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Prototype drive: Audi’s A3 e-tron electric car

A small slice of Audi’s future recently began testing on U.S. roads around the country, but if you look too hard for these prototypes, they’ll probably drive right under your nose.

That’s because rather than spend precious development dollars on a uniquely-designed body that’s more science experiment than it is a practical application, Audi went and hid an all-electric drivetrain under the skin of its well-known A3 hatchback.

Jeff Curry, the head of Audi’s electric vehicle strategy in the U.S., brought one of the 17 A3 e-tron prototypes to Santa Monica this week for a few hours of driving.

Sneak a look under the hood and you’ll notice the turbocharged four-cylinder gas or diesel motors have been replaced by an electric motor routing about 134 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque to the car’s front wheels. The motor is powered by a pair of lithium-ion batteries that pack about 26.5 kilowatt-hours’ worth of juice, and top-speed is about 90 mph.

Range on this e-tron is around 90 miles in optimal conditions, and Audi says this A3 would get about 102 miles per gallon equivalent (for comparison, Nissan’s Leaf gets 99 mpge, while Ford’s Focus EV is rated at 105 mpge).

As with many electric cars, the A3’s batteries are mounted low for optimal weight distribution. In order to keep the orientation of the traditional A3’s cabin intact, one battery is mounted in the center tunnel between the left and right passengers, and another battery is below the load floor in the trunk area. Thus, when you sit in the A3 e-tron, you notice almost no difference between its interior and the interior of the gas-powered model you can buy right now at your local dealer.

The instrument panel has been kept refreshingly simple. The only changes come in the form of the tachometer being replaced by a gauge showing how much power you’re drawing from the battery. Meanwhile, the trip computer has been revised to show real-time stats on range and battery life. All told, the cabin’s construction and layout is as solid as any other Audi. Nothing about it would indicate this A3 is a hyper-limited prototype.

This is no accident, says Curry.

“We want people to have a really easy entry into plug-in vehicles, Curry said. Not this huge radical step but something that’s really easy to integrate into your daily life, so that’s why we based it on the A3.””

Other changes include paddles on the steering wheel that allow drivers to choose one of four different brake-regeneration modes. As you dial up through the settings, the amount of energy the car captures and uses to recharge the batteries (and therefore, the amount of resistance you encounter when you take your foot off the gas) increases. Finally, there are three driving modes that allow the driver efficient, normal or sporty driving dynamics.

Around Santa Monica’s neighborhoods and up PCH into Malibu, the A3 e-tron is similar to other EVs. Acceleration is smooth, if not neck-snapping (three passengers will slow any car down a bit) and it’s always quiet, save for the faint whine exhibited by any electric motor. The brakes are nicely balanced and avoid the tendency to grab hard that some regenerative systems are known for.

One appreciable aspect are the selectable regeneration modes. In heavy traffic or around town, you can often avoid using the brakes at all, and instead keep the system in its most aggressive mode. The moment you take your foot off the gas, the car slows down appreciably. If you’re traveling down a long hill, you can also slip the transmission into B, which will also kick the regenerative system into this aggro mode.

Handling is Audi-tight, despite this A3 e-tron weighing some 400 pounds more than a gas-powered model (batteries aren’t made of cotton, kids). The car’s planted feel comes from the battery placement, which also evens out the car’s weight distribution to an almost 50-50 balance.

If all this sounds like something you’d be interested in driving, you’re a bit out of luck. Unlike pilot programs run by other manufacturers that are testing alternative-fuel technologies like BMW’s ActiveE electric cars or Mercedes-Benz’s F-Cell hydrogen fuel cell, Audi’s e-tron program is only for Audi employees (Curry included; such are the perks when you run a company’s EV program).

Curry says this is a deliberate move. “The idea for us is we don’t want to use our customers as guinea pigs. We want to do all the testing internally before we put these cars with our customers. That’s sort of just a philosophy that’s different than some other manufacturers,” Curry said.
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