I’m cruising in the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, watching the electric charge bars glow, one by one. Unlike the Chevy Volt, probably the gold standard for plug-in hybrids, an e-tron with a depleted battery can charge on the fly. That’s just one way this sporty entry, due on the American market early next year, can distinguish itself in a still-small but growing cadre that includes the Prius Plug In, the Mitsubishi Outlander (coming soon) and two Ford Energis.

Audi showed a battery-only A3 e-tron, which impressed me during a drive in New York, but decided not to go that route because of concerns about range. The A3 plug-in has no such concerns, with a range of 584 miles on its 1.4-liter gas engine and another 31 in electric-only mode, the drivetrain offers 204 horsepower, and zero to 62 mph in 7.6 seconds.

Audo A3 electric charger is easy to hide

The now-you-see-it, now-you-don't charger. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

The hybrid option adds 300 kilograms to the A3’s weight, meaning 3,395 pounds, but there’s no performance penalty. Aluminum fenders and hood are part of a lightweighting strategy.

Neither fuel economy nor U.S. price (it’s 37,900 euros in Germany) are available yet, but a recent 52-mile drive yielded 37.4 mpg, with 63 percent emission-free electric and 37 percent on gas. Undoubtedly, fuel economy would have been better without using the “increase battery” mode that uses engine power for recharging.

Cargo space isn't compromised because the battery pack is underneath the rear seat on the A3

Cargo space isn't compromised because the battery pack is underneath the rear seat. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Drivers have a range of choices, including staying in EV as long as they don’t accelerate too rapidly (or stray over 130 kilometers per hour). What’s likely to be a popular choice in Europe is a mode that allows conserving battery power for later — as in European city centers where gas cars are prohibited.

There’s plenty of room. The 8.8-kilowatt-hour liquid-cooled battery stores under the rear seat, so you get the benefit of room for three in the back and generous storage under the rear hatch. Charging for such a small battery is 2.5 hours on 240 volts; there’s no DC fast-charging option, but you probably don’t need it.

The EV button on the Audi A3 will give you 31 miles of electric range, but there are other options.

The EV button will give you 31 miles of electric range, but there are other options. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

On the road, the e-tron is spirited, and ultra-quiet in EV mode. With the gas engine it’s quiet, too, except when making a rapid getaway. At 1.4 liters the gas engine works hard, but never gets harsh, and the switch to and from battery mode is hard to detect. Handling doesn’t let the team down, and steering is light but well-weighted.  

There’s only one reason Americans won’t love this car: price, and that’s only a hypothetical. That 37,900 euros translates to $51,500. At that price, the savings on gasoline aren’t going to pencil out from now until doomsday. But Audi’s John Schilling assured me the e-tron will be a fair amount cheaper in the U.S. Good move.

The upscale interior of the Audi A3

It's an upscale interior as befits the $51,500 price in Germany. It's likely to be cheaper in the U.S. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Incidentally, Audi makes a g-tron for Europe, an A3 running on natural gas. Considering how cheap CNG is in the U.S. these days, and the fact that the only natural gas car actually on the market is the Honda Civic, offering the g-tron here would seem a no-brainer. Audi’s Max Huber told me that the idea was considered but rejected because we lack a natural gas infrastructure. It’s true. Most German towns have public stations but we have only about 600. Isn’t that a shame? It’s a made-in-U.S.A. fuel, hugely affordable, and we can’t power our transportation fleet on it for fairly trivial reasons.

My guess is that an all-electric e-tron is coming from Audi, but maybe not for two or three years. The imperatives of California’s zero emission requirements will lead the company to a battery car, but its heart is likely to remain with versatile plug-in hybrids like the A3 e-tron. Here it is on video:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Meet Audi's 'no-compromises' plug-in hybrid
It's the company's first foray into electrics — a sporty hatchback A3 — and it's coming to the U.S. early next year.