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Audi R8 e-tron, stillborn greatness: Motoramic Drives

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Back in 2009, Audi made huge news by announcing plans to build an all-electric version of its then-new R8, the searingly hot supercar that was crafted from the rib of the Lamborghini Gallardo and which was the chosen ride of none other than Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark. Dubbed the R8 e-tron, the vehicle was on track to launch in early 2013 before Audi pulled the plug (pardon the pun) on the program late last year, having determined that the endeavor could not make a profit. And all of Audi’s products, as a matter of company policy, must be profitable in and of themselves if they are to see the light of day.

Fast forward to last week, when I found myself in Berlin driving one. Why? Well, why not? By the time the program was cancelled, Audi had already built 10 e-trons to series production quality, and despite the fact that they will never find their way into the hands of actual customers, the gorgeous red super coupes nonetheless represent rolling test beds of technology and thus, fit in well as a part of this year’s Audi Future Lab media program. So naturally, I took this one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drive it.

While the R8 e-tron may look much like the standard R8, the car shares only nine parts with the pre-2014 R8 that the engineers were working with during development. Everything else was redesigned and/or reconstituted in order to keep weight down. Thanks to abundant use of carbon fiber, the e-tron’s body panels, cabin tub and skeleton together weigh a scant 438 lbs., 50 lbs. less than the feathery body of the standard R8. Look closely and you’ll see that the hood is vented (and no longer conceals the trunk), most of the grillework and both side blades are sealed, and the glass rear window that gives onlookers a sweet view of the V-8 and V-10 engines in the production R8 has been replaced by a matte gray panel that weighs much less.

The tail (which now houses the trunk) is slightly taller and has no motorized spoiler. Finally, the undertray, needing to make no accommodation for a clunky exhaust system, is completely smooth. Nifty 19-inch wheels feature insets that close at 31 mph with centrifugal force to cut about 0.2 off the vehicle’s high-speed coefficient of drag (Cd), which is now heroically low at 0.27.

Inside, occupants sit in lightweight seats and face a dashboard that looks vaguely familiar to anyone who’s been in the refreshed 2014 R8. Bespoke instruments include LED coolant and battery state-of-charge indicators, and a power output dial where the tach would normally go. The smooth, 7-inch screen for the e-tron’s version of Audi’s MMI control system looks slick, and would have been cool to see on the facelifted 2014 R8, and they all work just fine, though considering this car’s mission as a technological tour de force, a bit more sense of occasion would have been welcome.

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One particularly cool R8 e-tron feature we’re certain to see again is the digital rearview camera and display system, necessitated by the paneled-off rear section and which offered a crystal clear view behind the car in a full-color LED-lit screen positioned where a rearview mirror would normally go. Admittedly, it was odd at first to see a screen where a mirror should be, but it didn’t take long to get used to.

The heart of the R8 e-tron, of course, is its electric powertrain, consisting of two independent 140-kW electric motors powering one rear wheel apiece. Total system output is 280 kW, equal to about 380 hp and a monstrous 605 lb-ft of torque at start. The juice is stored a massive, T-shaped battery pack located between and behind the seats consisting of 530 prismatic cells built by Sanyo that are kept at their optimal operating temperature by several hundred feet of liquid-filled cooling ducts. Storage is 48.6 kWh, or about twice the capacity of the Nissan Leaf’s battery, but still shy of the base Tesla Model S.

This arrangement renders the R8 e-tron a rear-wheel-drive sports car. Audi-philes may note that most Audi performance models — and all production R8s — have all-wheel drive. So why not the e-tron? Weight, already cited as a contributor to the e-tron's demise, would have been even higher if one or two electric motors were also fitted to the front wheels (as Mercedes-Benz has done with its 4,800-plus-lb. SLS AMG Electric Drive). The R8's nose also has little space for motors, and their arrival could have upset the 42/58 front/rear weight balance which Audi considers optimal.

Starting an electric car is usually silent and anticlimactic, but the e-tron’s start button summons an ominous, electronic Vader-esque hum (which Audi calls a “synthetic e-sound" in the video above) that plays through externally mounted speakers in compliance with new European sound mandates for electric cars. Some didn’t like it, most did. I thought it pretty bad ass and appropriately sinister for this car’s purpose. (The sound trails off once the car reaches 37 mph, and is virtually inaudible inside the cabin at speed.)

The course Audi drew at Berlin’s historic Templehof air field was less than a mile in length, but it contained some challenging curves and a straight stretch long enough to see about 80 mph before slowing for a tight left-hand kink. Better yet, Audi let us circle it again and again. And so we did.

I took the first lap in the most benign “Efficiency” setting, which caps throttle response and power output, and places stability and traction settings at their most cautious levels. Tip-in was measured, and steering felt surprisingly pure. But it still went plenty fast in this mode, if a little eerie, given the relative silence that we’re just not used when stomping on the go-pedal in a supercar.

The next lap I selected the Automatic setting, which unleashes all of the motors’ might and normalizes throttle input, whilst also upping the stability and traction control thresholds to sportier levels.

In this mode, full-throttle acceleration is like being shot out of a canon. Like all electric cars, max torque is available instantly, and when there is this much torque available right now, well, it literally takes your breath away. Every. Single. Time. Audi claims a 0 to 60 time of 4.1 seconds, and I have no doubt about that figure. And that torque is always around, mid-corner, during short bursts, wherever.

The Dynamic mode didn’t change the straight-line acceleration much, but offers a bit more torque vectoring which sends more power to the outside wheel in corners. This mode also disengages the traction control system (stability control stays on at an even higher threshold), and with the torque vectoring, enables one to charge through corners a touch faster.

All the while, the rather narrow (225/35 front and 275/35 rear) low-rolling-resistance tires proved stunningly adept at handling all that torque without squealing to high heaven, though the rear-drive layout imbued the e-tron with some tail-happy playfulness I’ve never experienced in an R8 before.

Being an electric car, the R8 e-tron has regenerative brakes, of course, with various levels of regenerative draw-down that could be selected via the steering wheel paddles. In its least regenerative setting, it lets the car fully coast, while in its most aggressive, it may pull up to 0.3g of stopping power, the maximum allowable brake force that does not require brake lights. Need more stopping power? Step on the brakes, at which point Audi says that the e-tron can recapture even more energy (up to 0.45g).

While I didn’t see the battery charge drop much during my stint behind the wheel, Audi says the e-tron could drive 135 miles or so on a charge — but warned that at autobahn speeds of 130 mph or so, that range could be depleted in just half an hour. Charging would have taken a minimum of an hour on the fastest circuit.

So why did Audi cancel this astounding automobile? Two reasons: cost and weight. Apparently, the battery-related technological advancements and cost reductions on which Audi had been banking at the program’s inception haven’t materialized. And the mass of the batteries, along with their cooling and control parts, required more lightweight materials than originally planned, which in turn drove up costs even higher.

Unless Audi overlooked some cache of buyers willing to pay 850,000 to one million Euros apiece for one — that’s about $1.1 million to $1.3 million, or roughly 10 times the price of the base 2013 R8 in the United States — one can see it would be a tough sell, especially considering how much fun the standard R8 is. Never mind that the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive would still be out there for competition, looking all fine with its gullwing doors and much lower (but still ridiculous) $522,000 price.

All of Audi’s efforts are not all for naught, as much of this technology could make it into a future product built by its Volkswagen-owned kin Lamborghini. And other aspects, such as the camera-based rearview mirror, brake blending, material innovations and self-sealing wheel covers seem like easy potential upgrades for everyday cars as well.

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