Audi e-tron Spyder

The Audi e-tron Spyder is a plug-in hybrid with a twin-turbocharged diesel. But it also previews a baby R8 sports car. We drive it...

Overall Auto Express Rating

5.0 out of 5

The e-tron Spyder gives us a glimpse at an Audi sports car that's just a few years away. It also gives us an idea of how the company is thinking of powering it – and other models – too. We love the way it looks, and on the basis of this concept, we reckon the way it drives is very impressive too. When the production version arrives, it is likely to be as a result of a collaborative project with fellow VW Group brand Porsche. Various internal debates on the two cars mean there is still some way to go, but Audi has already shown it can sell a proper supercar like the R8 – a smaller, more affordable brother would be even more desirable.

The Audi e-tron Spyder is the latest in a line of eco-friendly sports cars. It follows all-wheel-drive and rear-wheel-drive versions of the original e-tron electric car concept, but the difference here is that this particularly e-tron has no roof – and it's also a plug-in diesel hybrid. 

Far from being a flight of fancy, insiders say it previews a new sports car that will arrive in showrooms in around three years' time. Boasting a more conventional petrol engine range and a hybrid too – and available as a coupe and roadster – it will rival the Jaguar C-X16, sitting above the TT but below the R8 supercar with a price tag of around £50,000. 

Watch this video of the e-tron Spyder driving through California below:

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In the flesh, the first thing that strikes you about the e-tron Spyder is its compactness. At 4.06m long, 1.81m wide and 1.11m tall, it's shorter and much lower than a Porsche Boxster, but just as wide. The detailing is amazing, from the sharp lines of the carbonfibre bodywork to the dramatic grille and wheels which get 66 individual parts. One of the best features is a plug-in socket for the electric motors, which hides behind the four-ringed badge on the bonnet, and is revealed at the touch of a button. 

With no roof and just a speedster-style screen you get the feeling it's going to be a very aggressive and uncompromising machine to drive, but as soon as you open the conventional door and slide across the wide sill into the one-piece carbonfibre shell seats you feel very comfortable.

The dashboard is simple yet stunning, made of a slab of leather, aluminium and carbonfibre and the seats even adjust electrically – unheard of in a concept car, making it easy to find a sporty low driving position. Starting the e-tron Spyder is another joy. Press a button on the gearlever and it rises theatrically from the centre console, priming the systems, readying the complex drivetrain for the off.  

Behind you is a 296bhp 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 diesel which drives the rear wheels, while at the front are a pair of electric motors, which individually drive the front wheels and together produce 86bhp. 

At speeds of up to 37mph for distances of up to 31miles, the car can run on electric, front-drive, zero emisson power alone. Put your foot down and the V6 diesel – sourced from the Audi A6 – joins the party, giving four-wheel drive and a total output of 382bhp with a truck-like 1,002Nm of torque.

In such circumstances, Audi reckons the e-tron Spyder will be able to do 0-62mph in 4.4 seconds – quicker than a Porsche 911 Carrera S – and hit an electronically limited top speed of 155mph. But that's backed up by remarkable efficiency. In theory, total range is 620 miles between fill-ups while Audi claims 59g/km CO2 emissions and up to 128mpg.   

The electric motors' batteries can be topped up by regenerative braking or a conventional household socket, but the really clever part is that they can adjust the car's handling, via torque vectoring. Short bursts of acceleration or braking power are applied to individual wheels, increasing stability and grip. 

The aim is a 'neutral' handling state with neither the front of the car or the rear sliding. We'll have to take Audi's word for that – this one-off concept car isn't meant to be hurled into bends, despite sharing its front suspension with the TT RS and its rear set-up with the R8 supercar. It uses a unique version of Audi's tried and tested aluminium spaceframe chassis too. 

The car we're driving in Malibu, California, is also quite a different beast to the original 2010 Paris Motor Show concept. To actually get the e-tron Spyder operational, engineers have had to swap the show car's seven-speed twin-clutch 'box for a Multitronic CVT unit – it's more compact – and they haven't had chance to reduce the weight either (it's crept up from 1,440kg to around 1,650kg).

So what is it like to drive? Well, despite the fact that the e-tron Spyder uses a steering system from the A1 – and it's a bit numb as a result – it actually feels like it will make for an exciting drive. The thick plastic speedster screen doesn't do wonders for vision – it bisects your view out – but the leather wheel is tactile and a joy to hold. 

It's surprisingly nimble and turns into corners swiftly. The combination of the two power sources is certainly an odd one – pulling away results in lots of whirs from the electric motors as the e-tron Spyder uses its battery power at low speed, and when the big diesel arrives, it's with quite a gruff, angry note, that's very reminiscent of a commercial vehicle. That's down to the almost complete lack of any silencing.  

Because of the CVT 'box, there are no gearshifts, so the engine is kept at the revs where it generates maximum torque. Not good for refinement, but there's no doubting the instant punch available. And the electric motors do a good job of boosting low-speed urge, giving the diesel's turbos time to spin up.

Accelerate hard out of a tight corner and there's plenty of traction too, the e-tron Spyder shooting out the other side in true Audi quattro style, feeling very fast indeed. Overlayed with some whooshes as the turbos chime in and it certainly makes for a memorable experience.

Add in a five-cylinder warble, a twin-clutch paddle shift gearbox and meaty steering – as the production car is set to – and we can see this would be a lot of fun.

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