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Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Continental: More Audi E-Tron Details, Hyundai i40, and Stability-Control Doomsday Looms in Europe

The Continental

Each week, our German correspondent slices and dices the latest rumblings, news, and quick-hit driving impressions from the other side of the pond. His byline may say Jens Meiners, but we simply call him . . . the Continental.

Audi e-tron Bits

Audi has disclosed a little bit more about the R8 e-tron, although not a whole lot. The final production car, which will be made in small numbers by Audi’s quattro GmbH subsidiary from late 2012 on, will look much closer to the regular R8 than the e-tron concept which I drove in California in December 2009. It keeps the R8's front end and the carbon side blades; the shape of the rear end, however, will differ significantly. The taillights will be positioned at an angle; it will be easy to tell the models apart from behind. Inside, there is a conventional dashboard, but the gear selector will only offer the positions reverse, neutral, and drive. There is a one-speed transmission; top speed will be governed at 125 mph, despite Mercedes-AMG allowing 155 mph in the SLS AMG E-Cell, since going above 125 would take too much of a toll on range. The weight target of just over 3500 pounds remains unchanged, despite a battery pack that weighs a whopping 1213 pounds and takes up the R8's entire engine compartment.

What’s not clear yet is whether the R8 e-tron will have just two electric motors (one for each rear wheel) or if an additional pair will be mounted up front to provide all-wheel drive. And Audi also hasn’t decided on the brakes: Electro-mechanical brakes would be a beautiful solution, but they need to offer enough redundancy to be absolutely fail-proof. The engineers might stick to hydraulic brakes after all. Chassis components are largely carried over from the R8, but the steering will be electro-mechanical. What I wasn’t told is whether you’ll be able to purchase an e-tron outright or whether it will only be possible to lease it. But it’s clear that it will be expensive—far more so than an R8 V-10.

And what about the rotary engine in the A1 e-tron? I hear it’s not a favorite with Volkswagen, but for now Audi engineers keep refining it. The 20-hp unit occupies the spare-tire well in the A1 e-tron, works as a range-extending generator only, and operates at speeds of up to 7500 rpm. If driven on the rotary engine only, the A1 e-tron would get 40 mpg on the Euro cycle. There are of course more efficient range extenders, but the rotary is unmatched in compactness and smoothness of operation. The rotary eliminates range anxiety, and adds a fascinating twist. If the car goes into production with the little engine, Audi will have to figure out how to build the things. The prototype rotary engines are supplied by AVL in Austria, but AVL is an engineering house, not a manufacturer.

Europe Only Stuff

Hyundai has already shown the i40 station wagon, and now we are treated to the first glimpse of the sedan. The sister model to our Sonata is distinguished from that car by a different rear end with an upwards kink in the C-pillar. CO2-obsessed Europe gets naturally aspirated fours and turbo-diesels—no 2.0-liter GDI for us here. It is safe to predict that the gasoline versions will be hopelessly underpowered.

VW is launching the limited-edition GTI Edition 35, celebrating 35 years of this class-defining and benchmark-setting hot hatch. Power rises from 210 hp to 235 in the front-driver, and it’s said to offer performance very close to the all-wheel drive Golf R‘s. More details are to follow in the first week of June.

Want a Town Car? Orders Have Closed

Dealers have placed their last orders for the Lincoln Town Car. You can still get one, but your dealer will have to search for your preferred configuration. The Town Car’s position in the market will be taken by a version of the MKT, to be called “MKT Town Car“. Stretched MKTs will get all-wheel drive. That’s because drivers of livery vehicles have let the company know that front-wheel drive wouldn’t be acceptable . . .

A Looming Disaster for Enthusiasts

Euro-NCAP, the Brussels-based Eurocrat agency awarding stars which more or less correlate with the crashworthiness of cars, is coming up with new ideas. No, I’m not speaking about a possible standardization of international crash-test procedures, which would be useful. There’s not exactly dramatic progress on that front, and we will continue to see vastly different results for identical cars, depending on whether they are tested in Europe, North America, or elsewhere.

No, Euro-NCAP wants to recognize carmakers for the quality of their stability-control systems. Specifically, by awarding those carmakers whose systems kick in early and keep the cars slavishly on the line, allowing no drift angle. Cars whose systems can be switched off could receive zero points. It’s all still under discussion, but the regulation could to take effect as soon as 2012 or 2013. Hard to believe this could happen, but that’s also what many believed regarding pedestrian protection and countless other regulations. The end of the European performance car? Premium carmakers are getting nervous, and enthusiasts should be, too.

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