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Will we ever see an electric R8? Audi’s product guru talks 2014 and beyond

Technically Speaking Audi R8 header
Image used with permission by copyright holder

This is the first article in a new series called Technically Speaking with Marcus Amick

Following my recent test drive of the new 2014 Audi R8 in the hills of Malibu, CA overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which I’ve been reveling in ever since (can’t you tell), I had the opportunity to talk more in-depth to Mark Fruechtnicht, Audi’s product manager for the R8, about the changes for the 2014 model.  

The conversation was quite insightful and while Fruechtnicht confirmed that a consumer model of the all-electric R8 e-tron will not be introduced this year as previously speculated, I wouldn’t rule the idea out completely after learning more about the factors that drive Audi’s decisions around technology. 

One of the most significant changes with the Audi R8 for the 2014 model as it relates to technology is the replacement of the single clutch R-tronic transmission with the new seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission. It’s quite impressive as far as shifting and improving the everyday drive ability factor of the R8 as a high performance vehicle. What prompted the change?

When this car was originally developed, we didn’t have a dual-clutch transmission in house or was there one in the industry that fit exactly into the spot in the R8 being a mid-engine car. So picture that you got the engine behind you, then behind the engine is where the transmission is. That’s a really tight small space. 

What those engineers really did was an automated manual transmission. In laymen’s terms, that’s what the R-tronic was. It took some time to develop a dual-clutch transmission to fit exactly into that space behind the engine and still attach to the drivetrain in the exact same spot.           

When we spoke briefly in Malibu, you noted even before the test drive that the R8 did not have the same level of in-car technology featured in some of Audi’s other vehicles equipped with Audi Connect because the car is more driver focused. And honestly, I didn’t even miss the other features. However, wouldn’t it make sense to at least offer some of them as an option?

The company and the team of engineers that have been involved with this in Germany will tell you that we know what the technology is, we know how to build it.

It basically comes down to a life-cycle issue. The car came to market in 2008 and at that time some of the systems that are now in the newer vehicles just didn’t exist yet. And so the electronics system in the R8 isn’t capable of handling those newer technologies.

There’s a lot more horsepower, no pun intended, needed to make those new electronics work and that would have required changing out the entire electrical system of the R8 and at mid-life cycle the business case is not feasible.  The newer electrical system also adds weight.

Will the next generation R8 feature more of Audi’s premium in-car technology?

I don’t know what’s fully going to be in the next R8, but as far as Audi goes the motto is ‘Advancement Through Technology’ and I can only imagine that the halo car will have some of the technologies that our other vehicles have.

I assumed that Audi would sell more V8 models than V10s because with 425 horsepower and lb-ft. of torque that’s still a substantial amount of power for the average person, but I understand it’s quite the opposite. What is the current take on the 430-horsepower V8 model versus the 525-horsepower V10 model? 

I don’t have the insight into the global market. But I can tell from a total volume perspective, the U.S. is about a third of our sales in the entire world and as far as V8s, the take rate is about 25 percent V8 and 75 percent V10.

What do you expect the take rate to be on the V10 Plus?

Fifteen percent.

Considering that every inch counts when it comes to ensuring that a car like the R8 lives up its true performance capabilities, shedding 130 pounds off the car for the V10 Plus model couldn’t have been easy. How did Audi manage to get the car so much lighter?

Technically Speaking with Marcus Amick
Mark Fruechtnicht Image used with permission by copyright holder

There were some things that were fairly easy to do. We added carbon ceramic brakes. It’s a performance upgrade but it’s also lighter. Magnetic ride suspension is standard on the R8. Putting a finely-tuned fixed sports suspension system reduces weight, but also makes it more of a track car. Taking the electric seats out equipped in the standard and base version, takes out all the motors that are in the seat.  If you are taking the car to the track, you want it to be as light and as powerful as possible and you really don’t care if the seats are motorized.

The same thing with the seat covering, Alcantara is standard. It weighs less and it actually holds you in the seat a little better too because it has the higher friction. A lot of these things go hand in hand in that what the driver on a track would want helps to reduce weight. Further measures include the sound deadening or sound proofing in the engine bay. Someone that buys a higher horsepower car and is on the track probably wants to hear the engine a little bit more and it also saves weight to take some of that sound deadening out. There’s a smaller gas tank on the car as well. The one that’s standard on the car is 90 liters. It’s 75 liters in the V10 Plus.

Lastly, another measure used to save weight was taking out the Bang & Olufsen sound system that’s standard on the V10. For the V10 Plus, we took that system out and just left the standard Audi system. The more speakers on the Bang & Olufsen as well as the larger subwoofer adds weight. That’s not to say that a customer couldn’t add these options to the V10 Plus. 

While a number of carmakers are choosing to do away with manual transmissions in high-performance cars, Audi has decided to continue to offer a manual gated transmission. Why so?  

It is a sports car and many customers still like to feel that full connection and offering that third clutch pedal is something that a lot of customers just want to have. On top of that, going back to the heritage of vehicles and cars in general, having that gated shifter is something very special.

Even though there are many benefits to the S-tronic, some customers still want to have that traditional clutch and gated shifter. Over 25 percent of the take rate on theV8 model are manual transmissions.

There has been a lot of speculation swirling around about why Audi decided not to launch a consumer model of the R8 e-tron. What was the real motivation behind that decision?

… we’ve proven that we can build a halo car in that realm, but do we need to sell it to what we think will build a relatively small universe of people, we think that the market isn’t ready for it.

The reality is that it was always deemed to be a test fleet of vehicles that were going to be produced. And the decision of whether or not to bring the car to market was going to be made after the test fleet was built. The company and the team of engineers that have been involved with this in Germany will tell you that we know what the technology is, we know how to build it. 

We know how to build a pretty fantastic car as well because it had the fastest time at the Nurburgring at 8:88 minutes. But the battery life, cost, weight and charging time required as well as the infrastructure for it is not where we think it needs to be to make it a really viable business proposition.

We’ve proven that we could do it, we’ve proven that we can build a halo car in that realm, but do we need to sell it to what we think will build a relatively small universe of people, we think that the market isn’t ready for it.   

But that doesn’t mean that it will never be produced – right?

No, it doesn’t. But at the moment it is not on the table and we don’t expect to see it coming anytime soon.

Does that rule out the possibility of any alternative powertrain for the R8?

Yes, I think it does for the time being. Once you get into the second half of a vehicle’s life cycle you’re talking about the next generation of the R8 and then all chips could be on the table again and we do not know what different drivetrains those could include.

Some elements of this Q&A have been edited for clarity.

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Marcus Amick
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Marcus Amick has been writing about the world of cars for more than ten years and has covered everything from new automobiles…
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