AUDI’S E-TRON BOMB: Audi are planning an electric-only supercar for 2012, and we’ve driven the prototype. James Foxall reports
A s you would expect of a giant German car maker, Audi has a strategy for attacking the issue of electric cars – and it’s a very logical one. While sister company Volkswagen gets its hands mucky at the grubby end of the market, working out how to make money from selling electric city models for anything less than small executive car prices, Audi is heading straight for the top. In 2012, it will become the world’s first major car maker to launch an electric supercar. The idea is that VW and Audi will share technology and eventually meet somewhere in the middle of the market. But that will take a while, so in the meantime the four-ringed firm is working up the electric version of its smash hit R8. You may well have glimpsed the e-tron when it was unveiled at last year’s Frankfurt Motor Show, but thought it nothing more than a concept car designed as a headline grabber. It certainly did that, but Audi was also looking at it as a mobile test bed rather than a concept. It’s hardly a surprise to discover that the e-tron uses an R8 body shell, but the car is 50mm shorter, as it no longer needs to house a humongous internal combustion engine. When it makes it into production, the e-tron will ride on a bespoke chassis, but for now, what it has is more than adequate – and characterised by some beautiful detail.
There’s the aluminium air vent covering the rear bay, beneath which sits a profiled cam to open and close when cooling is required in a subtle, almost feline way. Likewise, vents low down ahead of the rear wheels open and close when they’re needed, too. Tuck yourself into the e-tron’s heavily bucketed seats and aside from two analogue dials behind the flat-bottomed steering wheel, there’s very little on show. In fact, the pale seats and carpets with rich brown accents look almost – whisper it – bland. It’s all a bit too executive for a sports car. But push the milled aluminium starter button and you can easily forget the formality of it as the e-tron comes alive. There’s actually a screen between the speedo and power meter, which folds out when the ignition is switched on. It’s controlled by laptop-style touch pads on either the centre console or steering wheel. Meanwhile, on the transmission tunnel, a gear lever with drive, neutral and reverse pops up.
Cameras replace mirrors and small screens are mounted on either door and the roof. For the door mirrors, they’re a complete waste of time – think of trying to watch TV in bright sun light and you’ll get the picture – or not in this case. However the centre-mounted rear view mirror works a treat and gives you a great picture of what’s going on behind – which is pretty important because there’s no rear window. Knock the gear lever into drive and the D symbol flashes red. When the light becomes constant, you’re good to go. As it’s electric, the only noise you hear is from the tyre contact with the road at low speeds. As the pace builds, the noise increases, as does a whirr of the gears working away behind. Give it some serious welly and a jet plane-like whoosh takes over.
Work started on e-tron at the beginning of 2008, but it’s still very much a prototype. For the purposes of our test, top speed was limited to 60mph – but that’s enough. This car has four electric motors, two centrally mounted on the front axle, two behind the rear axle. Right behind the rear bulkhead are 100 lithium-ion cells. The bad news is that these weigh 470kg, which is nearly 30 per cent of e-tron’s total 1600kg. However, because they’re situated in the middle of the car, they contribute to its 42/58 per cent front/rear weight distribution. The knock-on effect of this is that the e-tron feels remarkably poised on the road. It corners with very little body roll, and, if you can ignore the lack of engine noise, it has the reactions, balance and feel of a sports car. Since electric engines deliver all their torque in one go, the acceleration is instant and the throttle beautifully weighted. The electrically operated brakes with ceramic discs are strong and trigger energy regeneration, which is surprisingly efficient. Slowing from 30mph to a standstill, we recouped three per cent of the battery power, admittedly not much, but enough to eke out a bit more range. Real-world practicality is still lacking. It needs three cooling systems because the batteries, motors and electronics all operate at very different temperatures.
But in the production model, there will be a small luggage compartment in the front and enough room for a set of golf clubs behind the two seats. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem for owners though, as the e-tron’s relatively meagre range of 154 miles means it’s hardly a continent-basher. Audi, however, believes this short range won’t stop the car from making it to production. The company’s argument is that it has 5,000 dealers worldwide, which should be able to shift at least one e-tron per outlet. It’s still a shame that the range is so limited, though. After all, here’s a car you really want to drive rather than have sitting in your garage attached to a power cable. Plug it in to a regular domestic supply in the UK and you’re looking at around six hours for a full charge. In the US, you can double that. But Audi contends that this will be a third or fourth car for most of its buyers, brought out only for weekends and eco-posing.
Unlike stablemate Volkswagen, the four-ringed firm can happily add £25,000 to the R8’s £100,000 asking price and know that its customers won’t bat an eyelid. And if the e-tron is anything to go by, that money will get them an awe-inspiring piece of engineering.
- Price: £125,000 (estimated)
- Engine: 230kW electric motor
- Gearbox: Single speed automatic
- Max Power: 308bhp
- Max Torque: 500lb ft (estimated)
- Max Towing Weight: n/a
- Max speed: 155mph (production car)
- Range: 154miles
- 0-62mph:: 4.8secs
- CO2 Emissions (taxband): 0g/km (A)
- Insurance group: n/a
- Fully Equipped