Despite the raft of new technology working away under the familiar external skin, driving the Audi A7 Sportback h-tron quattro is remarkably similar to driving any other Audi A7 in the range.
While it’s not ready for mass production in an ultimate sense, this hydrogen-fuelled electric vehicle is effectively ready to go into series production when infrastructure catches up. To all intents and purposes though, it is just like any other Audi A7.
There’s the extra weight – approximately 300 kilograms over a similarly specified ‘regular’ A7 – and the complete lack of an engine note as the car uses an electric motor powered by hydrogen, but it’s otherwise a very similar experience – and that’s no bad thing.
It means there’s nothing new to learn, nothing to fear, nothing strange about what is a completely different take on powering a vehicle. As CarAdvice experienced when we drove the hydrogen-powered Kluger at Toyota HQ in Southern California last year, it’s all very same/same.
Don’t expect to see the A7 h-tron in Australia anytime soon – there’s the hydrogen transport and storage infrastructure to worry about – but Audi wants CarAdvice to drive the development vehicle to show us that the company is committed to modern technology and hydrogen power generation specifically.
While Audi has stated previously that zero emissions electric vehicles will certainly play a part in the company’s future, this prototype shows that not all of them will be battery-driven electric vehicles. Some might run exactly like the h-tron once the infrastructure is up to speed.
Dr Wilhelm Friedrich, who works in pre-development diesel engines and fuel cells at Audi, is keen to emphasise the h-tron A7 is supposed to be just like any other A7. He’s not disappointed we point that fact out.
“It’s a luxury limousine with the quattro drivetrain, just like a regular A7 Sportback,” he says. “We took the regular limousine and implemented this drivetrain to both assess the platform and illustrate that the technology is ready. It fulfils our expectations for a drivetrain that Audi would like to have.”
The A7 h-tron feels remarkably well finished for what is effectively still a development mule. There’s nothing half done or thrown together about the vehicle, it all looks very much production-ready. That would have something to do with the fact that this is in fact Audi’s fourth generation hydrogen-powered vehicle, a series that kicked off back in 2002 with the Audi A2.
The bare facts that make up the h-tron’s performance portfolio are impressive. The fuel cell sits where the internal combustion engine normally would and it powers the front motor – an 85kW unit, and there’s one for each axle. The plug-in component of the system is the rear motor, which runs off an 8.8kW/h lithium-ion battery pack (lifted directly from the A3 e-tron). Combined, the system delivers computer-controlled all-wheel drive. The rear electric motor also fills in a gap in throttle response you would otherwise feel while the hydrogen fuel cell kicks into action up front.
The combination delivers 170kW and 540Nm in total power output. Both electric motors can also be over-boosted for brief periods up to 114kW each when you need extra punch for accelerating or overtaking. Top speed has crept up from the original quote of 180km/h, with Dr Friedrich telling CarAdvice the current h-tron has clocked 201km/h on the German autobahn. Its claimed 0-100km/h time is 7.8 seconds.
We won’t get to sample that speed today, with the majority of our test loop taking in smaller villages around Audi’s Ingolstadt headquarters.
When you press the start button, just like a full electric vehicle there is silence, but the h-tron is ready to go. Crawling along to exit the Audi carpark, all you can hear is the sound of stones crunching under the low profile tyres. As you accelerate, especially as speed increases, the only sound you can hear is the compressor funnelling air into the fuel cell. It’s like a muted turbo whoosh, and is audible – only just – above the wind and road noise.
The h-tron gets up to 100km/h in spritely fashion and there’s no lag whatsoever when you depress the throttle. It builds up speed smoothly and easily and it’s a very insulated experience thanks to the lack of an engine note.
It’s still a surreal experience cruising round town in a vehicle that is effectively silent. There’s no more wind or road noise entering the cabin than there would be in a regular A7, it’s just that you can hear it more because there’s no engine note to drown it out.
From behind the wheel, the driving experience is exactly like what we sampled at the recent A7 launch drive in Australia. The big Sportback soaks up bumps effortlessly and it’s always comfortable. We thought the steering felt a little lighter in the h-tron than the regular A7, but Audi engineers confirm it’s the same electro-mechanical system. You certainly don’t feel the extra kerb weight from behind the wheel.
There’s no transmission to steal any power either, with the electric motors operating with one gear. Off the mark, there’s no whine from the motors and you only notice any sound at all once you run over 100km/h. Audi engineers told us the electric motors spin at approximately 13,000rpm at 200km/h.
The impressive string in the h-tron’s bow is it’s cruising range. Audi quotes up to 550 kilometres in ideal conditions, and any figure approaching that is impressive, especially given how long it currently takes to charge an electric vehicle back up to full capacity using a wall socket.
The h-tron uses four separate carbon fibre-reinforced hydrogen tanks and can carry 130 litres (or 5kg in hydrogen speak) of fuel across all four. Filling is simple, there’s one inlet where you attach the nozzle and then the hydrogen is automatically sent to the four tanks. It’s similar to compressed natural gas if you’ve ever watched a taxi being topped up. Audi claims that filling up from empty takes between three and five minutes.
“We think the A7 h-tron is fun to drive and it needs to be if customers are to be satisfied with it,” says Dr Friedrich. “We cannot say when this car will go into series production though because there is currently no hydrogen infrastructure to support the vehicle. In Germany for example, there is roughly 20 publicly accessible stations. We are in contact with political bodies to work together to create a delivery system and that also includes other manufacturers.”
All the major controls in the cabin are exactly the same as any other A7, including the menu systems, the seat controls, the air conditioning system, and the radar cruise control. If you forget all about the wizardry going on underneath the skin – not easy to do because there’s a lot of it – you’ll feel very much at home if you’re familiar with Audi vehicles.
The h-tron version has robbed the A7 of very little storage space too, ensuring it remains as practical as the regular models as a family vehicle. The interior has the same spacious four-seat feel to it, and the whopping hatchback load space is the same too, expect for a slightly higher floor.
The most significant cost in the production of the hydrogen fuel cell is the amount of platinum required to build the fuel cell itself. It’s an expensive and exotic metal and that is where the biggest saving will come once these vehicles enter series production.
“We have a very good road map to reduce the amount of precious metal that is needed in the fuel cell and this will help to bring the price down,” says Dr Friedrich.
While we won’t see the Audi A7 Sportback h-tron quattro in Australia anytime soon, its been an impressive drive experience. It’s illustrated the reality that hydrogen-powered vehicles aren’t as far away as we might have though, and there’s plenty of practicality as well.
If we can just get used to the lack of an engine note…