Sunday, May 4, 2008

Moving The Goal Posts

Automotive development is a slow process. The concept of a wheel at each corner and an engine somewhere in the middle has held fast for over a hundred years of gradual evolution. During this time some things have moved the goal posts a little further than others, but recently there have been a couple of cars that have simply obliterated them.

First up, you have the Nissan GT-R. The successor to the mighty Skyline takes its characteristically Japanese formula of banzai high-technology to new extents. At the front sits a 3.8 litre direct-injection V6, producing a healthy 473hp. Meanwhile, a rear mounted 6-speed twin-clutch sequential gearbox, allied to a development of Nissan's ATTESA four-wheel drive system transmits the power. An active centre differential varies the torque from a 50:50 split to full rear wheel drive, based on signals from three chassis mounted accelerometers. Impressive stuff.

The GT-R's grunt and technical prowess combine to achieve supercar humbling speeds. Performance figures include a 193mph top speed and a nought-to-sixty time of – wait for this – 3.5 seconds. It’s no secret that Nissan's engineers spent hundreds of hours at the Nürburgring whilst developing the car and it recently returned to set a lap time of 7 minutes 29 seconds in the hands of chief test driver, Tochio Suzuki. To put it into perspective – that's 2 seconds a lap faster than the Porsche 997 GT2 and only a second off the pace set by Walter Röhrl in the Carrera GT.

That still isn't what amazes me about the GT-R though. No, it's the fact that the car which accomplished all of this retails in Japan for £31,000 – less than a top of the range BMW 1-Series. Even after mysteriously gaining an extra £21,900 to reach the UK price it would be competitive at twice as much. It's humbling to think that a car that shares its DNA with the Micra can now show an F40 the way home around the 'ring. You don't have to 'know people who know people' either – simply add your name to the (no doubt considerable) waiting list and you could have something faster than any road car seen on the bedroom walls of those now old enough to drive.

No other car currently on sale is challenging people's perceptions quite as much as the GT-R, but that might not be the case for long. Over in Ingolstadt, something that threatens to be equally important, albeit in a different way, is stirring: The Audi R8 V12 Tdi concept.

At first glance, the idea of a high performance, mid-engined, European supercar (or 'super sports' as Audi prefers to call it) with a projected cost of over £100,000 isn't unusual. It is, of course, those three little letters at the end that really mark this car out. To precise it’s the middle one – D for Diesel…

Diesel cars are starting to enjoy a much-deserved change in image, but this is the first time a true sports car has come so tantalisingly close to production. The engine – shared with the new Q7 V12 Tdi – borrows heavily from Audi’s Le Mans winning Diesel racers. It produces a frankly staggering 1000Nm of torque from only 1,750rpm. To put that in perspective it’s roughly three times the maximum output of a 2 litre Mondeo TDCi. Performance is predictably rapid, with the dash to sixty covered in only 4.2 seconds and a projected top speed of over 200mph.

However, the real benefits of this car lie elsewhere; starting with what I can only assume would be monumental levels of in-gear acceleration. The huge reserves of torque would render down-changes optional. It’s said to return 27mpg on the combined cycle – roughly twice economy of, say, a Lamborghini Gallardo. And for the environmentally conscious, its CO2 output of 250 g/km is comparable to a well-specced repmobile or roughly two-thirds that of the aforementioned Lambo.

These points may seem irrelevant to a supercar, but with ever more stringent emissions requirements and the rapidly rising cost of extracting oil, the breed may eventually be forced to evolve or die. It’s just possible that in years to come we’ll look back on the R8 oil-burner as the model that saved the sports car. Whether that happens or not, it’s undoubtedly an impressive technical achievement.

Officially, the Diesel engined R8 remains ‘only a concept a car’, but with the both the engine and basic chassis already in production elsewhere, it wouldn’t take a huge leap to become reality. If (or rather when) it does, the R8 V12 Tdi could signal a whole new class of vehicle. Maybe the Diesel supercar, like the £30,000 Porsche-eater, is just around the corner.

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