-final prototype driven in Los Angeles was still a work in progress. Powertrain integration software is rough around the edges, with a frayed seam showing itself when electric mode gives way to combustion mode. “We are killing ourselves to get the mapping of everything right,” said an Audi engineer on hand for the drive. Audi is merely trying to eke more economy out of a 1.4-litre engine that already has cylinder deactivation, direct injection and variable valve timing, he said.

But in electric mode, the car moves off with brilliant assurance, running deftly in any traffic it can find. Unlike mainstream hybrids, the plug-in Audi lets a driver stand on the throttle in full electric mode without the software calling in the combustion cavalry.

It is difficult to say whether the A3 e-tron is indeed capable of the roughly 30 miles of claimed range from a full charge, but our eight-mile drive suggested it was feasible, especially considering a feather foot was not used.

Strong at low speeds and, with the gasoline engine engaged, a high-revving sport hatchback, the e-tron is a compelling package. So compelling, in fact, that the eco-machine could handily run with the GTI/GTD crowd. Audi says it will hit 60kph in 4.9 seconds on its way to 222kph (at higher speeds, the petrol motor takes over completely), so it’s no slouch.

In Sport mode, the electric motor does all the low-end carrying; the petrol unit jumps in at higher speeds. In Hybrid mode, the two swap the lead like dance partners, depending on which might deliver the most fuel-frugal solution in a given moment. Drivers familiar with the Chevy Volt might be surprised how, in Hybrid mode, the e-tron leans on its electric motor so much to punch at low speeds.

At 1,580kg, the e-tron is considerably heavier than the stock A3 four-door hatchback (a car that will bypass the US market when the 2015 A3 begins shipping early in 2014) but it is carrying 125kg worth of lithium-ion batteries, along with upgraded suspension and brakes. Charging its 8.8kWh battery is expected to take roughly four hours at a household 220v outlet. Typically, that calibre of battery rips chunks out of a vehicle’s cargo capacity, but the A3 e-tron manages 280 litres (10cu-ft) with the seats up or a whopping 1,120 litres with them folded flat. This is still the classy, clean Audi A3, with a sharp, thin pop-up multi-media screen, supportive seats and plenty of room for four adults.

Crash-worthiness of big-batteried cars has been a hot topic of late, a fact addressed neatly by Audi. The A3 employs a shut-down system that decouples the electric drive system from the car’s power supply in any collision significant enough to deploy an air bag or seatbelt pre-tensioner, meaning the battery would cease feeding power into the motor.

However convincing this vehicle is, it will not be cheap when Audi announces pricing. Some shoppers will feel compelled to calculate how many years of e-tron ownership must pass before the sizeable up-front investment is recouped.

Smudges otherwise do not adhere to this car. Because the A3 Sportback e-tron is very, very good right now, and it’s not even here yet.