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First Look: Detroit Showcar Audi E-tron

Some four months after introducing the e-tron at the Frankfurt auto show, Audi is hinting at how it might expand its use of electric technology with a new concept: the e-tron.

No, this is not a case of corporate senility. Despite the lack of a new name, the Detroit e-tron is in fact a unique concept. Based once again on the R8's aluminum spaceframe, the new e-tron is more than a foot shorter than its predecessor and nearly 500-pounds lighter. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Detroit car loses its front electric motors, meaning it does not feature Audi's signature Quattro all-wheel drive. Instead, two motors mounted on the rear axle combine for an estimated 201 hp and 1955 lb-ft of torque (the latter figure apparently continues Audi's highly suspect practice of providing multiplied torque figures).

The result is a concept that's slightly less capable than the original e-tron (0-62 mph takes an estimated 5.9 seconds) but potentially more fun thanks to its small size - it looks positively diminutive next to an R8 -- and relatively light weight (less than 3000 pounds). It would also presumably be less expensive, though that too, would be relative given the price tag of more than $150,000 Audi will likely place on the first e-tron when it goes on sale in 2012. As in the Frankfurt concept, lithium-ion batteries mounted behind the driver provide an estimated 155 miles driving range.

At the moment, Audi is calling this variant an "experiment." However, the company makes no secret of its intent to market e-tron not just as a name for one vehicle, but as a distinct sub brand not unlike Quattro and TDI. The concept also makes plain Audi's intent to very gradually trickle down its electric vehicle technology into more affordable products.

We're told this concept is fully functional, which, of course, means we'll be looking to drive it ("When the weather's warmer," said one engineer). Stay tuned.