First Drive: Audi e-tron Spyder Concept

The Audi e-tron Spyder, a concept-darling at the 2010 Paris Motor Show, looks perfectly at home in Malibu. The e-tron Spyder's many grilles and vents, not to mention its wraparound windshield, evince a haughtiness that seems natural here.

Audi brought the precious car to California and allowed us a short test on Mulholland Highway.

Naturally, our eyes, ears, and fingertips delighted at the opportunity to partake of this elegant speedster. We psyched out at first touch of the stitching on the Alacantara-wrapped, squared-off steering wheel, and again at the first whir of the two front-mounted electric motors. The waking of the grumpy, mid-mounted twin-turbo 3.0L TDI V-6 did us in.

Because Audi knows carbon-fiber body panels are no match for rocky cliff sides, they limited the car to a top speed of 60 mph. Nevertheless, thrills awaited.

When it was time to launch, the e-tron Spyder crept along in electric mode, and we descended from Rancho Cielo, the hilltop estate that hosted Audi's paddock. As an indirect offspring of the all-electric A1 e-tron coupe from the 2010 Detroit show, the e-tron Spyder, which has plug-in capability, covers 31 miles in electric mode -- but maybe not in the Santa Monica Mountains. The motors draw from 69 front-mounted lithium-ion cells to produce 64 kw, but by themselves they aren't powerful enough to drag the e-tron Spyder up such tortuous grades. (Even with the carbon fiber hung from a space frame, it's a 3196-pound load.) As soon as the California Highway Patrol shut down a short section of the county road that conducted the unregistered show car down to Mulholland, the turbodiesel V-6 roared like an uncaged predator, offering 300 hp and a big whomp in the back as 479 lb-feet of torque came into play.

With so many twists and turns on steep terrain, we didn't mind that the powertrain incorporated a CVT. On these taxing slopes, the transmission performed fine and saved the distraction of fussing with paddle shifters. Admittedly, having a torque band that reached halfway to Hawaii didn't hurt.

The e-tron Spyder is a product of Audi's design studio and engineering staff, but like a schoolchild who manages to avoid a dreaded course, it skipped its term with the acoustic department. As a consequence, the electric drive's unsuppressed whirring and whining was sometimes disconcerting. And the diesel engine conveyed forthright bellicosity. We appreciated anew all the foam that goes into body cavities, and the blanketing under engine covers and against bulkheads, to make a production car produce just the right sounds.

On the other hand, the expected wind rush over the wraparound shield never developed. It's true that we failed to pull off the much-desired, hang-onto-your-hat dash over an open stretch of road to produce the claimed potential160-mph top speed. Through all these twists and turns, the electrically assisted steering was much better than expected, returning enough weight to share some extra with the women of Malibu. The ceramic brakes had plenty of bite, although they added some barks of their own.

The suspension resembles that of the R8, with double wishbones in front and trapezoidal links in the rear. On such a smooth road at low speed, we can't tell you much about ultimate handling or ride quality. It was curious, though, that we were asked to avoid the cat-eyed reflectors on the center stripe. The idea was evidently to avoid knocking the ultralow-profile 20-inch tires off the alloy rims.

At 159.8 inches long and 43.7 inches tall, the e-tron Spyder is about the size and shape of one of the Jolly Green Giant's garden clogs. But without a mechanical connection between the electrically driven front wheels and the rear ones powered by the V-6, the interior is open and roomy. The horizontal dash and the arching center console are not connected. A modernist architect like Eliel Saarinen, who helped to create Detroit's Cranbrook Schools campus, would appreciate the beauty.

Audi spokesmen at Rancho Cielo said what all manufacturers say about concept cars: "The e-tron Spyder shows many details and solutions for the future. Of course, if sufficient interest is shown, there is always a chance ... blah, blah, blah."

It more likely suggests the future TT. As hybrid models of the Q5, A6 and A8 are going into production, the engineering solutions in the e-tron Spyder show the way to further electrification.

But we think it'd be terrific to see Malibu every day through wraparound glass: the distortion might put a few pounds onto those emaciated women.

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