By Jonathan Welsh

Jonathan Welsh
Audi’s electric A3 prototype was a pleasant drive on Manhattan’s congested streets.

As the first wave of electric cars, including the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus electric and Mitsubishi i-MiEV enter the market, other battery-powered vehicles are tentatively dipping their toes.

Upstart electric-car maker Tesla Motors has begun delivering its Model S luxury sedans and BMW, Audi and others are testing electric models with employees or selected consumers.

I took a short drive this week in an Audi A3 prototype with the company’s e-tron electric power system.  Like other electric cars I have driven, the A3 accelerated briskly and felt especially at home in city driving, where “low-end” torque is more important than raw horsepower for maneuvering assertively in traffic.

The e-tron’s electric motor normally puts out 60 kilowatts or about 82 horsepower but can generate a peak of 114 horsepower. Maximum torque is 199 lb-ft, directed to the front wheels though a single-speed transmission. The car accelerates to 60 mph in about 11 seconds and has a top speed around 90 mph.

While its acceleration time and top speed can’t match the typical gasoline-powered car, the A3 e-tron feels quick on the road, especially in the range of zero to 10 or 25 miles an hour. In everyday driving the lack of engine noise is more noticeable than any change in power. Indeed the relative silence of the Audi adds to its luxury-car  feel. A leather-trimmed interior with attractive stitching and other details also give the A3 a high-end quality absent in other more bare-bones electric models.

Power comes from a 26.5 kWh lithium-ion battery located in multiple units under the luggage compartment, under the rear seat and in the center tunnel between the seats. In this configuration, Audi says, the car doesn’t lose passenger or cargo space to the batteries. Heat from the batteries that would otherwise be wasted is used to heat the cabin.

The A3 e-tron can travel about 87 miles on a charge and can be recharged in about nine hours with a 220-volt household socket. The driver can choose among three driving modes – dynamic, auto and efficiency — and four settings that adjust the degree of energy recovery during braking and coasting.

The car maker plans to begin rolling out a plug-in hybrid version of the  A3 in 2014, also under the e-tron banner, with other plug -in models expected. Audi said it is still evaluating the market for pure electric models like the one I drove.

By Jonathan Welsh