A silent revolution rarely takes as striking form as this. You may down play the Audi e-tron Quattro's role as just a treat for the crowds at auto shows, but this, in fact, is no toe-in-the-water fantasy. It's a very concrete message about what we can expect from the German carmaker as soon as 2018, in terms both of the body design and what's hiding underneath. This is the next Audi Q6, and it's electric. Audi plans to sell 45,000 of them annually, a large portion of which are expected to be ordered right here in the USA. To meet this goal, Audi is already working on refurbishing its factory in Brussels, Belgium, to create state-of-the-art assembly lines for its electric cars and batteries. Audi's zero emission history starts here.
Ironically, the Volkswagen diesel scandal couldn't have come at a better moment. While it hit the headlines, the German giant had the answers already up its sleeve, as if it was expecting this to come sooner rather than later. Two headliners of the IAA Frankfurt auto show in autumn came from VW Group's protagonists, Audi, and Porsche. Their cars shared some fresh design ideas, some of their EV technology, and they also had the same enemy. It was Tesla that pointed out all the things that are wrong about the current automotive industry giants: Their fear of taking big chances, dreaming big, and accepting the reality, rather than trying to eschew it. The Germans understood all this if not rather late, jumping on the EV bandwagon after everyone else; falling not only behind the slightly crazy Elon Musk, but also behind the Japanese carmakers.
Stefan Knirsch, the newly named R&D chief at Audi took over the post from Ulrich Hackenberg, argues that "throughout the last year [Audi] has been intensively evaluating different forms of electrification tailored for each vehicle and drive concept, both in terms of customer expectations and market conditions, but also potential to excite." After years of hesitantly experimenting with different alternative solutions (pure EVs, hybrids, range-extenders, fuel cells), the first Audi hybrid, the compact A3 e-tron, entered the market in 2014, albeit to limited customer interest. The recently introduced three-cylinder petrol motor and the Atkinson cycle-supported 2.0 TFSI found in the new A4 are great pieces of engineering, but still that's not enough to fortify the brand's "Vorsprung durch Technik" motto. As Knirsch admits, "the plug-in hybrid, which can be recharged by connection to a power outlet, plays a key role for us as a bridge technology." This means that before we'll see an Audi fed exclusively via the power cord, first we'll get the plug-ins. Knirsch again: "Audi is systematically electrifying drivetrains in all the segments. Deliveries of the Q7 e-tron Quattro in Europe will start this summer."
These cars will get us acquainted with the idea of an electrified Audi, but still the upcoming Q6 will be the boldest, clearest sign that Audi is pushing forward in the electric revolution. And not only that; e-tron Quattro concept was quickly followed by its alternatively powered twin h-tron Quattro concept, indicating that Audi is thinking seriously about the hydrogen fuel-cell technology, too.
The fact that the first zero-emission Audi to enter the market is an SUV makes a statement. As a default car choice for Americans, the crossover has the biggest chance of succeeding here, which shows how decisively important this market is for Audi to progress with its global revolution. Currently every third car sold by Audi is an SUV and that share is expected to rise. Stefan Knirsch explains, "an all-electric sport SUV enables us to perfectly showcase the strengths of our brand. Besides a dynamic drivetrain and suspension, the comfort, particularly in the interior, and long-distance capability plays an important role". A relatively big SUV was chosen also thanks to its ease of swallowing a huge number of batteries needed to achieve the claimed competitive range and the weight penalty that inevitably follows. As before, Ingolstadt's smartest minds didn't see a need to develop custom architecture for an electric car, preferring to adapt what they had on hand. For the Q6 they chose a modified version of the flexible and relatively affordable MLB super evo platform, which will be seen in the next Q5 as well. The MLB was designed with electric drivetrains in mind when it was signed off back in 2007, so the penalty of introducing a flock of batteries to the interior of the car could be minimized. The cabin isn't compromised by their packaging in any way, leaving enough space for five passengers and all 21.7 cubic feet for their cargo.
The liquid-cooled lithium-ion batteries provided by Korean giants LG and Samsung are neatly hidden under the passenger compartment in flat boxes that fill the underbody. As they're mounted in a way that allows easy and fast access for service needs and integrate with the chassis for extra structural rigidity, there's little to blame from the engineering point of view. Audi did their homework analyzing competitors' designs and improving them, which surely is a feat, taking into consideration that this is just a traditional chassis adapted for its new role. The Germans still haven't found a miraculous answer for the electric drivetrain's weaknesses. To achieve the claimed performance and range numbers, the e-tron needs to carry a whopping 1,433 pounds of batteries, which pushes the total weight of the car up to 4,850-5,500 pounds—Cadillac Escalade territory. And, to be totally honest, in the times of the revolutionary Tesla Model X, e-tron's numbers don't sound like much of a breakthrough. But then again, is 429 hp with a 496hp overboost option, 590 lb-ft of torque, and 4.6 seconds to 62 mph really all that bad? In fact, the figures nearly match the Porsche 911 Carrera.
As Knirsch promises, it's not only the raw numbers that will bring Audi's electric SUV closer to its very distant Zuffenhausen-born relative: "In the future of Audi electric mobility, there will be a focus on properties that are typical of Audi cars, such as dynamic handling and excellent quality. Rest assured that our goals for our electric-powered models are the same as for any other new project. This means primarily top road performance, handling, range, design... In short, driving pleasure." The power in the e-tron Quattro is born by the effort of three motors, one in the front and two in the rear, that bring the weight distribution to the nearly ideal 52/48 percent front/rear. They swiftly imitate the best of the Quattro impression by juggling the power not only between the axles, but also between each of the wheels, based on the needs of the rear-biased torque vectoring system. The on-road agility is further supported by all-wheel steering and a Sport driving mode, not far off from what can be seen in today's Audis. Under the huge 265/40 tires on 22-inch wheels hides not much less extreme carbon-ceramic brakes, but will probably only appear on the RS version, which is also in talks. Other less-powered versions, downgraded to about 300 hp, should follow. All of these variants will most likely be equipped with the height-adjustable air suspension taken from Q7 and the ample brake recuperation, as in the concept car presented here.
With a 311-mile range for the e-tron Quattro concept, the future Audi EVs should not only be as good to drive as their petrol-powered counterparts, but also be able to go nearly as far. Audi is developing a system that, apart from the regular AC, will also be able to utilize DC charging. Theoretically this would speed up the process of charging to an even 15 minutes for 80 percent fill of the batteries, with the full battery reached in less than 50 minutes. The biggest challenge lies not in the 800-volt technology itself, but the cost of implementing this solution. Kirsch states, "Audi is closely monitoring the cell manufacturing market, which is developing at a rapid pace." From what we understand, the Germans expect the prices to fall significantly in the foreseeable future. The only threat then is posed by the charging infrastructure. Despite great efforts, even in their home country, the German carmakers haven't been able to reach an agreement among each other, the suppliers, and legislators, so even Audi admits there's still a long way to go before any progress is made. Still, for the time being, the Volkswagen Group doesn't see viability in developing its own charging infrastructure, seemingly wanting to do everything just exactly the opposite way of Tesla.
In some respects, this means taking a step ahead of Tesla. Audi wants to maximize its advantage in the places where its can capitalize on its experience with petrol-powered cars, like aerodynamics, handling, and comfort. After the surprisingly efficient Q7 design and Prius-leveling A4 limousine slippery body, the electric cars to come will take aerodynamic efficiency to the next level with active moving body parts. As the e-tron Quattro's speed increases, it automatically extends its flaps and skirts on the sides along with the wing and diffuser on the rear end to reach a scarcely believable drag coefficient of 0.25. A relatively small frontal area and no side mirrors also help, but before the designers got carried away with the sci-fi details, Audi included only these details in the e-tron's design that the brand is determined to incorporate in its normal production cars.
As Kamil Labanowicz, the Audi designer previously responsible for the 2009 Audi R8 V12 TDI concept car who has won the internal competition for designing the e-tron Quattro is keen to point out, this is very much how the Q6 will look when it hits the streets in 2018. "We spent much time perfecting the details, like the area around the A-pillar that looks really ungainly on most of the other cars, or the lines creating the shape of the rear wing, so it looks in its place whenever it is in its standard or extended position." As Kamil's boss Mark Lichte wants to put more emphasis on separating the design language for different types of Audi models, the e-tron presents a sneak peek of how future electric Audis will look in general. They will be recognized by their bold details like the evolutionary grill treatment distinguished by five horizontal chrome bars or the front lights extended below for a more complex rich design. The soon to become standard "signature look" of the OLED Matrix lights is reflected on the rear, where the LEDs are linked together by a full-width horizontal light bar that's going to be a design feature for the Audi high-end models, starting from the next-gen 2017 Audi A8. Other design feats include some additional ventilations and lines on the aggressively shaped hood and solar panels on the roof aiding to seize energy wherever possible (the roof itself is said to be able to grasp enough energy to power the car for a claimed 621 miles per year).
Audi's EV era is just around the corner, and it seems it could have far greater impact on Audi as a whole than we can imagine. Tesla has shown alternatively propelled cars can keep us entertained and it seems the Germans have everything that they need to follow suit. But while that proves just how visionary Elon Musk is, electric Audis may cause him some sleepless nights in return...