Audi e-tron: Taking the e-train

Picture this: Elon Musk and Henrik Fisker -- impresarios of the electric Tesla Roadster and the soon-to-be, sort-of-electric Fisker Karma, respectively -- are running for their lives through a cave. Rolling behind them, gathering momentum, thundering ever closer, is an enormous boulder.

“Look out, Henrik!” “Save yourself, Elon!” Cue the John Williams soundtrack.

Can Elon get out of the cave in time? Will Henrik manage . . . Splat! Oh no! Look at the blood! There’s rich guy everywhere!

I just spent a few minutes driving the boulder.

The Audi e-tron -- a spectacularly cool and highly evolved prototype of an electric sports car due from the German giant at the end of 2011 -- may not be the car that crushes California’s bold pioneers of electric mobility.

But what it represents could.

In the next couple of years, globe-striding automakers such as Nissan-Renault, Mercedes-Benz, VW Group, GM and Ford will begin cranking out tens of thousands of electric cars. Not just small electric city cars and mid-size family sedans (like GM’s Volt and Nissan’s Leaf) but powerful, dead-sexy sports cars.


The Audi e-tron, whose only shared component with the look-alike Audi R8 are the halfshafts, will at some point have company in the luxury electric sports car segment in the form of Mercedes’ electric-version SLS gullwing (and no, I never thought I’d be writing those words).

This armada of electron-burners will not be diffident, underbaked beta-testers. No asterisks they. These will be -- they have to be -- fully fledged Nissans, Mercedes and VWs, built to these companies’ exacting standards and sold at a price that economizes their global scale.

“Do you hear something, Elon?”

“Don’t be silly, Henrik. It’s just the wind.”

Let’s stipulate that Tesla and Fisker are fine companies with great people and ideas, and a not-inconsiderable $1 billion in public money between them. Both companies’ business plans call for using the glamour of a sporty halo car (the Tesla Roadster and Fisker Karma) to build brand cachet and help fund development of more attainable, real-world cars: Tesla’s Model S and Fisker’s Nina.

While the majors were sitting on the sidelines, these electric car wildcatters could reasonably expect success.

But now the majors are coming fast. And the Audi e-tron, which took Ingolstadt all of nine months to build, insists that we reconsider the viability of these low-volume upstarts in light of their highly resourced imperial competitors.

The burn-in-hell red e-tron that Audi made available for test drives near Point Mugu last week was last seen in September on the turnstile at the Frankfurt Auto Show. Typically, show cars are pretty hollow on the inside. Not this time.

The e-tron’s alloy space-frame is production-ready; the adaptive climate- and visibility-sensing LED headlamps and taillamps work; the electric door closures and windows work; the motion-sensing door handles operate; the instrument console is already near production; the unique heat-pump system (to provide cabin warmth) is installed. The car’s MMI (Man-Machine Interface) is already roughed in, with the liquid crystal display levitating out of the instrument console when the car is started.

The last Audi that was this cool was upstaging Will Smith in the movie “I, Robot.”

Among its many party tricks, the e-tron has a kind of morphable exterior skin that changes shape to optimize aerodynamics and battery cooling as needed. When the batteries need a breeze, the clear acrylic panel over the front grille recedes into the grille opening, allowing fresh air in. Likewise, the flexible aluminum comb over the rear deck rises up to form a ram-air intake duct. That is just wicked, man.

The gristly guts of the e-tron comprise four inboard-mounted electric motors, one for each wheel, allowing the car to have Audi’s signature Quattro all-wheel-drive. Seventy percent of the total power is channeled through the rear wheels, and 30% through the front, though with four electric motors the distribution of torque can be effortlessly sluiced around to maximize grip far faster and more easily than with even the best mechanical AWD system.

The e-tron has no transmission, only two reduction gears (1:6 ratio in front and 1:7 ratio in rear, owing to the larger wheels on the rear). The gearing is why the car has a nominal horsepower of 313 hp but on-paper torque of 3,319 pound-feet. Obviously, you can’t unleash that kind of twist all at once or the car would rip its own axles apart. With about 550 pound-feet of torque doled out by the computers, the car’s 0-62 mph pace is 4.8 seconds. Top speed is e-limited to 155 mph.

The carbon-bodied e-tron prototype weighs 3,527 pounds but, according to chief engineer Thomas Krauter, the target weight for production car will be a very skinny 3,200 pounds.

First-year production of the 2012 model year e-tron (perhaps called R8e?) will be limited to a mere 100 cars; as for out-the-door sticker, nobody really knows. A good guess is between $160,000 and $200,000.

“Do you think the natives are friendly, Elon?”

“Absolutely, Henrik. They invited us for dinner.”

Like all electric cars, the batteries are the biggest concern. The e-tron uses a lithium-ion pack sourced from Sanyo with a total capacity of 53 kWh, but only about 43 kWh is usable storage. Max discharge is a healthy 230 amps. According to Krauter, the car will have two settings for regenerative braking, one normal and one sporty -- which is to say, you lift off the gas and the aggressive regen will instantly slow the car down as if it had piled into a load of sand. No coasting.

For enthusiast drivers, all this is catnip. Torque-vectoring all-wheel drive with big regenerative braking going into corners? That means less weight transfer, better overall balance, less brake wear, quicker time back to the throttle. The production version of this car is going to be stupid fast. I predict we are looking at the future production-car record holder at the Nurburgring.

Nine months? If I were in the electric sports car business, the e-tron would make me drop a toaster into my bathwater. While it’s often said the big organizations are slow and unresponsive, it’s also true that big organizations can achieve amazing things by dint of board management fiat.

Predicting their demise is not the same as wishing for it, and I do hope that Fisker and Tesla survive and thrive. I just don’t see how. Ironically, the explosive growth in the e-car market might be the very thing that does them in.

As they say, the pioneers get the arrows.