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Audi Unplugs R8 e-tron, Electric Car Program Left In Limbo

In September of 2009, Audi of America President Johan de Nysschen loudly and proudly called the Chevrolet Volt “a car for idiots”. He spent the next several months back-tracking.

Like certain politicians who suffer from foot-in-mouth disease, de Nysschen was clumsily trying to make a couple of interesting points: (a) even though the Volt is fuel-efficient, savings at the pump will never justify the car’s high price tag, and (b) because America derives so much of its electricity from coal, even the most severely gas-averse Volt drivers won’t be doing much to improve the environment.*

But underneath those arguably compelling arguments, it was impossible to ignore a certain contempt that de Nysschen was expressing for electric and advanced hybrid cars.

De Nysschen’s boss, Rupert Stadler, hasn’t been much more enthusiastic on those fronts, although both men have often pointed to Audi’s high-end e-tron concept car — revealed around the same time as the “idiots” incident — as proof that Audi was making room for electrics in its lineup. In fact, just last month, we were promised e-tron versions of every Audi model by the year 2020.

But maybe not.

According to our colleagues at Green Car Reports, Audi has announced that it’s delaying the rollout of its all-electric supercar, the Audi R8 e-tron, which was due to launch later this year. The folks at Wired see the situation as a bit more dire, reporting that the electric R8 has been completely shelved, due to the high cost and poor efficiency of today’s batteries and the fact that Wolfgang Dürheimer, Audi’s new head of R&D, put the e-tron program on the back burner.

What’s left?

In fairness, canceling an all-electric supercar with a sky-high, six-figure pricetag isn’t the dumbest idea we’ve ever heard. The R8 e-tron would be a halo car for Audi, not a money-maker, and given the current financial situation in Europe, you can bet that Audi is worried about the bottom line.

And the R8 wasn’t the only electric car at Audi HQ: the automaker is also testing an e-tron based on the smaller, simpler, cheaper A3. In nixing the R8, Audi didn’t say anything about the A3 e-tron, so it might still be on-track for its rumored 2014 release. We’ll see.

However, this does raise the larger question of how enthusiastic the Volkswagen family is about electric and advanced hybrid cars.

Consider this: way back in 2007, Toyota promised hybrid and electric versions of every car in its lineup by the year 2020. Such vehicles — particularly the Prius — have been key in Toyota’s continued growth, and the company clearly sees them as the foundation for a successful future.

Volkswagen has put Toyota in its sights, aiming to overtake the company and become world’s biggest automaker by 2018. Do hybrids and electrics figure into VW’s plan for world domination? And if so, where?

As noted above, Audi’s now made the same promise as Toyota (though whether it’ll be honored is another question). But what about the elephant in the room, the Volkswagen brand itself?

To date, VW’s biggest announcement on the electric/advanced hybrid front has perhaps been the all-electric Golf, which is slated to appear in 2013 as a 2014 model. Earlier this year in Detroit, we also saw a cute electric concept of the company’s popular Beetle, dubbed the e-Bugster.

Is the Golf EV (and possibly the e-Bugster) enough to put VW over the top by 2018? Or does the automaker — like many of its European rivals — plan to rely on diesel vehicles, with a few hybrids in limited release? Should VW be more aggressive in pursuing electric and advanced hybrid tech? How else might it achieve the 2025 CAFE goals set by the EPA (about which VW has loudly complained)?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

* Our colleagues at Green Car Reports reminded us of the flaws in de Nysschen’s arguments:

If you pay very little for electricity (US prices range from 3 to 25 cents/kWh), and/or drive most of your Volt miles on electricity, and/or drive a lot of miles, there are absolutely scenarios today under which a Volt will pay back its premium for the first owner (3-5 years) versus an average 25-mpg car — let alone against the 20-mpg luxury cars that Volts are usually cross-shopped against.

And, the “driving on coal” argument is a good one, but not particularly supported by the data. Coal is dropping as a proportion of US generation, as cheap and cleaner natural gas make gains (along with a little bit of renewables). And though their numbers vary, both the 2012 UCS study and the landmark 2007 EPRI-NRDC study indicate that driving a mile on plug power — even on the dirtiest grids (ND and WV, IIRC) — is lower carbon than one mile burning gasoline at 25 mpg.

When you get up to a 50-mpg Prius, it’s marginally better today to drive the Prius in those few edge-case states, but the grid will gradually get cleaner over time, whereas the cars won’t. And in CA, which will buy more plug-in cars than the next five states combined, the comparison is about 100 mpg fleet average (CA has a pretty clean grid with a high proportion of renewables).

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