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Audi to enter EV race with electric R8 supercar

Plug power: Audi is set to unveil a "very, very sporty" electric car at the Frankfurt motor show. Digital image: Chris Harris.

Electric version of the R8 super-coupe is almost certain to be Audi’s first EV

21 Aug 2009

AUDI has confirmed it will finally enter the electric vehicle (EV) race at next month’s Frankfurt motor show, where the German luxury car-maker now appears almost certain to unveil both plug-in and convertible versions of its R8 supercar.

The Volkswagen premium brand, which has hitherto dismissed petrol-electric hybrid technology as an interim measure that is also inferior to its modern TDI turbo-diesel engines, has previously denied long-running speculation that it is working on an R8 EV.

However, Audi’s global sales and marketing chief has now confirmed the company will enter the electric car arena with a “very, very sporty” model to appear at Frankfurt on September 15, in a “top-down” approach that is expected to see the ‘R8E’ debut alongside the new A5 Sportback and convertible R8 Spyder, which has been spied in testing at the Nurburgring.

“I’m not confirming R8, but at the top end and something very, very sporty, we are going to show in the upcoming Frankfurt motor show in September what we think the right way is of getting into the electric era is,” said Audi AG board member Peter Schwarzenbauer yesterday.

Speaking at the opening of Audi Australia’s new $50 million ‘Lighthouse’ dealership and national headquarters in Sydney, Mr Schwarzenbauer questioned the small EV strategy adopted by its most direct luxury rivals in BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

7 center imageLeft: Audi A1 concept. Below: VW Up! concept.

“If you go back to the past all major new technology was introduced top-down. I have a hard time to understand that now the only discussion about electric cars is very small cars,” he said“BMW has 500 Minis running around with batteries, Smart on the Mercedes side will have a battery in it and I have a hard time to understand what the business case should be in all of this, because if you look around the current battery package to really drive a car around costs roughly €12,000-15,000 ($A20,700-$25,900) – just the battery package.

“So now if you take a small car, which also costs around €12,000-$15,000, that means you are doubling the price, just by putting a battery (in it).

“I don’t know how much environmentally you have to be convinced that you spend the double of the money to drive electric. So I don’t see that this is a real business case and I think the electric car technology has to be introduced like all the other technologies in the world – top down.

Mr Schwarzenbauer said Audi’s EV rollout would differ markedly from both its premium German competitors and its parent company, which he revealed would showcase a small EV at Frankfurt. Volkswagen has committed to releasing its first EV, likely to be based on the Up! concept, in 2013.

“Our approach (to EV) will be a completely different one – we will start at the top-end,” he said. “We are going a different way.

“Volkswagen is going the direction of bringing a small car to the market and we think for a premium brand it makes much more sense to start a top-down approach, so our approach is to start at the high end.

“The one we are launching in Frankfurt, or showing in Frankfurt, will be for the Audi brand and I’m sure that Volkswagen has also something around electric in Frankfurt.”

Audi’s most senior salesman said the company’s EV plan would not require government assistance of public subsidies because buyers of top-shelf vehicles like the R8 would more readily pay the price premium for a battery-powered vehicle than small-car purchasers.

“I think that the price sensitivity at this end of the market – where we talk about a car which is in the range of an R8 – it is easier percentage-wise to put a battery in for €12,000 to €15,000. It is easier to compensate and accept by the consumer than putting it in at the low end.

“So we think that this might be more successful to introduce such a technology than going on the smaller car. We think it’s safer to go on the high end. We can launch this without any government incentive.”

Mr Schwarzenbauer’s comments came the day after the German government called for financial incentives starting in 2012 to support the sale of electric cars, which are expected to number one million in that country by 2020. Details of the plan proposed by German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet are due to be discussed in the next legislature period in spring.

As we’ve reported, Audi Australia managing director Joerg Hofmann last week fuelled speculation the mid-engined R8, which is now available with a Lamborghini-sourced 5.2-litre V10 in Australia, could come with electric power when he suggested it would be the perfect platform on which to introduce new technologies.

“I believe there is plenty of scope (for further drivetrains to appear in the R8),” said Mr Hofmann at this month’s launch of the R8 5.2 FSI quattro. “With the R8 you can do quite a few things. There is a lot we can do in the future.”

It is unclear whether the topless R8 Spyder will emerge with the coupe’s existing 309kW/430kW V8 or 386kW/530Nm V10 at Europe’s largest motor show, where Mercedes-AMG will debut its all-new gullwinged SLS supercar, initially powered by a 6.2-litre V8 before becoming available as a petrol-electric hybrid.

It is also unknown if the R8 EV will be an all-electric plug-in vehicle, which is unlikely, or whether it will be an electrically assisted hybrid with an engine/generator to charge a battery that provides additional drive to the rear wheels or, as with the SLS, to power electric motors that drive the front wheels.

Mr Schwarzenbauer reiterated Audi’s stance that hybrid is an interim step in the march to the all-electric vehicle that was yet to match the efficiency of its own turbo-diesel engines.

“I think hybrid is a technology where you have to get engaged in it, not because we think hybrid is the solution but hybrid is a step towards fully electric driving, so you need the experience.

“On the other hand if you look at purely the facts of what fuel consumption is all about then you see that some of our competitors, especially here in the Australian market, they have one model offering a hybrid.

“We have currently 21 models in the Australian market with a fuel consumption below 7.0L/100km, so I think it is always sometimes more interesting to write about new technology like hybrid, but the facts are different.

“The facts are that not one hybrid can really achieve what we can do today with a modern TDI engine.

“We have done a mileage marathon in the US driving from New York to Los Angeles driving across the country with hybrid technology and TDI technology and there was not one hybrid model – I won’t mention any names – which even came close to the consumption of what a TDI model can do.

“But of course the public perception is that diesel is an old technology. Maybe we’re not good enough in communicating how modern today’s diesel really is,” he said, adding that conventional internal-combustion engines had still more to offer.

“Not only on the diesel but on the petrol side, we still think that the combustion engine still has additional potential. We have committed ourselves to reducing the consumption by another 20 per cent by 2012, so we still see potential in the combustion engine.”

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