The Audi Urban Concept is a frantic fusion of home-made soapbox racer, bubble car, quad bike, go-kart and electric runabout, creating something all-new to tempt environmentally-conscious urbanites. CAR was granted rare access to road test (okay, scoot around a closed-off car park) this plug-in 21st century quadricycle.
And guess what? We've found out that Audi will soon okay the Urban Concept for low-volume production.
The Audi Urban Concept Car looks kinda... weird
Isn't it cute? Add a few yards of black sticky tape to the golden yellow eye-catcher and the Audi Urban Concept would pass as a kind of reinvented German Waspa, a two-seater scooterette, with four open wheels, exposed suspension and a striking low-drag passenger cabin. But this thing will fly even without insect-inspired cosmetics.
Better still, the Audi Urban Concept is for real and will no doubt steal some of the thunder generated by the forthcoming BMW i family. For a change, even the official press kit leaves little doubt about the show car´s true intentions. ´The Urban Concept rounds off... Audi´s range of future electric vehicles. It has the potential to set the trend for an all-new type of mobility.´ Refreshingly unambiguous.
Such definite intentions make it all the more important to take this early opportunity to check out whether this is an over-styled and under-powered wannabe or a serious attempt to rewrite the zero-emission city car rulebook.
It looks very basic for an Audi. Is the Urban Concept production-ready?
The yellow Urban Concept pictured here is dubbed Engineering Experience Module. It looks less flash in its details than the fully finished electro-white crowd-stopper displayed at Frankfurt too, utlising a conventional spring-strut suspension arrangement instead of the show car´s more elaborate pushrod design. The interior too has been stripped bare: its barren blackness was evidently conceived for function, not form.
In addition, its aluminium and carbonfibre tub is stronger, stiffer and heavier than that of the more refined stage II version, and the drivetrain doubles the power output to demonstrate the dynamic potential of the brand-new chassis.
Although the proportions and the packaging have been developed from scratch by the design team under Stefan Sielaff, the model that was once called Audi Neo (until they found out at the eleventh hour that someone else already owns the copyright to that name), does share certain elements with the VW XL1, introduced earlier in 2011. Amongst the common componentry is the front suspension, nearly identical rear suspension (minus the VW’s steering function), brakes co-developed with Continental, alloy wheels and parts of the driven rear axle.
Do you have to be a contortionist to get in and out of the Audi Urban Concept?
Thomas Kräuter, Audi´s specialist for the development and the assembly of concept cars, makes getting in and out of the Urban Cruiser looks conspicuously easy:
Act One: push the cabin roof back, grab the chrome handle that runs along the upper windscreen frame with your right hand and place your right foot in the cut-out in the cushion of the driver seat.
Act Two: shift your body-weight from the pavement to the car, allow your torso to glide into the seat, pull your left leg in and thread it past the steering-wheel into the footwell.
Act Three: buckle up, pull the cabin roof forward and tie it down electrically by pushing a button in the side panel. Alternatively, the canopy can be fixed in a half-open ventilation position, which ain´t bad considering the absence of air conditioning and opening windows.
Elasticman Kacher needed extra coordination and concerted effort to wheedle his 2.04m frame in behind the two-spoke sports wheel, which moves out of the way (by a generous 140mm) to make room for long legs and the pouch. The two thinly upholstered seats are firmly attached to the floor and the rear firewall. The occasional pillion passenger (this is a one plus one-seater, rather than a conventional two-seater) would need to crouch behind the driver in an oddly off-set and slightly claustrophobic cranny.
Since both the steering wheel and the pedals are fully adjustable by a clever lever and linkage system, finding a comfortable driving position is a doddle. The prototype Urban Cruiser’s cockpit is an object lesson in functional minimalism. All it contains are a push-button P-R-N-D gear-selector panel, two TT-derived air vents, a hazard button and a small digital instrument display panel depicting speed, distance traveled, range, battery charge status and recuperation activity. There is not a lot happening in the latter department since any serious deceleration effort is almost automatically neutralized by the electronic stability measures kicking in.
So, another electric car that's bound to be dull to drive...
It's not! I hit D, plant my right foor, and we´re off. Not like greased lightning, but briskly enough to brake hard for the first 90 degree kink in this vast parking complex. By the end of the day, I’d clocked almost six miles, not bad for roaming such a strangely slippery and concrete-lined habitat.
It takes all of about 10 seconds to get used to driving the Urban Concept. The accelerator response is linear and prompt and the four disc brakes strike a perfect balance between input and effect. Those skinny 125/80R16 all-season tyres don´t offer enough grip to dissuade the slightly tail-happy handling, and surprisingly the well-tuned suspension is neither overly firm nor discouragingly wayward. The only aspect which requires extra attention is the unassisted rack-and-pinion steering, which is super-quick at one and a half turns from lock to lock.
Through the fast sections of the empty and unobstructed upper deck, this instant-turn-in calibration is so much fun that I am secretly timing each run, trying to gain a tenth here and there. But through tight corners and in the wake of rapid changes of direction, the box hardens and loads up in a way that suggests the need for some more fine tuning.
Visibility is good except to the rear where one big panoramic blind spot threatens. How come? Because the Urban Concept has a small lidded cargo compartment where other vehicles have a rear window.
What's the techie lowdown on this electric Audi?
The Frankfurt show car was equipped with a remarkably unambitious 20bhp electric motor so that it can be operated without a full driving licence by 16-year-olds in certain EU countries. Our Engineering Experience Module has a more substantial 40bhp between its hind wheels where 71lb ft of torque is still not quite enough to make the tyres squeal. Unless it rains, when it becomes possible to induce a little bit of sideways attitude. [Only Kacher could write that about a priceless concept car - Ed!]
Audi claims that the 480kg lightweight runabout can accelerate to 40mph in about six second and whoosh on to a top speed in the region of 60mph. The Urban Concept’s range is likely to be in excess of 30 miles. These numbers are not definite yet because Audi is still using experimental hardware borrowed from the Q5 hybrid, Sanyo and its own e-tron thinktank. To recharge the lithium ion energy cells on 240V mains takes about two hours, but if you have access to a high-voltage power line, the same job can be done in under 20 minutes.
The diminutive 3.21m long prototype certainly whetted our appetite. Especially in higher-performance form, it makes a compelling alternative to a scooter or even a Smart. Audi seems to agree. To test the water, the Ingolstadt car maker intends to sign off a batch of 999 units sold at €9999 each, sources say. The Urban Concept could either be built in-house by the Quattro division, or by an outside specialist supplier.
There is no doubt about it: at long last, here comes a new Audi which does not try to impress with the size of its grille or through the intensity of its LED day running lights. Instead, this conceptual mould-breaker is potentially more meaningful to the e-tron movement than the plug-in R8.
Young, simple, alternative, affordable and fun to drive, the Urban Concept sends a promising message from a brand which has taken itself too serious for far too long.