VW, Audi Mull Low-Cost, Mid-Engine Sports Cars
At the Los Angeles auto show in November, Volkswagen will unwrap a new mid-engine sports car concept. This marks the third iteration of a theme that started in 2003 with the Concept R and continued in 2005 with the EcoRacer.
The main force behind an affordable mid-engine sports car was Bernd Pischetsrieder. The ousted Volkswagen Group boss wanted to create a lightweight, budget-priced roadster along the lines of the Lotus Elise. There was even talk of Lotus building the car for VW, but in the end, no decision was made. Former VW brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard picked up the idea and green-lighted the quirky-looking EcoRacer, which was duly shot down by the bean counters. Now Martin Winterkorn, the current VW Group chairman, is on the case, and one can safely assume that he enjoys the support of Ferdinand Piëch, the powerful chairman of the supervisory board. The proposal we'll see in L.A. pursues three different strategic goals:
- For Volkswagen, it provides an attractive product in a niche that has long been defined by the Mazda Miata.
- For Audi, it offers the opportunity to switch the next-generation TT from the current FWD/AWD platform to a much more prestigious and more dynamically rewarding mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout.
- For Porsche (which recently cleared another legal hurdle in its quest to take control of VW), there's a chance to join the fray with a modern successor to the rear-engine 356.
It's a fascinating scenario, but it's completely unclear whether VW and Audi can pull off the idea. The problem is Porsche and its desire to protect the Boxster/Cayman, which is what killed the Audi R4, the proposed little brother to the R8.
Audi and VW have since learned the lesson. Thus, the new sports car concept aims at a relatively inexpensive, $25,000-to-$45,000 price range. Its launch timing - 2013 at the earliest - also carefully avoids competing with the Boxster, which undergoes a redesign in 2010.
Masterminded by Ulrich Hackenberg (R&D) and Marc Lichte (design), the sporty concept is compact, minimalist, and light. Since custom multilink axles are very expensive, we're likely to see a strut-based suspension; steering, brakes, dual-clutch transmission, and electronic systems would be sourced from the corporate parts bin. To steer clear of the Boxster, only four-cylinder engines would be used. VW would probably offer turbocharged 1.2- and 1.4-liter units good for between 105 hp and 160 hp. Audi would obviously go more upmarket and install a 180-hp, 1.8-liter turbocharged engine, a 2.0-liter version rated at 220 hp, and a 280-hp unit for an S-line model. Diesels are also a possibility. While Quattro four-wheel drive may be a useful marketing tool, it adds weight and incurs friction losses, and in this case, it's hardly a necessity in terms of vehicle dynamics.
"Sometimes, Porsche is too stupid to recognize an opportunity when we see one," states a critical voice from Stuttgart. "The Cayenne and the pending diesel/hybrid engine deals prove the value of cooperation. So why shouldn't Porsche use this opportunity to revive the 356? The most frequently voiced argument cites high production volumes, which would allegedly devalue the brand and overstretch our sales network. But who says that high volumes are a must? Isn't it time to create a car that is by definition in short supply, that is so desirable it will automatically build up its own hype, and that follows an innovative boutique approach in appearance and configuration?" A new 356 could almost revolutionize the segment below the Boxster by realizing a new level of performance, handling, style, and, yes, social acceptance - after all, we're not talking about a new 914 or a 924 here. But to make it work, the generals in charge must move from confrontation to cooperation. Says a senior manager from Porsche headquarters: "From now on, the sole deciders are pride, prejudice, and politics."
From Audi: "Going mid-engine would instantly silence critics who accuse the TT of being a reskinned, overpriced Golf."
From Porsche:"Our friends from Volkswagen and Audi know that we can throw a wrench in the works at any given stage of the program. But at least they have been wise enough to stay well clear of the Boxster segment. In addition, they are opening up a low-risk opportunity with a high potential for cooperation."
Have a Cigar (-shaped car) In 2002, VW's tandem two-seat, carbon-fiber-bodied 1-Liter concept car motored to Hamburg from Wolfsburg, carrying Ferdinand Piëch and Bernd Pischetsrieder (with Piëch driving, of course). Production, once planned for 2012, now allegedly has been moved up to 2010. A two-cylinder diesel doubles the cylinder count, but the design is little changed.
Other End Up! Cost accountants have prevailed in forcing a front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout on Volkswagen's Up! minicar (now due in 2011), rather than the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration favored by VW's engineers.