At last September's Paris Motor Show, we were thrilled to see this very concept car, the Audi e-tron Spyder. The crisp lines of its carbon composite exterior, its tapering side windows, its airflow vents cut in the hood, its almost impossibly clean and sleek interior treatment... all of it spoke strongly without trying too hard.
After the September 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show debut of the R8-based all-electric e-tron, we then got the surprise of seeing an even smaller one – also called "e-tron" (perhaps to confuse and/or not give too much away regarding the design's important future) at last January's Detroit Auto Show. This second electric car, a hardtop, carried two electric motors pushing the rear wheels (versus the four motors of the R8 e-tron's all-wheel drive, an ongoing programming challenge referred to within Audi as e-Quattro).
The e-tron Spyder, however, is not just a roofless version of that stunning Detroit e-tron coupe, as the model we're driving here comes with an all-new plug-in diesel hybrid-electric drivetrain, and it's 5.1 inches longer with more wheelbase, along with being 1.2 inches wider. On the other hand, the current Audi TT is 4.7 inches longer than the e-tron Spyder, so we're still operating on a very small scale here.
Our time in the driver's seat of the e-tron Spyder was originally set for right after June's 24-Hours of Le Mans, where the car successfully completed a parade lap for the almighty marketing department's sake. Sadly, right as they were loading the car onto a transporter to get it on a plane and out here to SoCal, an incident occurred that left one of the rocker panels of the Spyder pretty beat up. Now that the summer holiday and big Frankfurt show push is done, we've been given another go.
You could say this about many cars, but the e-tron Spyder looks especially right at home on the many hidden canyon roads reaching into the Santa Monica Mountains of the Malibu coast. This is the type of area where imported sports car culture became legend in America. And with fine weather and curves like these, it all comes rushing back, even though our drive in the e-tron Spyder showcar prototype is limited to a paltry 40 miles per hour. Actually, once the electric motors and V6 TDI are working together in "boost" mode, we can reach an overrun speed of 45 mph and give the Ingolstadt engineers a sleepless night or two. Hey, that's nearly 75 kmh! Not too bad for a one-off showcar worth a reported $2.7 million.
What's most important here, however, are the messages that the car is sending, just as with that Detroit e-tron coupe showstopper we were able to drive at the numbing speed of 7 mph. On the one hand, there's the design intent for a future range of Audis. On the other, there's the constant exploration of various forms of propulsion that maintain the sportiness necessary for an Audi while reducing environmental impact.
The two electric motors on the forward axle are good for a total of 89 horsepower, and their juice gets combined with a rear-mounted, twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 TDI's producing 296 hp, for a grand total during full boost mode of 385 hp. While torque at the wheels in these e-hybrid cases can be a delicate science, Audi's head of showcar/prototype development Uwe Haller tells Autoblog that the torque from the two electric motors from 0 rpm is really around 260 pound-feet versus anything like the theoretical 1,950 lb-ft at the 12,000-plus rpm spindle advertised for the e-tron coupe. In other words, Audi has started wisely giving us the actual torque numbers where the rubber meets the road surface. In boost phase of acceleration, the maximum torque for this spyder stands at 739 lb-ft between the bi-turbo diesel V6 and two electric units. In the end, the 3,200-pound e-tron Spyder could dash to 60 mph in approximately 4.2 seconds.
Theoretically, that is. We should think of the e-tron Spyder as a rolling lab that awaits part internal VW Group approval and part public approval. As it is a showcar first, the Germans want to know what we all think of the exterior. Despite their differences in dimensions and execution, the Detroit e-tron showcar and this Paris e-tron Spyder represent what some call either the R4 or R5 model range that's pegged for launch in 2014. Just as with the R8, this smaller sports car family will have at least one version with a fixed roof and one with a convertible top. No one anywhere is confirming this, but the e-tron Spyder's "one-off" aluminum chassis is, according to various sources, Audi's shot at contributing a chassis to the future R4 (or R5)/Porsche Boxster and Cayman/VW Blue Sport roadster small sports car program. Referred to internally as "9X1," it promises a mid-engined configuration. That's a major portion of this car's significance; the small mid-ship sports car future within the VW Group is a huge deal, and Porsche's engineers are supposedly leading the way.
And then there's the looks of the e-tron Spyder. We like the exterior of the Detroit e-tron coupe more, but we prefer this interior and rear end more than that of the hardtop. Anyone over five feet, nine inches tall in the Spyder is likely to have their brain cavity sliced clean away in a big head-on collision. The low, three-tenths-of-an-inch-thick Plexiglas taper makes the spyder come off looking a little too much like a small speedboat. We do enjoy the turbine-themed 20-inch wheels, although 19-inchers would look more proportionally correct while improving the ride.
As for the Spyder's plug-in diesel-electric powertrain, it's a pure experiment at this time. The plug-in point is in the snout, and it can be accessed when the four-ring emblem retracts to reveal not just the plug, but also a digital display showing the remaining charge and range possible, plus the distances to reach your usual haunts. The 69-cell lithium-ion battery pack is good for 9.1-kilowatt hours, weighs around 220 pounds and is situated up front together with the electric motors. The final version is supposed to let the spyder run on electric only with its single gear ratio at up to 37 mph, but for our drive, its threshold is set at nearer to 20 mph. Once the turbo-diesel V6 kicks in, gearing is taken over by an adapted version of Audi's Multitronic CVT unit, which was chosen for its compact dimensions.
The showcar seats and steering wheel set the tone, and an adapted plug-in hybrid version of Audi's MMI control interface is the predominant graphic on the small screen. The dark plastic glass all around is a bit difficult to see through at times, so we must thank the California Highway Patrol for closing off the stretch of road where we were having this privileged experiment. The only bit stolen from a current production car is the e-tron's steering rack and front axle, nicked from the subcompact A1. While the 20-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot Sport tires made for a rather large turning circle, the reactions while we were chuffing along as fast as we could go were actually pretty nimble compared to any prototype we've ever driven. Part of this is due to the mere 3.2 inches of ground clearance complemented by Audi's all-aluminum double wishbone structure in front and trapezoidal multi-link in rear. So, despite the ginger approach we needed to take with this rolling museum piece, everything works in a way that suggests enough of its sports car aspirations.
As tuned for the drive, the 3.0-liter TDI V6 took a few passes to get used to; sports cars as we know them shouldn't be making these sounds. The powerplant is more than responsive, but this packaging uses an essentially unrestricted exhaust, with just the particulate filters fitted. No catalysts and no silencers are aboard, so the whoosh that occurs when the throttle is pressed liberally is quite a large whoosh, and the corresponding gasps from the wastegates when we lifted off sound like the brake pressure release on a tractor-trailer rig. We laughed, looked at the lead engineer in the passenger seat, and he finally laughed with us.
Once we were used to the Spyder's bizarre soundtrack, we dipped in to its speed limiter at will. On the tighter canyon curves, the R8-like 25:75 torque split of the e-Quattro system is a great advantage, especially when exiting hairpins. We'll need to wait for the real deal until around late 2013, but Audi's differential-free Quattro future is looking ever more plausible. With the e-Quattro and the lack of any driveline running down the center tunnel, that tunnel is sleek and narrow, creating more cabin space inside compared to the larger TT.
Though the diesel fuel tank carries just 13.2 gallons, the e-tron Spyder has an on-paper range of over 600 miles per fill-up thanks to its lithium-ion-fueled parallel help. Energy recuperation is in full swing here, too, through the disc brakes and via coasting deceleration.
When this baby R car lineup does emerge from Ingolstadt, word has it that the engine of choice will be the 335-hp, W28 turbocharged five-cylinder used in the TT RS attached to either a six-speed manual or seven-speed S-tronic. Among the models foreseen are the coupe, convertible, as well as a speedster-style minimalist cloth top model. There is also talk of having a less pricey 2.0 TFSI four-cylinder trim and perhaps a 1.8-liter TFSI base trim for North America. In that latter guise, the little R could likely start at a magic-sounding $29,995. Top trim 2.5-liter examples would no doubt bounce up to around $47,000 or so.
Either way, it's clear that the VW Group has sights set on a wide range of smaller premium rides like this spyder to sell to North Americans looking more and more at upsizing their driving aspirations while downsizing their environmental impact.