Audi Takes on BMW, Tesla With Revival of Electric R8 Sports Car

Audi aims to steal the electric limelight from BMW and Tesla at next week’s Geneva auto show by reworking a sleek sports car as its first emission-free vehicle.

Audi’s green efforts have been overshadowed by Tesla Motors Inc.’s rise and BMW AG’s i3 urban compact and i8 plug-in hybrid sports car. That didn’t sit well with an automaker that associates itself with cutting-edge technology, prompting development chief Ulrich Hackenberg last year to restart the battery-powered R8 e-tron project his predecessor had canned.

“It’s a symbol for the brand” that will help burnish the image of other vehicles, said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management at the University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. “It’s good that they finally have something to offer in this segment.”

Audi will be the only major luxury-car maker to focus on a zero-emission vehicle at the Geneva International Motor Show. The revamped $165,000 R8 sports car, including the all-new electric variant, will vie for attention with conventionally-fueled luxury cars including the Mercedes-Maybach Pullman, Aston Martin Vulcan and Ferrari 488 GTB as well as the last Bugatti Veyron. For its part, BMW will respond with the 2-Series Gran Tourer, a family-oriented wagon that seats as many as seven.

The electric version of Audi’s edgy R8 can drive as far as 450 kilometers (280 miles) before needing to recharge -- which Audi says can be done in “significantly less than two hours.” The range is more than double the 200 km the i3 can travel on battery power, while Tesla’s Model S can go as far as 502 km.

3.9 Seconds

The R8’s conventional sister model with a V10 gasoline engine takes as little as 3.2 seconds to race to 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour, compared with the electric variant’s 3.9 seconds, Audi said Thursday in a statement.

While that’s faster than the i3, which is designed for everyday driving and needs 7.2 seconds, Tesla boasts the Model S can hit that speed in as little as 3.4 seconds.

Buzz from the R8 could help Audi further tighten the race with BMW for the global lead in luxury-car sales. The Volkswagen AG unit narrowed the gap to 70,600 cars last year from 79,700 in 2013. Deliveries by the world’s second-largest luxury-car brand are forecast to grow at about double BMW’s 4 percent pace for the full year, according to Bankhaus Metzler.

Audi and third-ranked Mercedes-Benz both outsold BMW in January. In addition to the three-row, ultra-luxury Pullman sedan, Mercedes will show a racing version of its GT sports car.

High-Voltage Research

With BMW models like the 7-Series sedan aging, the Munich-based manufacturer is “closer to the bottom of its product cycle this year,” said Daniel Schwarz, a Frankfurt-based analyst at Commerzbank AG. “The spread should close toward the end of the year” between BMW and Audi, which will premiere an overhauled version of the best-selling A4 sedan at the Frankfurt auto show in September.

While the R8 e-tron will only be available “upon customer request” starting this year, it is a sign of things to come. Audi says it will use the car’s technology to help it create a more mainstream vehicle.

In mid-February, Audi bought fuel-cell patents from Ballard Power Systems Inc. in a deal worth as much as $112 million. Three years ago, the brand opened a site for high-voltage research near its headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany, including hiring 100 electronics experts.

As part of its clean-car push, Audi will offer a hybrid version of the revamped Q7 sport-utility vehicle, which will also be on display in Geneva. That will follow up on the plug-in hybrid A3 e-tron compact introduced last year.

“For the past five years BMW has enjoyed the youngest fleet” of the three big German luxury-car makers, said Dominic O’Brien, a London-based analyst with Exane Paribas. “In the coming years, you have quite a lot of momentum behind the Audi brand.”

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