I went for a spin in the Volkswagen Group's future this week.

I drove around Oakland County, Mich., in the automaker's first electric vehicle and the first U.S.-bound car to use VW's madly innovative new MQB architecture.

The e-Golf I drove had the current model's body, but used the electric drivetrain VW will sell in California and the other states that require EVs late next year.

VW expects the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to rate it at 100 miles on a full charge. It'll take about eight hours to charge the e-Golf from empty with a 240-volt charger, but an 80 percent charge will only take 30 minutes. Top speed will be 85 mph.

The engineering car I drove was quick and silent, with a T-shaped, 701-pound battery in its floor that lowers the Golf's center of gravity.

VW will announce prices next year, not long before e-Golfs go on sale.

The MQB vehicle architecture is at the heart of nearly everything the VW and Audi will do over the next decade. It's a revolutionary set of parts and structures that can be used in vehicles ranging from subcompacts to midsize cars. It will also underpin compact crossovers.

If VW can use a single architecture to produce really good vehicles in that many different market segments, pity the automakers that can't match it. The Volkswagen Group will grind them into dust with MQB's savings in engineering and manufacturing costs.

On the other hand, if MQB stumbles or fails, VW has a crisis on its hands. Nearly every volume vehicle the VW brand will introduce for the next decade relies on MQB. The architecture must also prove it can support Audi luxury cars and crossovers.

The first test comes next year, when Audi launches the A3 compact sedan, convertible and plug-in hybrid; S3 performance model; and Q3 compact SUV.

A3 prices will start at $29,900 for a front-wheel drive model with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission and 1.8-liter 175-horsepower engine. Diesel and 2.0-liter gasoline engines and Quattro all-wheel drive will also be available.

Audi expects the 2015 A3 to outsell the current model, which is available only as a hatchback. Audi sold just 7,205 A3s in 2012. It hopes to reach 30,000 a year with the new model.

The A3 sedan will compete with the new Mercedes-Benz CLA compact sedan and other small luxury models to come.

"It's an interesting addition," IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said of the A3, which is somewhat smaller than the CLA. "As luxury cars like the Audi A4, BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class have gotten bigger and more expensive, it's opened the door for models just below them."

The 2015 A3 is about the size of the original Audi A4, which went on sale in the United States in 1995. It's trimmed in high-quality materials and has features like Audi Drive Select adjustable performance settings and a controller for phone, navigation and other systems.



Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.


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