If we take a quick look back in history, we realize that the first time Audi mentioned the name E-Tron to the public was all the way back in 2009. Back then, the name was applied to an entire concept car, called simply the E-Tron, which was an R8 converted to an electric vehicle with a big battery pack and some powerful electric motors. It was a supercar for the plug-in set, and it went over so well that Tony Stark drove one in Iron Man 3 this year. With that kind of publicity for the marquee E-Tron, it's confusing that the E-Tron name has been applied to a seemingly endless stream of concepts, test vehicles and rumors over the past four years. At least a dozen, by our count.
The E-Tron name has been applied to at least a dozen concepts, test vehicles and rumors over the past four years.
There was the original R8 E-Tron, an A3 Sportback E-Tron (EV and PHEV versions), the R18 E-Tron Quattro racecar, an all-electric A2 E-Tron concept, an A6 L E-Tron PHEV that was shown off in Beijing and rumors of A4 and Q7 E-Tron Quattros. Then we had the E-Tron spyder concept and the city E-Tron concept, as well as news of an A5 E-Tron Quattro plug-in hybrid. And then there's the A1 E-Tron plug-in hybrid that is being tested in Germany. Got all that?
Audi is finally getting ready to take the E-Tron name out of the movies and the auto show circuit and start putting plug-in cars in customer driveways. As it gears up for the launch of the first E-Tron – the A3 Sportback E-Tron, coming in 2014 – we flew to Berlin to find out what's taken so long, and what's coming next.
Berlin is a city that welcomes alternatives. Leaving aside the city's embrace for different lifestyles and a wide variety of artists, transportation in Germany's capital is certainly "go as you are." Everywhere you go in Mitte (downtown), you see car-sharing vehicles (electric and gas-powered options from companies like BMW's DriveNow and Daimler's Car2Go as well as lots of the Citroen C-Zero, aka the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, from Multicity). The public transportation network gets my vote for the best in the world. If you're biking through town – and there are bike paths everywhere – the chorus of start-stop engines firing up when a stop light turns green is astonishing. Add in the known European love for diesels and the fact that many vehicles burn autogas (liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG), you can see how Berlin moves in many different ways. The big question of the week, though, was whether Berlin and, of course, the rest of Germany/Europe/the world is ready for plug-in vehicles.
A3 Sportback E-Tron
Audi's answer, finally, is a qualified yes. While you could look at that endless stream of E-Trons as a series of projects that never went anywhere, Michael Baumann, spokesman for the technology and innovations departments at Audi AG, sees it differently. Baumann, who has only been involved with E-Tron since September 2012, said the key is to differentiate between concept cars that are put on a stage somewhere to gauge the reaction of the market and the media, and those that are destined for customers. The R18 E-Tron Quattro, after all, is a racecar that was never intended for sale, but it did win the 24 hours of Le Mans in 2012 and will be trying for a repeat later this month.
The last four years all lead to the A3 Sportback E-Tron.
"Certainly the A2 that was shown in Frankfurt two years ago was a pure concept car for the moment, but I think the interesting question is where does it all lead to and why did we do these," Baumann said. Indeed, that's exactly what we're interested in.
It turns out, the last four years all lead to the A3 Sportback E-Tron. It's electric, which qualifies it for the E-Tron name since that's how Audi now describes any car that has a plug, similar to how Quattro is applied to an all-wheel-drive Audi, and it has a range extender. That's the qualified part.
Arriving next year, the A3 Sportback E-Tron does not look like an EV – it looks pretty much exactly like a standard A3 Sportback. In fact, there was almost a "don't you dare compare this to other EVs" vibe to the presentation of the vehicle's performance features, which are impressive. It's got 258 pound-feet of torque and 204 horsepower. Zero-to-100 kmh (62 miles per hour) happens in 7.6 seconds. Top speed is 138 mph. There's an electric range of 31 miles from the 8.8-kWh li-ion battery (7.0 kWh useable with a 3.3-kW on-board charger), and an overall range of 584 miles with a full gas tank – and you can travel that distance emitting an average of just 35 grams of CO2 per km thanks to an efficient 1.4-liter TFSI engine and a newly designed six-speed E-S Tronic transmisson. Because the engine could sit unused for many weeks, the engineers added a "robustness package" that coats the cylinders and an oil quality sensor to make sure things remain lubricated, prolonging engine life.
The engine can completely charge the battery pack – the first time a PHEV can do this.
The few changes to the A3 Sportback are a slightly reduced rear cargo space (it still has 9.89 cubic feet behind the rear seats, compared to 13.4 in the standard 2014 A3 Sportback) and a charge connector hidden behind the four Audi rings in the front. Audi will also sell a branded home charging unit with the A3. The charger will be standard in the US, despite data that shows many plug-in drivers are perfectly happy to charge at 110 volts in the US, especially with a small battery pack like the one in the A3. In Europe, recharging takes 3:45 from a standard outlet. Two hidden buttons next to the connector set up either immediate or delayed charging.
The A3 Sportback E-Tron has four base driving modes: electric only, automatic, hold mode (similar to the Chevy Volt, where the battery pack is kept charged above a certain level in order to take advantage of city congestion charge zones) and a charge mode, where the TFSI engine will not only move the car, but also charge the battery pack. This is similar to the Honda Accord PHEV's HV mode, but the Audi's engine can completely charge the pack – the first time a PHEV can do this, as far as we know.
The A3 Sportback E-Tron can go over 80 mph on pure electric power, and the car is happy to coast, too. This excellent feature means, if you are going fast and take your foot off the accelerator, the car won't immediately apply the regenerative brakes. Technically, higher e-speeds are possible (see: R8 E-Tron), but in order to maintain the A3's battery and overall efficiency, Audi decided to let the TFSI engine kick in if you go faster than 80 mph. Each of the four driving modes also has a "normal" and "sport" operating mode. The upcoming E-Tron is also as connected as anything else on the market, with the ability to talk to Twitter and Facebook, look up local gas prices and, if you bring your own smartphone, dictate text messages. When you're away from the car, you can use that phone to see if a cable is plugged in, the battery state of charge and even where the car is. Forgetful parkers, rejoice.
The first A3 E-Tron will be launched in Europe and, as soon as possible after that, it will come to the US and Asia.
Production of the A3 Sportback E-Tron will take place alongside production of the other A3 Sportbacks in Ingollstadt, Germany. That production line should have some capacity flexibility once A3 production is moved to Györ, Hungary. No one from Audi would dare talk about production numbers, to say nothing of pricing, for the A3 Sportback E-Tron. It's simply too early for that. We do know the first A3 E-Tron will be launched in Europe and, as soon as possible after that, it will come to the US and Asia. Europe's date with destiny is 2014, but will the car come to other markets next year, we asked? "Hopefully."
The E-Tron Experience
So that's how Audi has decided to package its first production plug-in vehicle. Baumann told AutoblogGreen that the car is proof all those other E-Tron vehicles were not wasted energy. "We are showing we are working on all systems in the car, that we could easily either translate those into different projects or go ahead with a project like this if it were to be decided in the company," he said. "To just say 'dead,' 'dead,' 'they never did it,' 'dead' is a little bit of the wrong approach because the knowledge base that you have to build up, which is completely new for all manufacturers, is enormous."
To that end, Audi has been running test fleets of A1 E-Tron plug-in hybrids in Europe and pure electric A3s in the US. "The purpose here is simply to find out how customers behave if they have a car like this in hand," he said. "What would be their requirements for electric driving? How many kilometers a day would they go? When do they charge? We now understand that the premium segment customer – and this is an important point – doesn't want to have range 'angst.' They want to be sure they can go anywhere with this."
"You will see the plug-in hybrid technology on the Q side and the A side in several other models."
The R18 E-Tron Quattro endurance racecar, on the other hand, exists to show off. Baumann said one of the mantras of Audi technical chief Wolfgang Dürheimer is that once you make hybrids successful in motorsports, then everybody will "get it." Therefore, Baumann told us, "The purpose of the R18 is not customer experience. It is contributing to the overall story. We're coming from many different perspectives to a point in the end where we have said, for series production cars from Audi, the plug-in hybrid technology is the absolute best solution." With the powertrain figured out, the A3 Sportback was chosen as the right starting point because it is a car that appeals to younger customers. In the US, the A3 Sportback is already popular on the coasts. And guess where plug-in vehicles are popular? Down the road, Baumann said, more showroom Audi vehicles will get a plug. "You will see the plug-in hybrid technology on the Q side and the A side in several other models," he said. "They are definitely coming.
Besides getting a preview of the A3 Sportback E-Tron, we got to drive a few of Audi's advanced powertrain vehicles in Berlin. They were all short drives, but even a taste of Iron Man's R8 E-Tron is enough to wish we had Tony Stark's money. With a 48.6-kWh battery, electric motors that put out 380 hp and 604.80 lb-ft and a range of 134 miles, it's insane that this is the E-Tron Audi won't build. Oh, and it's gorgeous, too.
Even a taste of Iron Man's R8 E-Tron is enough to wish we had Tony Stark's money.
Throwing the R8 E-Tron through a short course set up on the grounds of the old Templehof airport, it was instantly clear that this car could be immensely popular. It's feels lethally fast (the short straightaway limited our ability to just let loose, but the car can hit 100 kmh, or 62 mph, in 4.2 seconds) and it traces the curves like a professional cartoonist. We could do without the generated "synthetic e-sound," but everything else about the car – the suspension, the way the seat sits at just the right angle, the digital rearview mirror – we loved. The punch of all that electric torque off the starting line and out of the curves is just too delicious.
Audi brought 10 R8 E-Trons to Berlin, but they were there just to tease us. Baumann said it just doesn't make financial sense to sell these cars. "The decisive factor here would be the price and the weight of the battery systems," he said. "They would have to be halved. The price we would have to ask to have a somewhat workable business case would be way too high." When pressed, he admitted each R8 E-Tron one would cost over a million. That's Euros, not dollars, and it's a pretty big difference from the 2014 R8, which starts at $114,900.
As for the hefty battery pack, it currently weighs 580 kilos (1,279 pounds) in a car that weighs 1,780 kilos (3,924 lbs.) overall. Compared to other high-performance electric vehicles out there, from other manufacturers, that's not bad, but in Baumann's opinion, it's still too much. "If you would halve it – or turn it the other way around and say the energy density has to be doubled," then it might work, he said. "We think there are significant steps on the batteries that need to happen before we could make this workable from a day-to-day usability factor, what the car can do in the end and also the price factor," he said. This all sounds dreary for the R8 E-Tron's future, which has been off and on and on? for the last few years, but Baumann did leave himself just a hint of wriggle room. "Despite the fact that we are currently not going ahead with a series production car here, I think we quite clearly demonstrated out there on the field there is no technical reason in terms of performance of the car, the systems working and everything, not to do this," he said.
Each R8 E-Tron one would cost over a million. That's Euros, not dollars.
A3 Sportback G-Tron
Audi is going to move forward with the only non-plugged member of the "Tron" family, though. The A3 G-Tron is Audi's first natural gas car and will be on the road in 2014, maybe at the end of 2013. The G-Tron project is about more than burning natural gas, since Audi has also developed a way to use CO2 as a raw material. The fuel that the cars burn contains no fossil fuels and no biomass. Audi takes wind energy and uses it to electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then, through methanation, the hydrogen and CO2 react with a catalyst to create natural gas. Then, the e-gas, as Audi has branded it, will be pumped into Germany's existing natural gas network and, in the end, driving an A3 G-Tron could be considered driving a carbon neutral vehicle. Baumann called it "the most environmentally friendly form of long-distance motoring." As with the E-Tron, when we were piloting one through the traffic-filled streets of Berlin, there was no way to tell we were not in a standard A3. You're just one more alternative in the streets of Berlin. You can read more about the G-Tron here and here.
Baumann called it "the most environmentally friendly form of long-distance motoring."
Not long before our trip to Berlin, Dürheimer let slip that Audi is working on a hydrogen-powered A7. Speaking in Berlin, Michael Baumann's speech included a line that said something like "E-Tron, G-Tron, and the family will grow." If that doesn't preview an H-Tron line at some point, we'll eat a wankel engine from one of those early A1 E-Tron prototypes. If Audi's timeline is right, that point is a decade away.
"We are pretty sure that within the next ten years, [hydrogen] won't play any role in a series production car."
Baumann told us, "On the fuel cell side, it's important to understand that Audi is part of Volkswagen Group and within Volkswagen Group you have certain core competencies in terms of pushing different technologies. Fuel cell technology is certainly being pushed by Volkswagen research, nonetheless, and there are several A7s that are pure research cars. Mr. Dürheimer has said "they are finished and driveable as research cars. At the same time, we are pretty sure that within the next ten years, [hydrogen] won't play any role in a series production car." After years of waiting to actually let a customer plug in an E-Tron, why are we not surprised that Audi is taking it slow with hydrogen as well?