No sooner had the ink dried on our C7-intro story (“Seventh Heaven,” June ’13) than one of our contacts at GM began hinting none-too-subtly that turbo V-6 power could be in store for an upcoming Corvette model. (See the associated news item in this month’s “Currents.”) Corporate agitprop to set the rumor cauldron aboil? Perhaps. The turbo-six Vette is one of those evergreen Corvette canards, ranking up there with the mid-engine variant and the AWD edition as a perpetual possibility that never quite materializes.
But while we’re fantasizing about (or, depending on your perspective, recoiling from) potential new powertrain technologies, I’d like to spend a few moments on one that could actually boost, rather than reduce, acceleration: the gas/electric hybrid. No, not a diminutive, low-output fuel sipper of the sort we’ve come to know over the past decade, but rather a cleverly integrated system that complements the performance characteristics of the car in which it’s installed. I know—it sounds fantastical. But the latest racing machines from longtime technology leader Audi furnish evidence that a shift to alternative propulsion is already underway in the hypercompetitive world of motorsports.
Having successfully campaigned diesel-powered prototypes in various racing series since 2006, the German manufacturer made an exploratory foray into hybrid territory last season with a brace of diesel-electric R18 e-tron quattros. The cars quickly made a name for themselves in FIA competition, finishing 2-3 in their debut race at Spa-Francorchamps and 1-2 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans a month later. Audi’s hybrid-racer program solidified its top-dog status at this year’s 12 Hours of Sebring, where the e-tron quattros placed First and Second, well ahead of their closest competitor.
The cars feature a conventional turbo-diesel engine driving the rear wheels, pairing it with an electric hybrid drive that recaptures braking energy and redeploys it to the fronts at speeds above 75 mph. (That speed minimum is an artificial one imposed by race officials, and does not reflect any limitation of the system.) Clearly the technology works, and if it’s tough enough to survive the punishing conditions of an endurance race, adapting it for street use should be a relatively simple matter.
For proof, consider that both the 949hp Ferrari LaFerrari (yes, that’s really the name) and the (estimated) 700-horse Porsche 918 Spyder will rely on conventional gas-powered engines combined with electric motors for propulsion when they go on sale later this year. While these cars employ conventional hybrid systems with batteries, rather than an energy-recapture setup like e-tron, they do illustrate that gas/electric technology is no longer the exclusive province of the “green” movement.
So are we on the cusp of a new age of gas/electric street scorchers? I suspect so, though only in the exotic-car realm for now. Incorporating a hybrid drive system into a high-performance vehicle requires a corresponding reduction in the weight of the vehicle itself, since even a battery-free system like e-tron adds considerable mass to the end product. (Audi pared 175 pounds from the already flyweight R18 in order to keep the e-tron version competitive.) These weight savings are usually achieved through the use of materials such as carbon and titanium, which cost substantially more than traditional alternatives. (The aforementioned Porsche and Ferrari are expected to sticker for around $800,000 and $1 million, respectively.)
While the Stingray’s curb weight had not been announced at press time, it’s likely to fall within few stone of the base C6’s 3,200-pound figure. Hitting that target no doubt necessitated an assiduous mass-management program, since the seventh-generation car features a raft of new luxury and performance gear. Cutting another couple hundred pounds doesn’t seem feasible, especially if the car is to retain its value-leading status in class.
Still, if past is indeed prologue, technologies like e-tron will eventually trickle down to the mass-produced level. When they do, it’s good to know that a skillfully executed hybrid powertrain is nothing to fear, even if it does share its basic design principles with a Prius.