Porsche is preparing to piggyback VW and Audi’s roadster project and build a baby Boxster, a car that could be a true successor to the 356. But this new model won’t tread on the toes of any existing Porsches and production numbers will be capped to make this a highly desirable car. Our artist's impression reveals how the new Porsche could look.
The first time we’ll see anything official from this project will be at November’s LA Auto Show, where VW will unveil its third design study of an affordable roadster, following on from the 2004 Concept R and the 2005 Eco-Racer.
Just how is the project to build a baby Porsche going to work out?
Between 1969 and 1976 VW and Porsche built and marketed just under 120,000 mid-engined 914 two-seaters. And in recent years various VW bosses have wanted to create a contemporary and affordable mid-engined sports car. First there was Bernd Pischetsrieder, the former BMW chairman who wanted a budget roadster along the lines of the Mk1 Lotus Elise. There was even talk of Lotus building the car for VW, but in the end no decision was made.
Brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard picked up the idea and gave a green light to the quirky looking Eco-Racer, which was duly shot down by the bean counters who could not see a market for the high-tech, high-price halo version nor for the low-cost, big-volume all-steel alternative. Now VW boss Martin Winterkorn is on the case, and one can safely assume that he enjoys the support of Ferdinand Piech, the powerful chairman of the supervisory board.
What’s this design study we’re going to see in LA?
It’s VW’s final test of the waters before it fully commits to the new sports car project. The company needs to make sure it can produce a car that is an attractive alternative to the segment-dominating MX-5. But as well as VW's worries, Audi is also currently considering the replacement for the TT and carrying out initial engineering work. With a replacement due in 2013, production engineering work must begin in 2009, and while the VW and Audi projects are currently separate, it is expected that both companies will join forces to create this new roadster.
Why is Audi switching away from front- and all-wheel drive? Because Ingolstadt wants to answer back to critics and make the TT a dynamic success. It will also give Audi a relevant baby brother to the R8. Click here for our full story on the proposed Audi R3.
Porsche, which has just become the major stakeholder in VW, could then join the fray and conceive a modern lightweight successor to the legendary 356.
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Can this all work, and can all three companies work together?
It´s a fascinating scenario, but at this moment it is unclear whether VW and Audi can pull the programme off. Comments a senior manager from Porsche´s Zuffenhausen headquarters: ‘Our friends from Wolfsburg and Ingolstadt know that we can throw a spanner in the works at any given stage of the programme. But at least they have been wise enough to stay well clear of the Boxster segment. In addition, they are opening up a low-risk high-potential cooperation opportunity. From now on, the sole deciders are pride, prejudice and politics.’
Remember the proposed mid-engined Audi R4, the small brother of the R8? The R4 went nowhere because Porsche wanted to protect Boxster and Cayman. Audi and VW have since learned their lesson. The new sports car concept thus aims at a wide but relatively conservative £20-35k price range.
Its launch timing also carefully avoids the Boxster, which will appear in facelifted form at the LA Auto show, before the replacement car arrives in 2010. And while the new Mk2 Boxster has practically cleared all the R&D hurdles, the smaller mid-engined sports car concept by VW and Audi won´t be ready for production before 2013.
How would all these different versions pan out?
The VW version, which works as a roadster and as a fixed-head coupe, would be positioned in the vicinity of the Golf GTI and the top-of-the-line Scirocco.
The Audi version would replace the TT. ‘At the moment, both programmes run alongside each other, but as soon as production engineering begins, we must decide between the competing front- and mid-engine layouts,’ explains a source from Ingolstadt. ‘Like the current TT, the mid-engined version would be offered in closed and open-top form. In addition, design is toying with a shooting brake and with a targa model with a removable roof panel. To keep a safe distance from the Boxster and Cayman, we are concentrating exclusively on four-cylinder engines.’
Masterminded by Ulrich Hackenberg (R&D) and Mark Lichte (design), the sporty two-seater is compact, minimalistic in concept and execution, light and highly efficient. For cost reasons, the desirable all-aluminium spaceframe body is almost off the radar screen, so VW engineers are instead preparing a steel-based multi-material architecture which is reportedly very stiff and not too expensive to build. It is known internally as MSS, short for modular sports car system.
Since bespoke multilink axles are deemed too expensive, we are likely to see a clever strut-based suspension featuring flexible kinematics, compact dimensions and a common components concept. Out of the corporate parts bin come steering, brakes, dual-clutch transmissions and the complete electronic platform. Due to the high steel content, the required structural stiffness and the enhanced safety measures, the mid-engine design may end up weighing 1000kg.
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And the engines?
Sporting a long wheelbase, a wide track and short overhangs, the new state-of-the-art sports car concept is flexible enough to incorporate two or three different packaging formulae which may be essential for optimum inter-brand differentiation. The small MSS matrix is also totally flexible in terms of drivetrain options - from electric power to any kind of hybrid application to petrol and diesel engines, anything is possible. VW could even do a Bluemotion roadster powered by the new 75bhp 1.2-litre three-cylinder TDI unit.
More realistic, and probably more desirable, is a choice of turbocharged 1.2 and 1.4- four-cylinder engines with between 105 and 160bhp. Audi would obviously go more up-market and install the 180bhp 1.8-litre TFSI motor, a 2.0-litre version rated at 220bhp and a brawny S-line model good for 280bhp.
If TDI is an option, as it likely will be, a 125bhp variant of the latest 1.6-litre common-rail engine would be a frugal alternative to the 170 and 204bhp 2.0-litre variants. A Quattro four-wheel drive system probably won’t appear, because while it may be a useful marketing instrument, it does add weight and incur friction losses, and it is not an absolute necessity in terms of vehicle dynamics.
Will Porsche join this project?
‘Sometimes Porsche is too stupid to recognize an opportunity when we see one,’ states a critical voice from Stuttgart. ‘The Cayenne and the pending diesel/hybrid engine deals prove the value of cooperating. So why should Porsche not use this opportunity to revive the 356? The most frequently voiced argument cites high production volumes, which would allegedly devalue the brand and overstretch our sales network. But who says that high volumes are a must? Isn’t it time to create a car which is by definition in short supply, which is so desirable it will automatically build up its own hype, and which follows an innovative boutique approach in appearance and configuration?’
Like a limited-edition Rolex watch or a rare Hermes handbag, the new 356 could almost revolutionize the segment below the Boxster by accessing a new level of performance, handling, style and, yes, social acceptance. Porsche could, in other words. tune the model’s DNA in a much more extreme direction - or back towards its roots. After all, we’re not talking about a new 914 or 924 here. The magic number is 356, which was in its original form a VW Beetle, refined and improved by Porsche to give it proper sports car genes. Arguably, this recipe could work in today’s world, but in order for it to do so the general approach within Porsche, VW and Audi must change from confrontation to cooperation.
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