Audi and Mercedes Unveil The Future of Fun
More than mere eye candy, these concepts from Audi and Mercedes preview some astonishing all-electric future flagships
THE AUDI PB18 and Mercedes EQ Silver Arrow might look like two intriguing concepts, but they’re far more than that. Each is central to its maker’s electric future – the PB18 takes inspiration from Audi’s Le Mans-winning R18 and could be the way ahead for the R8 supercar, while the EQ could well evolve into the halo car of Mercedes’ entire electric EQ range. As if Elon didn’t have enough to worry about…
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS GOING ON HERE?
Mercedes’s EQ Silver Arrow concept – revealed at Pebble Beach – is if nothing else a stunning one-off eye-catcher to demonstrate the potential of the newly founded electric EQ division. It’s a tribute to Mercedes’ most extreme historic ultra-low-drag single-seater, the W125 that established a 269mph speed record on a German autobahn in 1938 (see panel, right). While its ancestor was powered by a supercharged 5.6-litre V12, the wildest EQ creation yet boasts electric motors good for an aggregate 738bhp. The 2018 Silver Arrow sports full-width head- and tail lights and a variety of driver aids – it’s not far from being street legal.
The Audi PB18 is several steps closer to reality. Conceived in Audi’s Malibu ‘design loft’ under US design director Gael Buzyn, the striking two-seater resembles a reskinned R8 e-tron, a project gunned down twice by management (see page 98). The potential plug-in version of Audi’s only true sports car is not a coupe or roadster but a shooting brake.
IS THE MERCEDES PIE IN THE SKY?
No roof, no place for luggage and no creature comforts are three clear indications that the Benz is likely to remain a one-off. It’s the world’s longest single-seater, measuring 5300mm from tip to toe, and just shy of the Mercedes- Maybach limousine. The distance between the rear axle and the pedalbox exceeds the total length of a Smart ForTwo, and it is a mere one metre high. The only weather protection for the driver is a low slant-back windscreen – and the crash helmet you’d need to wear.
Integrated in the trailing edge of the roadster are a finned diffuser and two active spoilers that double as air brakes. From behind, the Mercedes looks like the Batmobile reinvented. So, yes, there is an element of pie in the sky.
But don’t forget that Mercedes put the SLS Electric Drive into highly limited production in 2013, and we know AMG has completed preliminary feasibility work on an all-electric hypercar, so the idea of a high-speed whisperliner is still alive and kicking. And the EQ’s powertrain is far from outlandish these days: its 738bhp comes from two electric motors, energy is provided by an 80kWh battery pack, and there’s a claimed 250 miles of range. To be commercially viable, though, such a zero-emission vehicle would need two seats and a slippery coupe body.
A production car inspired by the EQ Silver Arrow would be far from an essential part of the production line-up, but as soon as the first EQ S saloon arrives in 2020-21 (a year or two after the EQ C electric SUV previewed on p102), the idea of an electric halo model could easily gain momentum.
WHAT MAKES THE AUDI SO VIABLE?
The Audi’s impact on future models is more direct: since the existing R8 supercar will definitely not return for a third generation, the remarkably coherent all-electric concept may replace the sports car in 2021 or 2022. What Audi doesn’t want you to know is that the PB18 concept sits, by and large, on the new PPE (Premium Platform Electric) underpinnings co-developed with Porsche. Given the potential commonality in terms of hard points and componentry, pressing go for production should be merely a formality.
It certainly makes more sense for Audi to do this than any of the alternative options, which include piggybacking Lamborghini’s next Huracan supercar, waiting for Bentley to get its act together, or have Porsche call the shots with its own bespoke SPE architecture.
A mix of aluminium, carbonfibre and composites gives a sub-1550kg kerbweight, while the packaging concept does not differ much from a mid-engined Audi R8 – only that the position of the V10 is now occupied by the compact battery pack. This layout ensures a low centre of gravity, short overhangs and good weight distribution.
Liquid-cooled, solid-state batteries generate 95kWh (the Tesla Model S comes with 75kWh or 100kWh options), while the front wheels are driven by a single 198bhp motor, and each rear wheel has its own 198bhp unit. In overboost mode they’re said to be good for 764bhp and 612lb ft of torque. The result is a 0-62mph time claimed to be in the low two-second bracket, and 300 miles on a charge according to the latest WLTP cycles – deceleration by regeneration helps to maximise that distance, and Audi says there’s no need to touch the left pedal in three out of four stopping manoeuvres.
By and large, the chassis is inspired by the R18 e-tron race car (see panel, left). Double wishbones all-round feature push-rod (front) and pull-rod (rear) elements supported by adaptive magnetic-ride shock absorbers. Layered on top, Audi’s Torque Control Manager combines with ESC to offer a spectrum of handling characteristics for road and track.
This active system splits the torque flow front to rear and side to side in accordance with eight different pre-sets from maximum stability to maximum dynamics. Each mode comes with a specific display.
MERCEDES EQ: THE BACK STORY
This extraordinary device was the inspiration for the EQ Silver Arrow. It was based on the W125 open-wheel race car, but had a 725bhp V12 instead of the racer’s inline eight. Ice was used to supplement air cooling so the vents could be kept small. It did 269mph over a flying kilometre on a public autobahn in 1938, a record which stood for 79 years until a Koenigsegg Agera RS managed 278mph on a closed road in Nevada in 2017.
AMG PROJECT ONE (2017)
This project began in late 2014 and was originally called X1. It’s a hybrid, with power coming from an F1-a-like 1.6-litre V6 turbo making a staggering 603bhp, plus three electric motors (plus another attached to the turbo to eliminate lag). Peak power is 1134bhp, which – combined with the 1200kg weight – fires it from zero to 62mph in around 2.6sec and 0_125mph in 5.5sec. Yes, faster than a Bugatti Chiron…
AUDI PB18 : THE BACK STORY
This 375bhp all-electric R8 came tantalisingly close to production in 2013. Audi built 10 cars to production standard to test the concept but in the end it was killed by economics and range – each one cost £855,000 to build and at the time battery technology could take it only 133 miles before needing a charge. The project wasn’t a complete waste, though – the extensive use of carbon_ibre was rolled into later R8s.
AUDI R18 E-TRON (2012-2016)
The first hybrid World Endurance Championship racecar, the R18 e-tron won Le Mans in 2012 and Audi took that year’s WEC title. They won in 2013 and ’14 with an e-tron too. A 200kW (268bhp) electric motor powered the front wheels, with a 549bhp 3.7-litre V6 diesel (4.0-litre from 2014) at the rear. After coming second in 2015 and third in ’16, Audi quit endurance racing and moved to Formula E.
WHAT NEXT-LEVEL TECH CAN WE EXPECT?
In both cars, the instrumentation is mind-bogglingly complex, the resolution equals the very best desktops, and the extended array of dynamic assistance systems is claimed to enhance the driving experience rather than stifle it.
The main display of the Mercedes is a wide, curved screen, which acts as a canvas for a 3D beam originating close to the driver’s head. The high-definition full-colour system is programmable, keeps an eye on traffic and has future-orientated talents including the ability to sniff out on-the-go inductive charging lanes, should they ever come to fruition.
Thanks to a generous helping of artificial intelligence, the EQ can stage a race against historic or current Silver Arrows, showing the car’s position versus its competitor on a given circuit. Hit the Virtual Race Coach button, and an invisible co-driver will talk you through laps, doing its best to improve your skills and keep you out of the gravel.
A large touchscreen on the square steering-wheel hub is the key interface between car and driver. There are three basic modes, labelled Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus. The choice of background music played by the sound generator includes Hamilton’s M09 power unit and Caracciola’s SSKL.
The Audi’s cockpit is stylish, futuristic, visually overwhelming and incredibly versatile. To get in or out, you must first open the door and then the front-hinged protection bar.
This is a head-turning solution for a design exercise, but is probably a bridge too far for production.
The seating position is almost as low and stretched out as an LMP1 racer’s, and the dominating element as you look forwards is a transparent full-width OLED display, which can be black-panel sparse, cinemascope busy or almost anything in between. In addition to the familiar MMI functions, the PB18 invites you to dial in different road and race ergonomics set-ups, including a neat choice of seating configurations.
WHAT’S WITH THE CENTRAL DRIVER’S SEAT?
In the EQ Silver Arrow the central seating position is part of the car’s race inspiration. The seat is fixed but the pedalbox can be adjusted. In the PB18, by contrast, the driver can be centrally positioned – with a brilliantly uncluttered view down the road – or can be joined by a passenger. This is made possible by a motorised sliding cockpit module comprising the seat, the four-point seatbelt, two lateral protection elements and drive-by-wire steering and brakes.
The distance between the seat and pedals can’t be adjusted, and the passenger seat, when in use, is a narrow and thinly padded lounge chair concoction that won’t be comfortable for long. The cabin also contains a virtual-reality display that can pop up and plot the racing line or sat-nav path.
WHAT’S THE BIGGER PICTURE?
‘The Pebble Beach concept lets you catch a glimpse of the unique form language Mercedes is preparing for the all-electric EQ family of cars,’ says Mercedes’ chief designer Gorden Wagener.
In this context, Wagener is referring to his hot-and-cold design philosophy that combines detail elements in black with flowing shapes in Alubeam Silver.
Explains Audi’s Gael Buzyn: ‘The role of PB18 is to transfer automotive passion to the age of electrification. PB18 and last year’s Aicon concept are the bookends of Audi’s e-tron product strategy.
‘While the sports coupe is a level 0 [autonomy] EV with no assistance systems at all, Aicon was a fully autonomous level 5 long-distance cruiser.’
Ultimately, both wild and creative concepts are shouty future electric production cars in varying levels of disguise, at least in some form. While both manufacturers are close to delivering all-electric production cars (Merc’s is on the next page, no less), Audi and Mercedes have lagged behind comparable machines from Tesla, BMW and Jaguar. But while they’re undoubtedly late to the electric party, expect them to hit the ground running. And in some style.
ON THE GRID
Meet the first of Merc’s new all-electric production cars, the EQ C, ready to battle Jaguar’s i-Pace in 2019
IF THE Silver Arrow is the Bladerunner-style, skyscraper- high neon sign imploring us to take a look at Mercedes’ electric future, the production-ready EQ C you see here is the opening act of the show itself. Next year it will join the Jaguar i-Pace, Tesla Model X and Audi e-Tron SUV in a battle for zero-emissions crossover dominance, with the BMW iX3 not far behind – and other electric Mercs to follow. It started life as the Concept EQ, first seen at the 2016 Paris motor show, but the production EQ C is considerably closer visually to the current GLC. Most of the show car’s blue glow has gone from the nose, replaced by a U-shaped black panel that houses the blue-streaked headlights, wrapping around a showy grille. Blue details in the alloys, a single rear light unit and no exhaust tailpipe are your only other exterior clues that this crossover is pure plug-in EV.
WHAT’S UNDER THE SKIN?
There’s an 80kWh lithium-ion battery pack, weighing in at 650kg, wired to two electric motors – one for the front and one for the rear axle for all-electric all-wheel drive – giving a range around 280 miles. Mercedes says there’s 300kW (402bhp) on tap and 564lb ft of torque, with the 0-62mph sprint done with in 5.1sec – just 0.2sec slower than the AMG GLC43 – and a top speed of 112mph (limited). That’s not quite as punchy as the i-Pace, but the EQ C is longer and some 300kg heavier. The batteries don’t compromise the packaging; like a regular SUV, it has a 500-litre boot. And it can tow up to 1800kg.
The EQ C comes equipped for slow charging from a domestic or workplace wallbox and mid-journey fast charging to take the battery from 10 to 80 per cent full in 40 minutes. To ease range anxiety, the sat-nav plans routes taking into account charging station availability.
WHAT’S DIFFERENT INSIDE?
Most of the cockpit is familiar: button-laden wheel from the facelifted C-Class, piano-black centre console with touchpad controls from the new A-Class and a twin-screen info display shared with almost every high-spec 2018 Merc. It’s the details that count – most prominently the rose-gold air vents and a yacht-like band wrapped around the dashboard.
WHAT’S NEXT TO WEAR AN EQ BADGE?
Mercedes has promised 10 all-electric models by 2022, so we’re expecting to see an EQ A crossover (an electric GLA) and chunkier EQ B from 2020, using a 60kWh battery pack for around 300 miles of range. Also in 2020 or 2021 we should see EQ E and EQ S saloons and SUVs joining the range.