Mega (e-)tron Audi A3 plug-in hatchback a planet-protecting fuel saver that’s not short on gas

Audi introduced the 2016 A3 ‘e-tron’ electric-gas Sportback a couple of months ago.

By unveiling a high-tech, four-door car priced below $38,000 that also happens to be gas-electric, Audi seems to cut through all excuses for avoiding a plug-in car purchase.

Buyers of the 2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron most likely would come from a familiar group for electric cars — motorists who want to curb air emissions. But shoppers also would arise from another, overlapping troop. “People who want to save money,” said John White, sales associate at McDaniels Audi of Charleston. “Gas is not going to be low forever.”

Audi introduced the energy-saving car, which lists 39 mpg combined highway and city, and 83 mpg in electric mode, in the past couple of months just as gas prices dipped to some of their lowest levels in years. On top of that, South Carolina periodically lists the lowest fuel costs in the country.

Still, the German carmaker designed the plug-in version of its popular A3 to appeal to traditional car buyers, as well as those with an environmentally-conscious bent. It can officially travel 15 to 17 miles solely in electric mode (McDaniels managers estimate closer to 25 to 30 miles) with the gas engine kicking in when necessary and via driver controls.

The curvy, five-passenger model posts a standard price of $37,900. It arrives in three styles: Premium, Premium Plus and Prestige. A nicely-equipped Prestige edition at the dealership had a sticker price around $46,000.

According to Audi Academy information provided by the McDaniels dealership, the front-wheel-drive A3 e-tron matches a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine producing 150 horsepower with a 102 hp “E-motor” charged by a lithium-ion battery. Together, the engines generate 204 hp of “sporty high-end power” and 258 pounds-feet of pick-me-up torque at low speeds.

There are four power “modes,” the guide explains, as follows:

• EV, which the car starts up in when charged. “Power is delivered only by the electric motor,” and the gas engine only kicks in when the driver pushes all the way down on the accelerator, Audi notes. Also, when the high-voltage battery’s depleted, the car automatically switches to “hold battery” mode.

• Hybrid, considered “ideal for driving long distances.” The mode automatically figures out “the most efficient way to power the wheels” based on speed, among other driving factors.

• Hold Battery, designed to save the electric charge “for more efficient driving later” or to boost the charge. The driver can access the mode by shifting gears from D (drive) to S (sport): “The car will run mainly on the gas engine.”

• Charge Battery, “perfect for longer drives” on open highway when constant battery charging is desired. The gas engine powers the wheels and helps recharge the battery.

While designing the new engine characteristics, Audi also restyled the A3’s body and interior. The hatchback comes standard with 17-inch wheels and can include a panoramic roof opening all the way to the second-row seats. The communications and navigation system includes satellite radio and Bluetooth hands-free phone use. The center console boasts toggles, knobs and a tiny writing pad where you can scribble out an address with your finger. The steering wheel features a roller to launch voice activation. Screen-accessed maps include an optional real-life Google Earth overlay, and a Wi-Fi “hot spot” enables Internet use.

Audi’s push to install powerful yet energy-saving light-emitting diode bulbs on its vehicles continues with the A3 Sportback. “Everything’s LED on this one,” said Scott Firth, general manager at McDaniels Audi of Charleston.

Based on a test drive last month, the new A3 showcases the strengths of a hybrid car. The vehicle can be plugged in via special mounts at home or in parking garage charging stations. Owners can juice the battery while also taking advantage of ample horsepower to tackle higher-speed zones.

A color-coated gauge in the driver display screen permits motorists to compute the share of gas and electricity being used at any one time and the miles to empty or depleted for the fuel tank or battery.

Beyond the viewing gauges and the plug built into the front grille, the driver can’t really tell the hatchback is an EV or hybrid, at least from the drive.

The model shows its quickness in traffic and on the highway with a six-speed automatic transmission and adds a boost when converted to the high performance “dynamic” ride at the turn of a knob. The alternative comfort mode lags a little but proves a smooth journey in city driving. The motorist can also shift to a manual mode without a clutch, which is also perky.

Brakes were responsive, noticeably when coming up on slowed traffic on Interstate 526. Squares on the side view mirror light up when a car is passing on either side on a multi-lane highway.

The A3 turned out to be fairly roomy for a smaller luxury car, with more than adequate space in the second-row seats and comfortable front row. The cargo hold was good-sized. Audio, climate control and navigation switches clustered in the center console were easy to use.

From an improvements standpoint, the A3 could have installed larger drink holders that were closer together. The fuel gauges, while striking, didn’t provide easy-to-find specific information on how to squeeze higher electric usage from the hatchback.

But the A3 mastered a big point: The vehicle proved that an EV or hybrid can be attractive, speedy and fuel-saving all at once, providing you with the peace of mind that you’re helping the environment and don’t have to fear being stranded on the side of the road when the battery’s drained.

Reach Jim Parker at 843-937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.