Audi plans to make electrification an integral part of its lineup and the 2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, which hits showrooms across the country in November, is a first step. Previous experience with its Euro-spec sibling left us eager to slip behind the wheel of a U.S. version of Audi's stylish plug-in hybrid. Our initial encounter - a brief but enlightening drive through California's Silicon Valley - made it clear the e-tron A3 has what it takes to be a formidable player in this emerging market segment. 

As in Europe, our A3 Sportback e-tron has a 1.4-liter/150-horsepower turbocharged TFSI 4-cylinder gasoline engine matched with a 102-horse electric motor sitting mated to a modified 6-speed S tronic automatic transmission that features Drive and Sport modes. Driving the front wheels, the combo turns out a collective 204 horses and 258 lb-ft of torque, which gives it brisk off-the-line response and is sufficient to send the 3,616-pound Sportback e-tron from 0-60 mph in 7.6 seconds.

High mileage

Energizing the motor is a liquid-cooled 8.8kWh lithium-ion pack neatly positioned under the rear seat while a 10.6 gallon gas tank sits in the area usually reserved for the conventional spare tire - here replaced by a compact inflator kit. Offering a 16-17-mile per-charge range, the A3 Sportback e-tron can hit 80 mph on battery power alone or reach an electronically limited top end of 130 mph in Hybrid mode. While yet to be finalized, this plug-in Audi is expected to earn an 83 MPGe overall EPA rating. It's also projected to get combined numbers of 35-39 mpg, depending on tire fitment, to net a total range of slightly more than 400 miles.

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Although sharing a good deal of basic platform engineering with the A3 Sedan, the Sportback-only e-tron does distinguish its hatch body configuration with exterior accents that include a unique grille that conceals the charging port behind its sliding Audi logo along with bolder bumper graphics and side sills, a rear spoiler and a diffuser with hidden exhausts to emphasize its eco-friendlier theme --  all set off with a selection of 16-inch, 17-inch and 18-inch alloy wheels.

Sporty, refined and efficient 

Despite weighing about 400 pounds more than an A3 4-door, the Sportback e-tron's well-tuned chassis lets this front-driver ride and handle in a confident manner whether operating in EV, Hybrid, Hold Battery or Charge Battery mode that uses the engine. More aggressive regenerative braking programming gives additional charge on the fly. On that point, Audi did a first-rate job of endowing the Sportback's brakes with a fairly natural feel under all conditions. The new A3 e-tron also incorporates an efficiency-enhancing "gliding" function that decouples the engine and motor if the driver lifts off the accelerator pedal when the car is cruising. Finally, Audi Drive Select adds yet another level of dynamic personalization to the Sportback's engaging character.

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Hoping to attract both current plug-in owners looking to step up from a Ford Fusion/C-Max Energi or Prius Plug-in as well as EV-lite newbies, Audi has packaged the A3 Sportback e-tron in Premium, Premium Plus and Prestige trims. These open at $38,825, $42,925 and $47,725, respectively, before $4,168 in Federal tax credits or any state/local incentives. Even the Premium spec includes touches like leather upholstery, power seats, dual-zone climate control, a Panoramic sunroof, 10-speaker sound system with SiriusXM and HD Radio, Bluetooth, 4G LTE Connectivity and AudiConnect apps. It also comes with a 240V home power supply that plugs into a home line and reduces charging time from 8 hours on a 120V outlet to about 2 hours 15 minutes.An 8-year/100,000-mile warranty on the battery pack further adds to its appeal. Moving up through the Premium Plus and Premier grades further richens the mix with items like LED headlamps, voice-control MMI Navigation Plus, a 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system and a full range of driver assists. 

Stressing the 2016 A3 Sportback e-tron is no mere "compliance car," Audi notes it will be available in all but six of its 287 U.S. dealerships. While it can't claim the lowest sticker price nor longest EV range, the Sportback e-tron's impressive combination of features, frugality and driving fun make it a player worth checking out.

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