Times are getting more difficult for plug-in electric cars. But Audi’s new plug-in version of the A3, its first large-scale electric hybrid in the U.S., could lead the way.

With gas prices low, it’s getting harder to fire up customers when it comes to the savings and environmental benefits hybrids or full electrics provide. They become less willing to fork over a few thousands dollars more for a plug-in. And with the exception of the Tesla, many of the electrics out there aren’t setting buyer’s hearts ablaze with desire.

Now comes the 2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron ultra, a model that could buck the trend by being fun, sporty and luxurious. Think of it as a performance plug-in.

The greatest attribute of the A3 e-tron isn’t its electric power plant. Rather, it’s the things that make the conventional A3 so great: its nimble handling in a feature-loaded, compact package. The car is, basically, a blast to drive — never mind the gas mileage. Because of its SUV-style configuration, the little hatchback also has a surprising amount of space.

And yes, it saves on gas. Checking the instrumental panel as we hurtled along on the interstate, we warmed to see miles per gallon readings around 75 at times. On gas alone, the A3 e-tron is rated at 39 mpg in city and highway combined. But its combined gas and electric rating is more impressive: 86 mpg equivalent.

The problem is that the A3 e-tron doesn’t store enough electricity to be able to peg its astounding numbers very long. The Audi can run only about 17 miles on electricity alone. That’s less than half of the 53-mile electric range of the Chevrolet Volt, also a plug-in hybrid. While 17 miles may be enough for some daily commuters, it’s still puny — about half-a-gallon savings per charge.

Those savings add up, however, and what the Audi lacks in gas savings, it makes up in performance. The e-tron can speed from zero to 60 miles per hour in 7.6 seconds. It can run in fully electric mode at speeds up to 80 mph. The pep is derived from a 150-horsepower 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine working in combination with an electric motor that adds more. The lithium-ion battery, the size of a large suitcase, tucks neatly under the rear seat, not eating up passenger or cargo space.

One of the nicer aspects of the A3 e-tron is the ability to choose the combination of gas or electric power from a menu on the center display. Modes include all-electric, a hybrid aimed at optimally using both gas and electricity, hybrid that minimizes battery drain, gas-only to recharge the battery during driving and “sport.” Even though sport is meant for the enthusiastic driver — energy savings be damned — it still draws from both the battery and gas engine.

Recharging the A3 e-tron requires the twist of a tab on the four-ring Audi logo on the grille to reveal the socket. Putting the socket behind the front grille ornament was a cool idea but may not be practical for drivers who have little space in front of their cars in their garages.

The other bugaboo when it comes to the A3 e-tron is price. The e-tron ultra starts at $38,825, including the $925 destination fee. With fancy red paint and options, it totaled out to $46,100. That’s a lot for a small plug-in SUV, even considering its an Audi. Officials point out that it is eligible for a $4,502 tax credit, which should help affordability.

Though it is unlikely to become a megaseller, the A3 e-tron is an important model for Audi. The brand estimates its electrified cars will account for a quarter of its sales by 2025.

It is “designed to be our first step in the electrified vehicle space,” e-tron program manager Ajay Chawan says.

It’s an interesting first step.

What Stands Out

Charging: Cool placement of plug

Electric range: Not much

Price: A lot for compact luxury

2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron ultra

What? A plug-in hybrid version of the A3 hatchback.

When? On sale now.

Where? Made in Ingolstadt, Germany.

How much? $38,825, including shipping. Tax incentives can cut the price to about $33,000.

What makes it go? A 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine combined with an electric motor to top 200 horsepower combined.

How big? 14.1 feet.

How thirsty? 86 miles MPGe, the government’s rating that takes electric and gas driving into account.

Overall? A sporty take on the plug-in car, perfect for an era of low gas prices.