The lovely thing about the Audi e-tron is that its name isn't suffixed by the word “concept.” Enter the world of concept car driving and you are usually confronted by 15mph speed limits, paranoid designers gingerly closing doors and fear at every turn. Show cars aren't meant to be driven.
The e-tron isn't like that. There is a show car, but this isn't it. This is the first prototype of an all-electric junior supercar, and Audi is going to make 1,000 of them, starting in 2012.
The e-tron's back story stems from another concept: the R8 TDI Le Mans, a V12 turbo-diesel version of the R8. Audi contemplated putting it into production but decided against what was a heavier, slower and barely anymore frugal version of a car it already made. The R8 is not like a Q7; you can't just slot different donkeys under the hood in the hope that you'll provide something for everyone. And Audi realized it. That's when the e-tron project started.
The e-tron looks suspiciously like an R8 – and entirely in red, not unlike the Le Mans – but there's more to it than that. It's shorter in the wheelbase, has shorter overhangs front and rear, and sits lower to the ground. It has four electric motors – two between the front wheels and two behind the rear wheels, with a tall battery pack in the middle, where the motor would usually be. The e-tron is similar to the R8 in that its suspension has been carried over, and that this prototype uses an R8's hacked aluminum space frame chassis.
The production version will not. “The cost of changing just one beam in the frame can be 10,000-15,000 euros, [$15k-$22k],” says the e-tron's technical director, Thomas Krauter, “whereas the whole space frame can be done for 100,000 euros [$145k].” In other words, by the time you've changed half a dozen beams, you might just as well have designed another frame in the first place.
Likewise, the body will differ from this on the final version – not just losing stuff like cameras for mirrors, but also losing its carbon composite construction, ostensibly to keep the weight down to 3,500lbs. Even though Audi says the production e-tron will probably be sold at “above R8” prices, composites are too expensive to be practical on such a big production run. Some bolt-on panels might be carbon fiber, as standard or an option, but Audi is more likely to use aluminum. I wouldn't be surprised, too, if some of the e-tron's aerodynamic and fancy active bodywork accoutrements were toned down or removed altogether.
The prototype e-tron has a plexiglass grille cover that slides in and out to either improve aerodynamics or allow more air into the radiators. There are beautifully finished metal ribs that run down the back of the car and pop up with satisfying vim to allow air to cool the battery, as do active flaps on the body's sides. Right now, temperature management is the big issue affecting the e-tron, but while these solutions look neat, they also look expensive.
It's a theme that continues everywhere. The charge socket lies on the rump and it, too, is delicately finished. Behind the wheels (taken from an R8 V10 on this prototype) sit purposeful carbon-ceramic brakes. Panel gaps are wonderfully tight.
Despite being at such an early stage in its development, the e-tron feels like a proper product. From the moment you set eyes on it close up, it exudes solidity.
Truth is, it's still a tiny bit flaky, but that's utterly understandable in a car that has been put through no production work so far. Close a door too hard and the window glass is liable to shatter. The interior is beautiful, minimal, crisp and clean, but when I say it looks like a million dollars, I fear that's actually what it's worth.
The finished e-tron will have similar performance figures to those of a Tesla Roadster: a range of 150 miles (or less, if you drive harder), a full charge in anything from two and a half to eight hours, 0-62mph in a number starting with a four and a top speed of 124mph, limited because it takes such a whopping amount of energy to keep a car going at that speed.
The prototype isn't that fast yet – its power reduces from 50mph, and it limits itself to 62mph at the moment – but it gets there briskly, says Krauter. When I sit in the driver's seat, he sits alongside me. And, as we head onto California's Pacific Coast Highway, he looks at me and says, in essence, “Go on, then. Give it the beans.”
I reckon that under six seconds later we've hit and are maintaining a steady 62mph. I've driven a few cars with electric drive now, but the novelty still hasn't worn off. The four motors combined make not just 308hp, but also a theoretical 3319lb-ft of torque, although it's not as simple as just adding all the torque outputs together. Whatever, throttle response is, er, electric. You ask, you get. Aural accompaniment is part industrial turbine, part domestic appliance. Audi is looking into tuning it toward the former.
My test drive is tantalizingly short, so I can't tell you too much about the way the e-tron corners. It rides firmly, but the ride/handling finessing hasn't even started yet, so it could turn out to be utterly different. It certainly shows promise.
By dint of having more powerful motors at the back than the front, power delivery is split 30/70 front to rear. Thanks to that, and its 48/52 percent weight distribution, the finished e-tron should corner very neutrally. Because the battery pack reaches the roof of the car, though, the finished article will probably roll more and feel less agile than the gasoline R8. Already the brake pedal feel is solid – better than a gas R8's. The heavier steering feels more intuitive, and it's direct and accurate. Lovely wheel, too, apart from the flat bit at the bottom.
The rest of the interior is fabulous, albeit a work in progress. The seats look sensational and the instrument layout is neat, including two different-sized screens that swap places electrically.
The cabin could change for something more conventional on the production car, but it would be a shame if it did. Audi's designers have gone for something lighter and cleaner than they usually would, because they felt they could go out on a limb with an electric car. I hope they keep their nerve.
I hope potential buyers keep their nerve, too. The wrong side of R8 money is a frighteningly big ask for a car that's slower and has a limited range. So, you'd have to really want one. But given that the technology will filter through to other cars, and given that the e-tron is only the second zero-tailpipe-emissions car that's desirable and sporting, I'd like to think there are a whole bunch of people who do.