First exhibited at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance a month ago, Audi’s PB18 E-tron is the German marque’s unrestrained vision for what an all-electric racecar you can also drive to the shops might look like. It’s so outlandish that Audi hasn’t even bothered to give it much of a name: the PB18 is in reference to Pebble Beach, and the E-tron is simply Audi’s umbrella term for its electric cars.
On first blush, I was sure this was merely a designer’s indulgence. Just look at the egotistical single seat in the middle of the low-slung chassis, the enormous windshield, the exposed suspension, and the elaborately ornamental headlights. The PB18 is certainly a car that seeks attention. But once I gave it my attention and spoke to its designer, Gael Buzyn, I came to understand that it’s actually a lot more sensible than it looks.
The first thing is that the throne-like centered seat, the monocoque that the driver is ensconced in, can slide to one side, allowing you to erect a passenger seat from the floor of the car. So the idea is that you can have a two-seater road car when you need it and a single-seater racing experience when you want it. The majority of the space behind the driver turns out to be a 470-liter cargo bay, where bespoke luggage will convey your golf clubs or whatever you might be packing for an extended trip. With an advertised range of 500km / 310 miles on one charge and 800-volt fast charging that will refill the battery within 15 minutes, this concept doesn’t compromise much in the way of long-distance travel.
Part of the reason for the PB18’s power efficiency is just how light it is. Even with its 95kWh liquid-cooled battery pack on board, this car weighs in at 1,550kg / 3,417lb, thanks to a mix of aluminum, carbon fiber, and composites. Weight reduction of this sort is where performance and practicality both benefit, and Audi claims a 0 to 100kmh speed on the PB18 of just a little over two seconds. The company hasn’t disclosed a max speed, but it’s safe to assume it would be ludicrous. Three motors power this E-tron, with one at the front and two at the rear under the luggage compartment, each of which is directly driving one of the wheels. This is still an Audi Quattro four-wheel drive, it just happens to be an all-electric, track-focused version of it.
In the end, even with its civilizing features and functions, this car exists to tantalize driving and racing enthusiasts. Buzyn tells me that internally it was codenamed Level 0 — a teasing mockery of the five levels of autonomous drive, which Audi is also deeply involved in advancing — and the button on the steering wheel that shifts the monocoque to the middle is indeed labeled “Level 0.” Audi’s intent is to show that electric cars can be every bit as thrilling as their combustion-engine predecessors and need not turn every traveler into an inactive passenger.
“We want to offer the driver an experience that is otherwise available only in a racing car like the Audi R18,” explains Buzyn. “That’s why we developed the interior around the ideal driver’s position in the center.” The interior of the PB18 is defined not only by that sliding monocoque, but also by a transparent OLED instrument panel. The car’s windshield extends almost to the ground, and the driver is able to see through his transparent display, through the windshield, down to the tarmac in front. Audi imagines being able to superimpose the ideal driving line, when racing, or navigation instructions, when driving on the road, onto this panel. All around the driver are touch surfaces and controls, and the door opens via touch as well. Those features, like the grandiose single rear taillight, are finally things that seem there just for the sake of being design flourishes, but I think those are forgivable.
Audi’s PB18 E-tron appeals to me because it isn’t just stunning to look at and presumably drive. It tries to balance everyday considerations with aesthetic flamboyance and extreme performance, and the end result looks like a good blueprint for the supercars of our electric future.
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge