Audi tweaks its latest A4

Paul A. Eisenstein
Special to The Detroit News

After setting all-time global and U.S. sales records — topping 200,000 in the United States for the first time ever — Audi might be forgiven for trying to shoot for the moon. In this case, quite literally.

Where most automakers use their North American International Auto Show news conferences to focus on their latest products, Audi launched its event by rolling out the little moon buggy it hopes to launch into space sometime next year as part of its effort to win the latest Xprize.

The 2017 Audi A4 sedan.

The German maker’s event did come down to Earth before wrapping up, but even there Audi offered a look into the future, outlining plans for a series of battery and hydrogen-powered vehicles, as well as what could become the first fully autonomous vehicle to hit the retail market.

Audi is one of a number of hopefuls shooting for the Xprize. Its 75-pound titanium and aluminum moon buggy is currently expected to hitch a ride on an Indian rocket, bound for Taurus Littrow, the same valley where the last Apollo mission touched down 43 years ago. If all goes well during the 12-day mission, it will visit the landing site and examine both the descent stage and the lunar rover left behind.

To emphasize the mission, Audi brought out Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, Cernan recalling his journey before telling his audience, “If I could go to the moon 43 years ago, there is nothing we can’t do if we wanted to today.”

That provided a segue for Audi officials to explore some of the things they’re planning to do in the near future. Among other things, the maker’s global CEO Rupert Stadler outlined plans to bring three new plug-in hybrids to market in the next three years, declaring the technology, “Our priority number one.”

But Stadler said Audi is looking at a variety of other green powertrain technologies. It expects to have its first pure battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, on the road by 2018, and could follow with a fuel-cell vehicle by 2020.

The maker gave an example of what that option might look like in the form of its new Audi h-tron Quattro concept, a prototype based on its upcoming Audi A4 allroad Quattro. The concept vehicle pairs the latest version of Audi’s fuel-cell stack with a lithium-ion battery. The hybrid powertrain can produce about 200 horsepower and launch the h-tron from 0 to 60 mph in less than seven seconds.

Its wheels powered by two electric motors, the Audi h-tron would have about 600 kilometers, or slightly less than 400 miles, range with a full charge and tank of hydrogen. Refilling the tank would take just four minutes, according to Stadler.

Audi actually lags behind a few competitors, including Hyundai and Toyota, both of which currently offers a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle on the retail market. Honda will follow later this year. Stadler said Audi is waiting to ensure there will be a viable refueling infrastructure. Currently, those hydrogen cars can only operate in limited parts of Southern California.

Also looking to the future, Stadler announced Audi will have its Piloted Driving system ready for production by sometime in 2017. Unlike rivals like Tesla, Nissan, Ford and Mercedes-Benz, Audi’s system will be a fully, rather than semi-autonomous system, capable of driving on all roads and under all weather conditions, Stadler clarified during a follow-up interview.

The automaker did come back to Earth occasionally during its NAIAS news conference. It revealed both the new 2017 Audi A4 and the wagon-like Audi A4 all-road Quattro, which U.S. CEO Scott Keogh said, “combined the on-road driving capabilities of a car and the off-road capabilities of an SUV.”

Audi came close to crashing back down in recent months, several of its diesel models involved in the diesel emissions scandal of parent Volkswagen AG.

“We are 100 percent committed to get this (diesel) issue thoroughly resolved,” declared Stadler.

In the audience was Volkswagen’s own CEO Matthias Mueller. He will be meeting with officials from the EPA this week to discuss a proposed fix for the diesel problem.