THE ANNUAL 24-hour endurance thrash around Le Mans takes place next month with three teams hoping to secure overall honours with hybrid sports prototype racers.
Porsche, Toyota and Audi will line up against each other at the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe, each looking to secure the massive marketing shot in the arm guaranteed by winning the race.
The three main protagonists have varying records at Le Mans; Porsche is the manufacturer with most wins at with a total of 16 victories, while Audi is chasing it hard with 13 — all of which have been recorded in this century.
Toyota, despite many and varied attempts at winning the race, has never done so and its’ hopes this year rest on the spectacular looking TS040 hybrid which will be driven by a raft of former Formula One pilots including Sebastian Buemi and Alexander Wurz.
Porsche fields the 919 Hybrid for the likes of Mark Webber and Neel Jani in what is its’ second year back in the endurance racing scene and it too is hopeful of toppling the all powerful Audi R18 e-tron hybrids which have taken victory at the Sarthe in the last three runnings of the race.
I mention all this by way of introducing Audi’s road-going ‘e-tron’ technology which has seen the Ingolstadt concern develop a range of hybrid machines it hopes will strike a chord with the buying public on the back of the company’s Le Mans successes. The thinking being that race success will promote the viability of the technologies involved and thus attract buyers.
Audi introduced road-going hybrid technology some years ago in the R8 supercar, but it has taken some time to enter the food chain at — relatively — affordable levels. The A3 e-tron plug-in — and its’ sister car the VW Golf GTE — is actually quite a sophisticated piece of kit, even though it is visually difficult to tell it apart from its’ ‘normal’ counterpart.
Underneath the skin, however, it is very different and at the heart of the matter are two engines, one electric and one turbocharged four cylinder petrol. The former produces some 101 bhp and the latter 148 bhp, but the total system output is 204 bhp.
Headline statistics, however, focus on the potential consumption of the car, which Audi claims to be an astonishing 1.6 l/100 km — or 176.6 mpg. On top of that, the thing only emits some 37g/km of CO2. Yet, the car is capable of a 7.6 second 0-100 kph time and a top speed of 222 kph.
Surely then the Audi people have dug deep into their bag of tricks and sprinkled some magic dust over this machine — especially so when you consider that, with all the extra gizmology on show here, it weighs nearly 400 kg more than the standard A3 Sportback.
That Audi has overcome some fairly mammoth technological issues by melding these diverse technologies together — not least that the electric motor is sandwiched between a specially modified six speed dual clutch automatic transmission and the flywheel and thus provides a very normal driving feel — and one can only be impressed by the manner in which it has achieved its’ aims.
From the outside, this might seem like a fairly straightforward machine, but it is actually quite complex — something you discover when you park your butt in the predictably top class Audi cabin where the materials and build quality never fail to amaze.
Once you fire it up, you are faced with a choice of four driving modes — EV, Auto, Hold and Charge. The e-tron will automatically default to the first of those choices and as long as you don’t exceed 80 kph or indulge in kick-down moments, it will remain there.
The natural driving mode though is Auto where the car’s electronics systems juggle around the available choices, picking the best one for the moment in question. It is worth noting that the electric only 0-100 kph time of 12.7 seconds is not as sharp as that of the petrol only mode, but around town — where it is intended to do most of its’ work — it is snappy enough.
By and large the electric motor stays operational until 40 kph when the petrol unit kicks in and as is usually the case with such things, you motor along in almost complete silence, which can feel weird. In Auto mode the consumption levels do drop, but a figure around the 4.2 l/100 km mark (65 mpg) is still not to be snorted at.
In Hold mode, you’re using the petrol engine only and while that does sort of defeat the whole purpose of the thing, it does liven up performance to a point where the more demanding driver can still find some pleasure.
That said, however, the mish-mash of the drivetrain technology — not to mention the extra weight — do take their toll on the pleasure that is to be had from driving this thing.
Somehow you feel a little bit divorced from everything that is going on and I certainly never really felt like the car was doing everything I would have liked it to be doing. There is a disconnect there between man and machine.
The added weight too has had an effect on the demeanour of the car in handling terms and it is not as pin sharp in the handling department as its’ siblings. Grip levels are good and the steering is not overburdened by all those extra kilos under the hood.
Without doubt this is a huge step up from some of the anodyne hybrids we’ve been used to and in time it may well be regarded as a generational shift in the hybrid power movement.
However there are cost implications and I for one don’t see a public out there that is too willing to adopt these technologies at the price being asked for them. I mean, €40,000 for a family hatchback? I don’t think so.
So, while Audi may well be fighting the hybrid fight on the track at Le Mans in a couple of weeks time and demonstrating its’ technological prowess, I am not sure the company is yet at the point where those technologies have become a ‘must have’ for the buying public.
That’s still over the horizon.
The Cost: from €39,950 - €45,265 as tested.
The Engine(s):A combination of petrol and electric power which works very well and is not the anodyne experience provided by many hybrids.
The Specification: Typically upmarket for Audi, with build quality others only dream of.
The Overall Verdict: Maybe a bit ahead of its time.
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