By Ariel Schwartz
From the outside, you probably wouldn't guess that the Audi A3 E-tron prototype is an electric car. You might not guess it from the inside, either--the vehicle starts with a key instead of a button like other EVs, and it has a touch screen that's virtually identical to what you'd find in a gas-guzzling Audi A3. It is, in other words, the perfect car for people who find EVs a little alien.
I had the chance to test drive the prototype A3 E-tron at the Greenbuild conference in San Francisco. It was a short ride--about 15 minutes in the downtown area--and I didn't get to check out how the car performs at high speeds. I was mostly in stop-and-go traffic, but this was the perfect chance to test the vehicle's multiple levels of coasting regeneration. Instead of the harsh deceleration that often comes with regenerative braking (this is ideal for traffic but not for higher-speed driving), the multiple levels let you adjust how quickly the car rolls to a stop upon lifting your foot off the gas pedal.
The E-tron is impressive under the hood: It has a liquid and air cooling system to preserve the battery pack, which is split between the spaces under the trunk and passenger area--a clever modification of the gas-powered A3 that ensures no actual trunk space is taken up by the battery pack.
Audi's vehicle gets 87 miles of range, which is more than enough for most city drivers. And it can get an 80% charge in 30 minutes with a DC charger. So far, feedback has been positive, according to Jeff Curry, Audi of America's director of e-mobility. He says in an email: "The feedback on the A3 E-tron has confirmed that electric driving is not the case of making compromises, but actually brings a new dimension to Audi. The car fits easily into everyday life and, importantly, demonstrates the role of a premium brand electric car as a part of your household fleet."
A plug-in version of the A3 is expected to roll out in 2014. In the meantime, Audi employees are testing out the vehicle. "We aren't handing down a strategy from the top and asking our people to execute it, but instead are working together as an Audi team to define the E-tron launch plan based on real-world experience driving an Audi EV," says Curry.
Anyone anxiously waiting for the rumored Audi electric supercar, however, will be disappointed. Those plans have been scrapped. You'll have to be content with just normal electric-powered speeds.
Copyright 2012 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.