For Audi enthusiasts

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27 November 2005

There’s no denying that the Toyota Prius has garnered its fair share of attention. Toyota sells all they can build, while the car’s owner group has become a rather enthusiastic following despite the Prius’ relatively frugal equipment and uninspiring teardrop shaped packaging. Such success begs the question- could technology-driven Audi do a small hybrid just as well, if not better, and in a more stylish package?

Audi showed the Q7 Hybrid at the Frankfurt Motorshow last September with a prototype hybrid drive system that Ingolstadt is promising will see production in the near future. The SUV was equipped with a gasoline FSI V8 and billed as much a performance upgrade as a significant gas-saver. Audi suggested roughly 15% (1.494%) improved fuel consumption under normal use.

The Q7 Hybrid is an interesting prospect, but I think I have an idea for a more frugal offering. It would be one that showcases Audi’s own core competencies and could theoretically be built at a reasonable cost, given it would use an existing platform… that of the A3 5-door.

Audi’s A3 is already gaining some market share, establishing itself as a stylish small vehicle of quality befitting larger Audis. It’s sold in all major automotive markets, including Europe, the USA and China, while it’s relatively low cost and built on Volkswagen AG’s most widely used platform. So here’s the pitch.

Start with the aforementioned A3. Package the existing 1.9-liter TDI engine used by Volkswagen in the USA, or use the more powerful 2.0 TDI already available for the A3 in Europe. Equip this A3 Hybrid with existing state-of-the art technical wizardry such as the DSG dual clutch transmission and an optional Haldex all-wheel drive, to move this proposed hybrid into more premium territory. Finally, promote this A3 Hybrid as being on both the forefront in regards to alternative fuels, and also on the forefront of style and quality.

The hardest thing to estimate for in this plan is the cost and compatibility of Audi’s hybrid drive system. How expensive would it be to engineer the component for the Volkswagen Group’s smaller A-chassis? Would the unique architecture that allows for highly flexible use work with a transversely-mounted engine as in the A3? Would a version for the A3 have the same power output and mileage savings as the one shown in the Q7? I’m going to make a few assumptions here, specifically that a hybrid drive system would put out similar output and that if it did fit, the case to build a smaller hybrid like the A3 is probably an easy one to make. It would establish the drive as compatible with models from not only Audi, but also Volkswagen, SEAT and Skoda.

Certainly, making it workable with the wide range of Volkswagen Group marques would dilute the Audi’s uniqueness in the brand portfolio, but the A3 would be a strong place to launch the program in the smaller chassis offerings and Audi’s reknown for things technical would help the A3 Hybrid’s image. Plus, all-wheel drive is only the beginning of some premium componentry Audi could pull out of its partsbin for such an offering.

How much further could they go? Well, Volkswagen’s push with the Lupo 3L TDI showed how aluminum components can be developed for both performance vehicles (the Lupo GTI) and cars designed for improved fuel consumption like the 3L. By using the components on a wider range of cars, Volkswagen was able to realize savings in economies of scale by defraying development costs and bringing acquisition prices down by purchasing more of these components. Developing aluminum suspension components, body panels, etc. could help drop weight on an A3 Hybrid and also be used as standard fare on any upcoming S3 or RS 3 performance models.

It doesn’t end there though. There is more cool kit that could be applied to an A3 Hybrid offering. The A3 already has Audi’s large expansive glass sunroof known as Open Sky. Audi uses solar panels affixed underneath the glass in sunroofs to run air circulation systems in higher-end cars like the A8. It’s an interesting piece of equipment first shown in the quattro Spyder concept back in the ‘90s. However, rather than powering air circulation on the A3 Hybrid, the system could be wired to further charge the car’s batteries on a sunny day. Granted, the amount of power generated probably wouldn’t get the Audi very far on its own, but it would be a unique enough move that would generate as much interest in its uniqueness than it would perhaps in electricity.

Today’s hybrids power the batteries through the running of the engine and regenerative braking. Both require fuel consumption, though power from the solar panel, however minimal, would be acquired through no use of fuel. That has to be worth something.

An estimated fuel consumption for a U.S. TDI A3 can be estimated by using figures for the North American Jetta TDI with DSG transmission; 35-mpg city and 42-mpg highway. Add a 15% fuel savings as reported by Audi and you’re at 40-mpg city and 48-mpg highway. The Q7’s hybrid drive system adds 308 lbs. to the weight of SUV, though hopefully weight savings such as aluminum usage might help make up for the added ballast.

“These numbers are good,” you might say, “but they’re still shy of the Prius’ reported 60 mpg city and 51-mpg highway.” That much is true, though the Toyota gets the benefit of regenerative braking, something Audi could add to an A3 Hybrid, though no such braking system was shown on the Frankfurt Q7 Hybrid.

More important for driving enthusiasts with a hankering for performance, the Audi system can be used to augment acceleration. The unit fitted to the Frankfurt Q7 prototype is reported to augment the engine by 148 lbs. ft under full acceleration as a performance enhancement. Such a boost would raise the peak torque of the U.S. 1.9 TDI engine to a whopping 325 lbs. ft. and the European 2.0 TDI from 236 lbs. ft to 384 lbs. ft. Each peak torque figure comes in greater than even the S4’s 302 lbs. ft figure, brawny power that would leave the Prius and many performance cars in the A3 Hybrid’s low emissions dust.

Horsepower is also generously bolstered with the addition of 43-hp at peak, raising the U.S. 1.9 TDI to 143-hp and European 2.0 TDI to 283-hp.

Should Audi build something like an A3 Hybrid, I for one would be there in line to put down my deposit. Ingolstadt has become quite proficient at being strong in performance like their rivals from Munich. However, Audi’s brand identity is synonymous with technology and their well-known motto ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ makes the brand more credible in its presentation of a TDI Hybrid laden with technology like all-wheel drive and DSG or even more gluttonous options like Navigation plus or alcantara suede seats. Near as I can tell, such an offering would be right in line with the unique and out-of-the-box-thinking target customer that Audi has in mind with the A3. It would be a halo car with a conscience.

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