Audi E-Tron Spyder: First Drive

Sure, Audi's E-Tron is the sexiest electric car concept ever, but is it worth its weight in electrons as a true driver's weapon? We headed to the twisties of Southern California to find out if Audi's getting it right.

Are you tired of hearing about transportation of the future that puts low-emissions over raw speed and driverless safety ahead of driver involvement? It seems that Audi is too, if this E-Tron Spyder is anything to go by. It'll do 0-to-62 mph in 4.4 seconds and hit 155 mph, all while returning a combined average of 106 mpg with its diesel/electric hybrid powertrain.

At this point, I'd like to report that I drove the future and that it was good. But while I did drive the Audi E-Tron Spyder on the twistiest road in Southern California, Audi governed the one-of-two concept car to 40 mph and installed its stern German project manager in the passenger seat to make sure I didn't crash it.

Still, driving a $5 million concept car and having the cops close The Snake for you is still pretty damn neat, if only for the feel of your hair blowing in the wind flying over that low, speedster-style windshield. A section of Mulholland Highway, The Snake encompasses 21 perfectly-paved corners in a 2.2-mile section running through the Santa Monica Mountains north of LA.

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Based on a shortened, widened, heavily modified R8 platform, the E-Tron Spyder mounts a 3.0-liter, 296 bhp turbo diesel behind the passenger compartment and two electric motors up front developing a total of 88 bhp. The lithium ion batteries are also located under that front hood, stowing a total of 9.6kWh of electricity. The car can run on either power source alone or combine them for some seriously impressive, and eco-friendly, acceleration.

Unlike the rest of the Spyder, that all-new diesel is slated for near-term production. Expect to see it and its massive 479 lb-ft of torque in S models next year. I'll say that again. 479 lb-ft of torque from a 3.0-liter engine.

And torque is the name of the Spyder's game. Combine the output of that diesel with the 250 lb-ft from the electric motors and a curb weight of only 3,196 lbs and you start to understand where that 0-to-62 mph time comes from. The diesel drives only the rear wheels and the electric motors only the front, leading to a natural power split of 75 percent rear/25 percent front.

The 106 mpg efficiency comes, by Audi's own admission, from combining two of the most expensive types of motivation - diesel and electric. No word on what the total cost of the powertrain would be, but Audi mentions that such an arrangement could only ever make financial sense in a halo car. There's talk of installing something very similar in a limited production run of the R8.

Audi E-Tron Spyder: First Drive

Cost aside, a diesel plug-in hybrid is simply an awesome way to power a car. Not only does the E-Tron Spyder massively exceed the gas/plug-in Chevy Volt's 60 mpg, but also its 9.7 second 0-to-60 time and limited 100 mph top speed.

Thanks to the electric assistance, the Audi's TDI is able to operate more like a generator, running within a limited RPM range while the electric motor also compensates for spikes in throttle pressure applied by the driver. Slam your right foot down for a second and its the electric motors that provide the brief acceleration, not a cloud of black smoke from the hidden exhaust pipes.

Lacking any sound deadening of any kind - this is a show car afterall - all sorts of fun sounds are pumped into the passenger compartment by that TDI. There's the characteristic diesel clatter on startup, something I haven't heard since riding in Nissan Bluebird taxis in 1990s London, but also fun stuff like a strong whoosh from the turbochargers. This will all disappear in Audi's typical mastery of noise, vibration and harshness should such a powertrain ever reach production, of course.

That moment's hesitation on start from the diesel is also exacerbated by the concept's transmission - a CVT in place of the engineer's favored dual-clutch gearbox. Drive along slowly in electric mode, start speeding up and the diesel takes a moment to get itself started so it can share acceleration duties. The faster, more responsive DSG, which will be fitted to that diesel/plug-in R8, is said to eliminate that moment.

In all other conditions, the diesel/electric integration is flawless. Behind the wheel, you're unable to tell which motors are providing acceleration. There's no tug on the steering from the electrically-powered front wheels and no surge from the diesel as its RPMs remain fairly constant. The result is a car that, even in rough concept form, feels natural and intuitive to control.

I just wish I could have tackled some of The Snake's 21 corners at something approaching full throttle. It feels like this could be a real driver's car, maybe the first hybrid to deserve that label.

Photo Credit: Sean Smith