For years, Toyota carried the environmentally friendly torch alone with its Prius. In fact, this hybrid became the symbol of clean driving, to the point that it was trendy to be seen in one. But that was yesterday. The situation is about to change in a significant way, as Toyota is no longer the only player in the green game.
Like many other major automakers, Audi didn’t rush onto the eco bandwagon. And yet, the company had tested the waters several decades ago. After this hiatus, Ingolstadt made a decision: Audi now wants to become the world leader in green cars. Indeed, Audi hopes its name will become synonymous with the electric car, as it currently is with quattro all-wheel drive.
The first edition
The first thing I should point out is that this company’s engineers were a step ahead of all their peers making a car that was nothing short of revolutionary for its time. In 1989, they transformed the Audi100 Avant by outfitting it with a five-cylinder gas engine to power the front wheels and a 9 kW (12 horsepower) electric engine to feed the rear wheels. Nickel-cadmium batteries were used to store the energy. Two years later, the quattro variant followed. Then, in 1997, Audi became the first European automaker to go into small-scale production of a hybrid vehicle: an A4 Avant with a 90-hp 1.9-litre TDI engine and a 21-kW (29-hp) electric motor cooled with water and powered by a battery located in the back. Both engines powered the front wheels. And, the battery could be recharged using a household outlet.
Apparently this model was too far ahead of its time to be a commercial success, but it did give Audi a lot of experience on the subject. This time, several teams of engineers have been called in to speed up the development of electric or highly fuel efficient vehicles. They even built a new research and development centre dedicated to electric drivetrains in Ingolstadt.
However, Audi has got to be beyond the research stage by now since, sometime in 2011, they will market a hybrid version of the Q5, in Europe at least. And by 2012, they will release the A1 e-tron, an electric car with an extended range system. Finally, the R8 e-tron, an all-electric sports car, should hit the market by 2015.
First, the hybrid
The Q5 crossover will be the first new-generation green vehicle sold by Audi. Its mechanical configuration is more or less the same as the competition’s. It’s a parallel hybrid with a 2.0-litre TFSI thermal engine paired with a lithium-ion battery-powered electric engine. This powertrain produces 245 horsepower and 480 Nm (354 lbs-ft) of torque. This new version does the 0-100 km/hr sprint in 7.1 seconds, and its top speed is 222 km/hr. In all-electric mode, it can cover three kilometres at a maximum speed of 60 km/hr. Its fuel consumption is less than 7.0 litres/100 km.
This longitudinal powertrain could be used on other Audi models with the same mechanical architecture, particularly the Audi A8 and the next generation A6 and A6 Avant. The four-cylinder thermal engine is married to an eight-speed automatic transmission, whose torque converter has been replaced by the electric engine. The electric engine can work with or without its gas counterpart. It gets its power from a lithium-ion battery that was developed in partnership with Sanyo and sits in the rear of the vehicle. Despite the location of the battery, the trunk space is almost identical to that of the regular Q5.
An all-electric A1
Hybrid technology certainly helps cut down this vehicle’s emissions and fuel consumption. It is designed for drivers who regularly have to cover long distances and who need fairly substantial vehicle autonomy. The second type of technology that Audi is offering is what you find on the A1 e-tron. This is designed for urban drivers. Its electric engine delivers 45 kW (61 hp) of continuous power, and its battery offers a range of 50 km per charge. A small Wankel engine in the rear of the vehicle can increase the autonomy by recharging the battery when the car is in motion – this brings the range up to 250 km. If you’re wondering what a rotary engine is doing in this equation, it is very compact, silent and vibration-free. This engine comes from NSU, a brand that was under the Audi banner some years ago.
This technology is similar to what you find in the Chevrolet Volt. There are several differences in terms of the mechanics, but the concept is the same. The powered wheels get their energy from the electric engine only, while the thermal engine recharges the battery to increase the vehicle’s autonomy. Then, once you get home, you plug in your car to recharge it. Plus, energy is recovered and sent back to the battery every time you brake. This energy recovery process starts as soon as the driver releases the accelerator pedal, and can be controlled in five stages via rocker switches on the steering wheel. In the first stage, the deceleration is weak, whereas at level 5 it is strong. On city drives, this vehicle can recover nearly one third of the energy it needs.
The A1’s style, exclusive wheels and certain aesthetic features speak volumes about its exceptional nature. In terms of handling, this futuristic A1 is like a normal car, except that it is incredibly silent.
The electric sports car
If we really want electric cars to have a positive image, they’ve got to be associated with performance and driving pleasure. Like you, I realize that there’s nothing logical about this, but it’s just the law of the market.
To fulfill this mission, Audi has concocted an electric version of its R8, the all-electric R8 e-tron. This one has no thermal engine to boost its range. Energy is provided by the 550-kg lithium-ion battery that stores 53 KWh, with an usable share of 42.4 KWh. In its final development phase, it offers a range of about 250 km. This battery’s mission is to power four electric engines – two for the front axle and two for the rear. These essentially make the Audi R8 e-tron a quattro. The power transmission to the wheels is handled by a single-speed transmission and short shafts. Its maximum output is 230 KWh (313 hp) and maximum torque is 4,500 Nm (3318 lbs-ft) from zero. Its performances are very impressive with 0-100 km/h taking 4.8 seconds.
According to Audi, this high-performance electric sports car will only produced in small numbers. It will be made in at quattro Gmbh’s Neckarsulm location, which has a wealth of experience in prestigious sports cars.
As for me, I had the chance to take this unusual speedster for a spin, and I must admit that its accelerations are impressive thanks to the high level of torque evident as soon as you touch the accelerator. And even though the test road was relatively short, I was able to ascertain that this green bullet has nothing to envy its gas-run counterparts for in terms of handling or braking.
In short, even though this German automaker is joining the party a little late, it is certainly making up for lost time.