You've read about the BMWi concepts here, but what's with Audi's e-tron program? It seems like every major auto show has something new for us, and it's tough to keep track. It's time for a small primer on what Audi is doing with their latest e-tron concept. It all started with a 2009 R8-derived EV showcar called simply "e-tron," followed by a slightly different concept of the same name in 2010. Confusingly, the e-tron name has since grown to represent a brand of Audi concepts that would be equipped with either a hybrid or hybrid-electric drive system if ever they were to see production. The naming convention may be perplexing, but the philosophy is simple: offer alternative fuel vehicles that maintain the quality and driving dynamics that Audi is known for.

So far, all e-trons have been concepts. In fact, currently in the US, Audi doesn't offer one single hybrid or electric vehicle--though, that is going to change with the introduction of the Q5 hybrid, a CUV powered by a 2.0-liter turbo gas engine paired with an electric motor and lithium-ion battery. This gets fuel economy into diesel territory for Q5, but ask the Germans 'why not just a diesel?' and you get the common answer, 'Americans aren't ready for diesel.' Okay, so we like hybrids and EVs--Audi has plans for us, too.

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

In this week's episode, we got to drive the A3 Sportback e-tron (not to be confused with the plug-in hybrid A3 e-tron sedan shown earlier this year in Shanghai), a small, but very practical luxury hatch that runs only on electricity. Two electric motors bring total output to 100 kW, or about 130 hp, and torque sits at about 199 lb-ft. Energy comes from two lithium-ion batteries, one in the floor and one in the trunk, with a combined capacity of 26.5 kWh. That should be good for 90-100 miles per charge. (It seems that's the sweet spot these days.)

Charging times vary, but you can expect typical times: 4 hours with 240V and 9 hours with 120V. You can also expect Audi driving dynamics. There are even paddle shifters on the wheel; though these are not for shifting, rather they adjust the aggressiveness of the regenerative braking strength from full-on to full-off.

It's these little things that give us faith that Audi plans to make their electrics just as fun as their traditional internal combustion vehicles. And considering the benefits electric cars have (easier designed weight distribution and high torque), we can see plenty of opportunity for fun. Unfortunately, the A3 Sportback e-tron won't be coming to market, at least not in its current form.

Audi A3 e-tron powertrain

Audi likes to develop these cars as concepts in order to learn from them. Audi believes that it's easy to just put a battery in a car and call it electric, but the e-tron name is all about holistic energy consumption. Where the energy comes from and how it's used from the birth of design is important to them. And it should be. Electrics aren't simply the answer, but they could get us there. Imagine that the electricity coming from the power outlet that's recharging your EV isn't from fossil fuels, but good, clean renewables.

One of the challenges left is working out the economics of EVs. For example, A3 TDI has more power and torque, and can go over 500 miles per fill-up. Energy costs are higher, per mile, with the TDI, but the car is also cheaper. Let's hope these lessons Audi is taking from their e-tron concepts help to move the EV game forward.

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