I just spent seat time in the Volvo V60 plug-in hybrid, and here comes another one — the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, due here early next year. There’s no American price yet, but I’m hoping it’s not a total killer.

Volvo’s diesel plug-in hybrid sells for more than $80,000 in Europe (the only place that it’s available). That’s kind of scary, though European car prices are traditionally higher than they are in the U.S. We’re going to get a Volvo plug-in that runs on gas, a version of the new XC90 that will also be available early next year.

Volvo's V60 plug-in hybrid is a diesel and sold in Europe only. We're getting a gas version of the XC90. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Volvo's V60 plug-in hybrid is a diesel and sold in Europe only. We're getting a gas version of the XC90. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Don’t expect the Volvo-with-plug to be a whole lot cheaper than the Euro car. Volvo's XC90 will be a high-end car, and the company (indeed every carmaker with a  luxury model) is hoping that some of Tesla's stardust will rub off. It's easy for automakers to be seduced by the fact that so many Americans (indeed, so many people, period) are willing to pay $100,000 or so for one. It's a gamble, though, dependent on the hearts and minds of auto consumers.

Audi is taking a similar approach with electric cars like the e-tron. Audi of America President Scott Keogh told me:

In our point of view, it’s the right car for the marketplace, a compact four-cylinder with real-world drivability and comfort that also gives you battery range. For people wanting to make the leap into the electric world, this is the perfect bridge product — it’s packaged like an Audi, drives like an Audi. Yes, our company is facing challenges from the federal fuel economy mandates and California’s zero-emission vehicle rules, but customers aren’t going to walk in and say, ‘Oh, the poor company, we have to help them out.’ That’s not how it works — we have to come up with a car they’ll desire. The government won’t give automakers credit for building a car that sits in the showroom.
Keogh said that Audi is targeting a “young, affluent” market in cities like Austin, Denver and Portland where it already has a strong presence. It’s not going after the save-the-Earth battery EV buyers, but the tech-minded early adopters. And that’s Volvo’s approach, too. Audi's A3, new to the market, already has a lot of fans, and is a big reason the company saw a 23 percent sales jump in June.

The A3 e-tron is a complex beast.

The A3 e-tron is a complex beast. (Graphic: Audi)

Audi doesn’t have a U.S. price yet, but the e-tron is selling for $51,873 in Europe — a bargain compared to the Volvo, but still quite upper-end. There’s also no volume target, but Keogh said the car is going to be offered to every Audi dealer in the U.S. I can’t imagine many will turn it down, since it’s an appealing package.

Early Euro specs indicate the A3 e-tron, will have a zero-to-60 mph time of 7.6 seconds, with a top speed of 137 mph (and 81 mph in battery mode). It has the exact same electric range — 31 miles — as the Volvo, and can go 584 miles between fill-ups. The battery charges en route, Keogh, said, also an Audi feature (though not shared with the Chevy Volt).

The e-tron weighs about 3,300 pounds, the result of rigorous lightweighting in a car with two drive trains. A 1.4-liter engine and electric motor combine to produce 204 horsepower. Under the rear seat there’s a 96-cell, 8.8-kilowatt-hour battery with active cooling, and it can be charged in less than 2.5 hours at 16 amps.

I haven’t seen the e-tron in the metal, but I like that it’s a pretty usable hatchback, without much compromise from the battery (which also doesn’t add too much weight at 275 pounds). But we come back to price: There’s an opportunity for finding a sweet spot above the Volt, Prius Plug-In and Ford Energis but well below luxury plug-in hybrids like the Cadillac ELR ($75,000!) and (probably) the Volvo. To attract those young urban buyers, I’d like to see the e-tron offered at less than its European price. Could they do $45,000?

The Volvo XC90 will attract a following as a green-themed seven-seat utility vehicle for people who care about the company's safety reputation, but a really high U.S. price is going to scare away American customers. At the very least, the plug-in hybrid shouldn’t be priced higher than the ELR. And a really big fuel economy premium over regular versions of the XC90 will help also.

Tesla is indeed instructive up to a point, but no other automaker has been yet able to capitalize on its lessons. The key, as Keogh said, is to create an object of desire. The Model S is obviously that — everybody and his brother wants one, whether they care about the environment or not. The unseen Volvo and unpriced e-tron aren’t that yet, but they might yet light fires in the breasts of American auto enthusiasts.

Here's a closer look at the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron on video:

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