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Audi's first hybrid has plenty of spark

The A3 Sportback e-tron can reach 100 km/h in 7.6 seconds

VIENNA, Austria -- The A3 Sportback e-tron is Audi's first try at a plug-in hybrid. As first attempts go, it is a very good one. Remove the decals and cover up the instrumentation and most would be hard pressed to tell it has an electric motor working with a gasoline engine because the hybrid powertrain switches back and forth between its power sources with a rare smoothness. Now, that is the hallmark of a well-sorted system.

The heart of the A3 e-tron is a hybrid powertrain consisting of a 1.4-litre, turbocharged gasoline engine, Audi's six-speed S-tronic twin-clutch transmission and an electric motor sandwiched between the two. The electric side gets its power from an 8.8 kilowatt per hour lithium-ion battery. The engine produces 150 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The electric motor delivers another 100 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque the instant it begins to turn. This brings a net system output of 204 hp and a substantial 258 lb-ft of torque.

In a car that tips the scales at 1,540 kilograms, this equates to a spry performance. The run from rest to 100 kilometres per hour takes 7.6 seconds (the Toyota Prius takes 10.8 seconds), while the 80 to 120 km/h passing move comes in at 4.5 seconds. Both are very quick times for a car, hybrid or not. It also has a top speed of 222 km/h.

Part of the A3 e-tron's allure is its ability to use the liquid-cooled battery to deliver an electric-only driving range of 50 km when it starts with a full charge. On the test drive, I started with a 45 km driving range. The engine came to life 42.6 km later. That, by any measure, is living up to one's word.

The other upside is that, based on the European test cycle, the A3 Sportback e-tron consumes just 1.5 litres of fuel for every 100 kilometres it drives. That is as good or better than other hybrids on the road.

Now, that's the theoretical economy. In practice, I managed an overall drive route average of 3.2 L per 100 km, which is still very frugal. However, had I used the right driving mode (more in a moment) my consumption would have been 2.7 L/100 km.

There are four driving modes. The electric-only mode (EV) is the default unless the weather is extremely cold. The next three are Hybrid Auto, Hybrid Hold and Hybrid Charge. The first mixes and matches the work from the two power sources to maximize efficiency and economy. The Hybrid Hold mode prevents the electric side from coming into play so the driver can save the battery's energy for another time -- with more cities around the world adopting electric-only driving areas, this mode will have its day. The Hybrid Charge mode sees the engine drive the electric motor as well as the car so it can put juice back into the battery. This was my mistake: I chose Charge instead of Auto and so the fuel economy rose needlessly because of the engine's unnecessary workload.

There is one final mode -- Sport. It is engaged through the gear shifter and makes the Sportback feel lithe and alive because everything becomes focused on performance rather than economy.

The anomaly is there is no regenerative braking when the driver lifts off the gas pedal in any mode except Sport. This means when the gas is lifted the A3 e-tron goes into a coast function, which mandates the use of the brake to get any slowing action. Audi says coasting is the most efficient route because it eliminates the need to consume power to return to speed after reducing it through regenerative braking. That may be the case, but the total lack of "engine braking" felt very strange. The saving grace is using the paddle shifters in any of the modes except EV introduces regenerative braking and the slowing effect I wanted.

At first, the e-tron's brake pedal felt artificial because the system uses regenerative braking as the first braking mode. However, a few kilometres behind the wheel and it soon became easy to modulate. In fact, of the hybrids out there, the A3 Sportback e-tron ended up feeling the most natural of the lot.

So, what are the compromises? Frankly, there are virtually none when compared to the TDI version of the A3. The gas tank and regular 12-volt battery sit in what was once the spare tire well. The main lithium-ion battery sits under the rear seat where it is out of the way and protected. The packaging means there is no sacrifice in the cargo capacity or space. As a result, the A3 Sportback e-tron has 280 L of space with the rear seats upright and a full 1,120 L with them folded. The cargo floor is also flat, meaning no teeter-tottering cargo, which is the bane of many compact hatches.

The only other differences are found in the instrumentation. The tachometer goes away in favour of a dial that shows what the system is doing (consuming electricity or making it through regenerative braking) as well as a "fuel" gauge that shows the battery's state of charge. In all else the A3 Sportback e-tron is exactly the same as its normal sibling, which is a very good thing.

The A3 also has the mandatory app that allows the driver to check the relative efficiency of the drive, set the charging time (which allows it to be charged using lower-cost electricity) and it lets the driver turn the air conditioning on and pre-cool the car using grid power rather than battery power.

The final touch is pretty cool: Touching an icon sees the app work like "find my iPhone." It locates the car and overlays its position on a map.

As plug-in hybrids go, the A3 Sportback e-tron is a very good one that delivers exceptional economy when that's the order of the day. It can also deliver all the fun of a sporty hatchback if the focus of the drive switches. Few green cars balance the opposite ends of the driving spectrum quite as well.

The A3 Sportback e-tron will go on sale in the second quarter of 2015, with final pricing and equipment specifications being announced closer to that time.

--Postmedia Network Inc. 2014