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Audi's Sexy e-tron Could Be a Tesla Model S Competitor, But Not Now

Could Audi's high-performance, undoubtedly sexy e-tron go head-to-head with the Tesla Roadster (or even the forthcoming Model S) in the marketplace? It's an interesting question, but not one likely to be put to the test: Audi's e-tron is a very sophisticated EV, but the company doesn't intend to make more than about 100 of them by late 2011 in what it calls a "demonstration production run." But maybe Audi should think bigger.

The e-tron two-seater (a sort of TT on plug-in steroids) is a "Quattro" in that it has four electric motors--two in front, two in back, one for each of its wheels. Audi claims 313 horsepower and an incredible 3,319 foot pounds of torque at the wheels. (This figure has been disputed, but Audi sent me detailed calculations justifying it, and pointing out that the torque is available "from the first rev.")

The e-tron accelerates from zero to 62.14 mph in 4.8 seconds (healthy competition for the Roadster), with a range on a 42.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack of 154 miles. A combination of aluminum and composites are used to keep the weight down to 3,500 pounds (including the 1,000-pound battery pack). "The design makes it clear that the e-tron belongs in the major leagues of sports cars, and the package takes into account the specific realities of an electric vehicle," claims Audi. "The battery is directly behind the passenger cabin for an optimal center of gravity and axle load distribution.

I haven't driven the e-tron yet, but Audi promises to have me in the driver's seat soon. Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times put in some highway time and described the e-tron as "a spectacularly cool and highly evolved prototype of an electric sports car."

German automakers remain skeptical about electric cars, preferring clean diesels. There are fewer than 1,500 EVs registered over there, just .035 percent of the vehicle fleet. And according to Audi spokesman Jeff Kulhman, the e-tron does not represent a direct pathway to market for the company, but a testing bed for new technologies, such as air-cooling of battery packs and motor integration. "We are many years away from the mass-marketing of EVs," he said. "We'll have petroleum for quite a long time."

Another Audi man, Bradley Stertz, points out that the e-tron, based on the supercar R-8, is "not just a fanciful concept--we're serious about the car." He also cautions that it could be another generation before most people are in EVs, but "we don't have to wait 20 years to develop EVs and work on the hurdles they present."

Neil thinks that if the mainstream automakers--with their overwhelming engineering clout--really get involved in making high-performance EVs, it spells trouble for independent companies like Tesla and Fisker. But that's probably premature. Kuhlman said the e-tron should not be seen as a Tesla Model S competitor, at least not yet. "I'm not sure there is a viable business case at this point," he said. "But we do want to put progressive technology on the road."

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