Yup, it's a 23-mpg clean diesel! After its initial unveiling in off-silver nearly stole the Detroit auto show from the Corvette ZR1, Audi's R8 V12 TDi showed off a red finish in Geneva. (Photograph by Jim McCraw)
DETROIT — These days while I'm sitting—and sitting, and sitting—in line waiting for the next pump at the local fill 'er up, I like to daydream. After all, when getting gas turns from nasal nuisance to an exercise in pure torture, an escape from reality can make a lot of sense for an automotive junkie. I wasn’t exactly born yesterday, but it does kind of feel like only yesterday that I could buy a gallon of fuel for less than the gallon of milk sitting steps away at the station’s minimart. Ah, the memories. Or maybe that’s just a hallucination brought on by the gas fumes I’m huffing as the reels on the pump go round and round like some insane slot machine from a new Abu Dhabi casino.
Whatever the reason for my teary-eyed reminiscing, one thing’s for sure: The days of dollar-a-gallon gas are gone—long gone. And while the real burden for booming gas prices may be borne by the porcine masses packed CAFO-like around me before the morning commute, I’m somehow a little more concerned about how the fuel crunch affects hard-core car enthusiasts like you and me. Because while the tree-huggers of the world may crave nothing more than a decent public transit system to banish their pocketbook pain, the gearheads desperately need a powerful car and a whole lot of open road. So while gas prices waver around $120 a barrel (toward $200?) and gas taxes get politicians jabbing (toward what end?), my wandering mind has been dallying over different alternatives: Could I really buy a low-emissions, fuel-efficient car as the next generation of diesels and hybrids hit the road in the next two years—and actually be happy? Can alt-fuel vehicles maintain—even enhance—automotive joie de vivre?
My first option is definitely diesel. I know what you’re thinking, so let’s just go ahead and banish from your head those memories of that early '80s Cutlass. The only thing the dirty diesel from your father’s Oldsmobile has in common with the clean diesel being developed for the road today is, well, they’re both called diesel. The fuel’s different, the mechanics are different, and the startup, sound and, thankfully, smell are all diffferent, too. You know what else is different? The performance.
At this year’s Detroit auto show, Audi revealed a stunning R8 concept—only with diesel running it. The R8 V12 TDi has all the power you’d expect from the multiringed brand’s supercar—a honkin’ 6.0-liter V12 under the hood producing 500 hp and a mind-numbing 738 lb.-ft. of torque. And with diesel coursing through those veins, it sips fuel instead of guzzling it—to the purported tune of 23 mpg on the highway. With that kind of performance-to-mpg ratio, I feel like I can start buying Styrofoam cups again just to rip them apart for fun.
But the good green news for car geeks isn’t just for those of us—and by that I mean you—with fat wallets. I recently drove a Euro-spec Honda Civic hatchback from Chicago to Detroit, hitting 70-plus mpg over a 100-mile stretch of highway on the way to the Motor City. True, we were hypermilling it, but even so, those are fuel economy levels that would send Al Gore through the roof and wipe the smug off any Prius owner’s face. But you’ll never see that grimace, because you’ll be long gone—the diesel Rabbit from the old country hits 0 to 60 in 8.6 seconds. That’s enough oomph to send Gore’s son through the roof. Compare that off-the-line time to the average Prius at 10.2 seconds (and a comparatively puny 52 mpg), and you’ll see there’s a low-end theory to the diesel puzzle.
That’s not to say that hybrids aren’t the way to go for your average joe—they’re just not necessarily the way to go for the enthusiast. That was, until we beheld the Fisker Karma. Revealed just steps from the Audi R8 V12 TDi, the $80,000 plug-in hybrid Karma sportscar came to us courtesy of Kleiner Perkins. You buffs don’t recognize the name from the annals of automotive history? Don’t sweat it—they’re actually the venture capital firm that helped make household names out of Google and Netscape. Now they’re trying to make Karma slip similarly off the tongue. And they may succeed, as we’re told to expect batteries capable of holding enough charge to power the four-door electric sled for 50 miles—and a four-banger for when that’s not enough. That dual powertrain is expected to hit 125 mph, with a 5.8-second 0-to-60 time, and still hit around 100 mpg when production starts in fall of 2009.
While the Karma’s sexier than Scarlett Johansson—to me anyway—it’s across Silicon Valley where its main competitors (and new legal foes) at Tesla let you go all-in—and all-electric—on your big oil flip-off. The two-seat Roadster carries a three-phase, four-pole electric motor capable of generating 248 hp at peak, and a torque curve far beyond this side of generous. The batteries are charged via a 3.5-hour plug-in cycle, or to some degree while driving, through regenerative braking. But the Roadster proves green isn’t just easy; it’s also fast. Like 0-to-60-in-under-4-seconds fast. Like beat-the-punks-in-Daddy’s-drop-top, midlife-crisis-Corvette, stoplight-to-stoplight-down-Woodward-Avenue fast.
As an enthusiast and a half, it’s half unbelievable that the next car I slap a down payment on might be powered by something other than regular, super or ultra unleaded. But with the gasoline-free options growing just as fast as oil prices, and our druglike addiction to oil busting through like the crude market, maybe soon enough I won’t be daydreaming after all.