Concours & Car Shows

Audi PB18 Electric Supercar Concept Debuts at Pebble Beach

It looks like the future, but it’s surprisingly close to production-ready

The Audi PB18 is, at a glance, no more radical than the Paganis, Koenigseggs, and Rimacs of this world—exotic, but by no means impossible. Conceived in the company’s California design loft in Malibu under Gael Buzyn, the striking two-seater looks vaguely like a re-skinned R8 e-tron. Painted mid-gray with a pinch of metallic, the potential battery-electric evolution of Audi’s only true sports car is not a coupe or a roadster but a veritable shooting brake.

The outline drops sharply just before it reaches the relatively slim C-pillars, the massive U-shaped roof-mounted wing extends automatically at speed, the rear side windows stretch all the way to the chunky rear end, and the compact liftgate provides access to a deep and wide 16.6-cu-ft cargo deck. The greenhouse features such anomalies as two pairs of A-pillars, asymmetrically split windows with slim upper panes angled inwards, and what is perhaps the biggest windscreen in automotive history, reaching from the roof almost all the way down to the road.

The car’s clamshell front end incorporates a line of piercing matrix headlamps in style with the vivid full-width taillights, two trapezoid lateral air intakes feeding the brakes and the front motor, and a yawning single-frame grille. As the air passes through it and then through the transverse radiator, it creates serious downforce before exiting over the screen. At the trailing edge of the flush-fitting underside, we find a similar ground effect arrangement governed by an adjustable flap positioned above the diffuser.

The PB18 sits on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, measures 178.3 inches in length, is 78.7 inches wide, and 45.3 inches low. The wheels measure 22 inches and feature active spokes for aerodynamics and brake cooling.

“PB18 and the Aicon are the bookends of Audi´s e-tron product strategy,” explains Gael Buzyn. “While the sports coupe is a level-zero [battery electric vehicle] with no assistance systems at all, Aicon is a fully autonomous level-five long-distance cruiser.”

Next year, Audi will likely show two more concept cars relaying its visions for level three and level four, namely a compact city cruiser and a midsize crossover.

“The role of PB18 is to transfer automotive passion to the age of electrification. Our first over-the-ocean project was kicked off on May 18 this year—no bull. While the design work was done in the U.S., the car was taking shape in Ingolstadt where our modelers would complete a full-size clay model in only two days,” explained Buzyn. “Progress was monitored simultaneously on both sides of the pond via virtual reality goggles. The almost fully functional show car was built—in record time—by a specialist near Ingolstadt. What makes me particularly proud is the fact that this is not a re-bodied Lamborghini or a blueprinted Porsche. PB18 is a proper Audi from bottom to top, unique in terms of content and appearance.”

The PB18 can be a two-seater or a single-seater with the driver positioned in the middle of the vehicle. This works with the help of a motorized sliding cockpit module. The seat, the four-point belt, a pair of lateral protection elements, and drive-by-wire activation for steering and brakes can all be moved around the cabin. To keep complexity at bay, this is a one-size-fits-(or doesn’t fit)-all layout since neither the seat nor the pedals are adjustable.

The central driving position offers uncluttered visibility to the extreme—you can actually see right down to the road where, on demand, a virtual-reality display pops up and plots the racing line or the navigation path. The seating position is almost as low and stretched out as in an LMP race car. To get in or out of the gray flounder, you must first open the door and then the front-hinged protection bar. This is undoubtedly a head-turning solution for a design exercise, but it probably is a bridge too far for a production car. While the seat assembly can be locked in three different positions, the passenger appears to be confined to an uncomfortably narrow and thinly padded lounge chair contraption.

Man-made materials that look and feel like suede, velvet, and cowhide cover the cabin surfaces. The cockpit is stylish, futuristic, visually overwhelming and, functionally, incredibly versatile. The dominating element is a transparent full-width OLED display that can be black panel sparse, cinemascope busy, or almost anything in between. In addition to the familiar MMI functions, the PB18’s controls invite you to dial in different road and race manners. The instrumentation is mind-bogglingly complex, the resolution equals the very best desktops, and Audi claims the extended array of dynamic assistance systems enhances rather than stifles the driving experience.

Thanks to a lightweight mix of aluminum, carbon fiber, and composites, the Audi tips the scales at 3,417 pounds. Its packaging concept does not differ much from the mid-engine R8—except the position of the R8’s V-10 is now occupied by the compact battery pack. This layout ensures a low center of gravity, short overhangs, and a well-balanced weight distribution. A liquid-cooled, solid-state 95 kWh battery pack provides the energy, enough for 300 miles of range in the latest WLTP cycle, and charge time will come down to just 15 minutes as soon as the 800-volt network is in place. Wireless charging is an option. The three motors unleash up to 670 hp (or 764 hp in overboost mode) of power and 612 lb-ft of torque. While a single 201-hp motor drives the front wheels, each rear wheel has its own 201-hp motivator. The 0-62-mph acceleration time is in the low 2-seconds bracket, and top speed varies from a range-enhancing 90 mph to a no-holds-barred 125-plus mph.

The so-called Torque Control Manager, together with stability control, determines the car’s handling characteristics. This active torque management system splits the torque flow front-to-rear and side-to-side to offer eight different presets, ranging from maximum stability to maximum dynamics. Each mode comes with a specific display configuration. A double wishbone suspension layout at each corner relies on pushrod (front) and pullrod (rear) elements supported by adaptive magnetic-ride shock absorbers.

Regenerative braking plays a central role in the PB18 experience. Although the four 19-inch carbon-ceramic discs and monster calipers are happy to squash excess energy with time-warp vigor, there is no need to touch the left pedal in normal driving thanks to the drag produced by the re-gen effect.

Many of the chassis’ aspects were inspired by the R18 e-tron quattro race car, but what Audi doesn’t want you to know at this point is that PB18 sits, by and large, on the brand-new PPE platform co-developed with Porsche. No, this is not yet the final thing, or the next R8, by any stretch of the imagination, but given the potential commonality in terms of hard points and componentry, the road to production for the PB18 should be relatively straightforward.

Since the current R8 will definitely not be replaced with another conventional R8, this remarkably coherent all-electric concept car may be a timely substitute come 2021 or 2022. After all, PB18 is e-tron in its purest form, fascinating and sustainable, hot-blooded yet highly efficient. A sports car like this is bound to make more sense for Audi than any of the alternative scenarios, whether that’s piggybacking Lamborghini´s next Huracán, waiting for Bentley to eventually get its act together, or having Porsche call the shots with its own bespoke SPE architecture.

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2020 Audi R8

MSRP $169,900 5.2 quattro Coupe