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2015 Audi A3 e-tron (Audi)
2015 Audi A3 e-tron (Audi)

First Drive

Audi's first plug-in hybrid is a pleasure to drive Add to ...

California’s Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), is a scenic and spectacular road, extending more than 1,000 winding kilometres along most of California’s breathtaking coastline. Clearly, a convertible is the ideal ride for this backdrop.

But beggars can’t be choosers. My ride isn’t a roadster, it’s a hatchback. However, it does fit with California’s green philosophy, where gas-electric hybrid technology is gaining popularity as a means to improving the environment while reducing dependency on oil. And Audi has jumped firmly aboard that bandwagon with its first plug-in hybrid: the 2015 A3 e-tron.

The A3 e-tron is a five-door hatchback with a 75-kilowatt electric motor coupled with a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine delivering a combined output of 204 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. An 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery pack is stored under the rear seat, but it doesn’t eat up valuable passenger or cargo space. There’s ample head- and legroom for rear-seat passengers who are six feet or taller. The hatchback design translates into excellent cargo space, too – 280 litres, which is more than enough for grocery and shopping bags.

Mated to the engine is a six-speed dual-clutch transmission, which is smooth and quiet – unlike the traditional continuously variable transmission often found in hybrids. This one is a refreshing change and a pleasure to drive.

Our route covers a portion of the PCH along Malibu Beach where I secretly wonder which house is used to tape the sitcom Two and a Half Men. Then it heads inland along twisty Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica Mountains. Travelling uphill, the A3 e-tron doesn’t struggle or feel strained. It’s agile and nimble – unlike like the typically boring granddaddy of hybrids, the Prius.

No, this e-tron is sporty to drive, with serious get-up-and-go. By hybrid standards, off-the-line acceleration is quick, hitting 0-100 km in 7.6 seconds. Behind the wheel, it feels like its gas-powered A3 sedan sibling. You can travel up to 50 kilometres on electric power alone – even at highways speeds – before the four-banger kicks in, extending that range to nearly 940 kilometres. The transition from the gas to electric is seamless.

Parking is a cinch in the compact A3 and three-point turns are a thing of the past. The e-tron’s tight turning radius gets the job done fast.

There are five different driving modes – efficiency, comfort, auto, dynamic and individual – and braking or coasting down hills captures otherwise lost energy to regenerate electricity and recharge the battery. By the time our 100-kilometre route is complete, I have five kilometres of electric range to spare, according to the power meter display in the instrument cluster.

Another dashboard screen displays the energy flow from electricity to gas, the operating range and consumption figures. Fuel consumption is impressive – 53.9 mpg, which converts to a frugal 4.36 litres/100 km. Official fuel economy numbers haven’t been released in Canada yet, but the EU rating is 1.5 litres/100 km.

Recharging the battery is a simple matter of plugging into a standard outlet or the Audi charging wall unit. With the 120-volt outlet, officials say it’ll take seven hours to fully charge; the upgraded 240-volt outlet drops that time significantly to two hours.

The Audi A3 e-tron goes on sale here in early 2015 but Canadian prices aren’t available yet. In Europe, it’ll cost €37,000 ($54,020 Canadian) when it hits the streets in early 2014.

Tech specs

2015 Audi A3 e-tron

Type: Five-door compact luxury hybrid hatchback

Price: Not available

Engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged I-4 + 75-kilowatt electric motor

Horsepower/torque: 204 hp/258 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed dual clutch S-tronic automated manual

Drive: Front-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Not available

Alternatives: BMW i3 range extender hatchback, Lexus CT200h, Acura ILX hybrid, Cadillac ELR

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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