Here's an interesting question, at least here in North America. Given a choice between equally sipping technologies at virtually the same price, which will consumers — in this case, well-heeled consumers — opt for; the media darling or the dark horse? More specifically, I have been long awaiting a showdown between hybrid (that would, in North America and China, be the media darling) and diesel (much favoured in Europe and many other places around the globe) technology. And although there are plenty of hybrids and diesels out there, no single model has offered both powertrains to allow direct comparison.
Audi will soon be changing all that.
Audi's A8 3.0L TDI is, of course, a well-documented leader in diesel technology. Fast, smooth, luxurious and remarkably frugal, it's a mainstay of the new A8's line-up in Europe. It is, however, being joined by an all-new, almost-as-parsimonious, version of Audi's top-of-the-line saloon, the A8 Hybrid. And what makes this all so interesting, at least to me, is that though their powertrains are completely different — one is a turbocharged 3.0L V6 diesel while the other is powered by a combination of Audi's 2.0 TFSI four and an electric motor — they share some key similarities. Both cost in the €75,000 (Dh360,272) range and, while the diesel is particularly clean and frugal — 169 grams of CO emitted per kilometre and 6.4L/100km overall — the new 2013 Hybrid's 147g/km and 6.3L/100km are equally impressive. The choice, therefore, will be a combination of personal prejudice and/or any perceived difference in comportment.
One possible hurdle for Audi to overcome will be the fact that the Hybrid sports but four cylinders. Yes, four is generally more frugal than six or eight and, yes, the Hybrid badge on the rear boot lid adds the legitimacy of an electric motor driving the front wheels and a big graphite-cathode lithium-ion battery in the boot. Nonetheless, the new A8's basic powerplant is still the same 2.0L TFSI turbo four cylinder that can be found in all manner of downmarket Audis, not to mention a slew of even more pedestrian Volkswagens.
So, the big question is, what does the environmentally conscious banker give up in his or her quest for both hedonistic luxury and fuel-sipping parsimony?
Not too much, if my short drive around Audi's spiritual home of Neckarsulm, Germany, is any indication. With only four pistons combusting, the Hybrid boasts 245hp - middling, anyway you judge it. But, sporting a turbocharger and a transmission-mounted 40-kilowatt electric motor for added thrust, there's an almost diesel-like 480Nm of torque available as low as 1,500rpm (by way of comparison, the up-level version of the 3.0 TDI boasts 247hp and 550Nm of torque).
Riding that wave of torque, there's very little indication that the Hybrid is anything other than yet another fully hedonistic luxury saloon. Even from low revs, acceleration feels muscular (acceleration to 100kph takes 7.7 seconds, little more than a second slower than the most powerful version of Audi's 3.0 TDI) and, thanks to the engine's relatively low revs and some excellent noise, vibration and harshness management from the standard active noise control system, none of the cacophony usually accompanying high-revving four-bangers intrudes on the sybaritic (of which, like in all A8s, there is much) experience.
Only at the upper reaches of its rev band (and exactly what rpm I am referring to is a mystery as Audi has replaced the traditional tachometer with a more hybrid-orientated "per cent power" meter) does the diminutive powertrain feel strained, and only when asking for more maximum warp speed.