The lightly-trafficked roads of California's Santa Cruz Mountains were practically made for putting a sporty European hatchback through its paces. On a brilliant fall afternoon, belted into the drivers seat of a 2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, I contemplated a mile-long stretch of two-lane that cut through a meadow before disappearing into a stand of redwoods. Its right pedal planted, the e-tron's front tires gnawed at the asphalt before accelerating in a distinctly linear rush, a telltale sign that this was no ordinary A3, but an appealingly packaged plug-in hybrid, and shot across the bow of the all-conquering Toyota Prius.
Perhaps prudent in light of the VW Group's ever-expanding diesel problem, Audi is making a substantial bet that the future of mobility is electric. The A3 e-tron, which takes aim encouraging car-buyers to make the switch, albeit without going cold turkey just yet. While the A3 e-tron looks like a conventional Audi, its bonnet cloaks a 150-horsepower, turbocharged 1.4-litre gasoline engine and a 102-horsepower electric motor which together twist out 258 pound-feet of torque. Adding current to the fire is an 8.8-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, stowed beneath the rear seat. According to Audi, said kilowatt-hours yield an EV-mode range of 17 miles. Top speed in EV mode is 80mph. The A3 charges its battery via regenerative braking and the internal combustion engine, as well as via a 120-/240-volt socket that is cleverly concealed behind the four-ring emblem in the grille.
Discussing the A3 e-tron in San Francisco, Audi of America's director of product management, Filip Brabec, said, "With an overall range of over 400 miles, it provides an easy step into electric mobility. Audi has pursued an approach to developing technologies that provide efficiency without sacrificing performance. And we took care to deliver a package that drives, feels, and looks the way an Audi should."
But Audi went a step further, and it's an intriguing one: partnering with Silicon Valley-based solar-cell maker SunPower to offer $1,400 rebates on the installation of home photovoltaic power systems to A3 e-tron buyers in the US. If Audi — and no small number of competitors — are right, and the cars of the future will run on electrons, all that power has to come from somewhere. Why not rooftops? It might sound fanciful, but to Ajay Chawan, Audi's Electric Mobility Program Manager, it makes perfect sense. There's a clear overlap, he said. People who drive hybrid and electric vehicles are very keen on solar power. Why not capitalise on that enthusiasm to expand the production of renewable energy? A compelling idea, this. Perhaps the path forward is the path of least resistance.
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