Audi A1 e-tron

Back at the 2010 Geneva show Audi revealed the A1 e-tron. Since the Germans are forever fielding far-fetched future-tech furphies as frivolous concept-car fodder, only cursory attention was paid to this electric vehicle … until, unbelievably, we heard “…with rotary engine range extender”.

Could Felix Wankel’s finest (or folly, if you’ve ever owned a gas-guzzling, oil-suckling, carbon-coughing rotary that just won’t start) actually survive beyond the Mazda RX-8 … and in an Audi, no less? Or are the Ingolstadt boffins swigging bong water?

Quick rewind. Audi merged with rival NSU in 1969 after the latter’s unreliable rotary-pioneering Ro80 masterpiece sent it bust … and straight into the waiting arms of new overlord Volkswagen.

So there’s poetic justice in Audi reconsidering vanquished tech as part of possible future mobility solutions – especially considering that the A1’s styling draws inspiration from NSU’s pretty Prinz 1200TT.

Back to the future, the A1 e-tron’s specs entice: 75kW/240Nm electric motor for a 50km range, while a rear-mounted rotary extends that another 200km. But you’d better banish notions of a shrieking electric/rotary firecracker. The reality is Audi’s Wankel produces just 15kW, operates mostly at one efficient preset rev point, and only partly recharges the batteries, with no direct drive to any wheels. This range extender sounds as potent as herbal Viagra.

Not that testing the range was possible during our morning with it in Japan. Audi stipulated only 6km of driving. Sliding inside, apart from a glorified charge meter in lieu of a tacho, the e-tron is pure A1. A press of a button, a couple of clicks, and a melodic hum later, we’re good to go. Faced with selecting either electric drive (D) or EV with rotary range extender back-up (marked by the famous rotor symbol), we settled for the second option.

And then we’re off. Instantly. Pedal pressed down hard, the e-tron defers to performance mode so the full-fat 75kW/240Nm is fast-tracked through to the front wheels. Accompanied by an alluring ascending jet-plane soundtrack, it feels futuristic, feisty, fun and refined – even flat out at a capped 130km/h.

Easing off the joules means the EV reverts to ‘continuous’ 45kW/150Nm everyday mode, but there’s still sufficient squirt on tap in the two-up e-tron for some rapid manoeuvres. Impressive.

But then the generator – err, rotary – starts like a blender set to medium speed. No spine tingling revving, no extra oomph, just a dreary 5000rpm drone. It may as well be a labouring CVT. What a bummer.

Bamix rotary aside, there was precious little else to ascertain after just 5km on the ultra-smooth Hakone Turnpike.

Clearly, though, the brilliance in the A1 e-tron is its electric motor, not the wailing Wankel installation. More development work is required. The din from the rear is hardly premium.

Perhaps Audi ought to leave the rotary to Mazda (or its history), concentrate on the proper emissions-free A3 e-tron and let bygones be.

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