I ask auto execs this question a lot and never get a satisfactory answer: Why isn’t a major carmaker beating Tesla at its own game with a range-heavy, high-performance EV to rival the Model S? It seems a no-brainer to me, and worth the investment.

There’s no secret sauce: Combine a big battery pack and an electric motor on steroids and you get the Model S. All the big OEMs have the technology; even, they claim, better technology. Well, the other shoe finally dropped. Audi is definitely going after Tesla, and with two cars, not one.

Audi R8 e-tron

The Audi R8 e-tron in one of its earlier incarnations, before cancelation and rebirth. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Audi has jilted the R8 e-tron at the altar several times; it’s an on-again, off-again car. But now the battery tech has caught up with this high-performance sports car, and the R8 e-tron is slated for production — with 280 miles of range — sometime next year, when a conventional version will also debut. A plug-in hybrid version (like the current A3 Sportback e-tron) is also likely. You may remember the R8 e-tron as the cool car Tony Stark drives in "Iron Man 3."

And there’s more, a separate family electric with even more range, is likely in 2017. It could very well be an electric A3 descended from the versions Audi put into California test fleets, but with more oomph. The range is revelatory. "Audi AG has an eventual goal of reaching 310 miles of range (like our A7 h-tron fuel-cell vehicle) on all our green cars," said Audi spokesman Brad Stertz.

Audi tech chief Ulrich Hackenberg told Europe’s AutoExpress, when asked about the always-a-bridesmaid R8:

Such a car is under development. I was able to re-engineer the R8 e-tron project and technology with the team and we are on the way to a range of 450km (280 miles). Let’s say that technology will also be carried over and is a trailer for another car with long range. It is under development and will be in the market for around 2017 but it will not be a sports car.
Audi declined to elaborate on the press reports. Asked about the German automaker as a possible competitor, Tesla’s Alexis Georgeson replied, “Regarding Audi, Tesla is always supportive of other manufacturers who brings compelling electric vehicles to the market.”

Tesla Model S

The "benchmark" Model S. Elon Musk would say "great," not "good." (Photo: Tesla)

The key word there is “compelling,” because Elon Musk has been less than complimentary of EVs he considers sub-standard. At best, he says they’re “good” but not “great.” Resemblances to Steve Jobs are not surprising. He’s even bad-mouthed brands he might end up collaborating with, like BMW.

Musk on the BMW i3:

"I’m glad to see that BMW is bringing an electric car to market. That’s cool. I think there’s room to improve on the i3 and I hope that they do.” He also said, “I drove the i3, but the range isn’t great.” And,My initial impression of the i3 is it looks a bit funny and the range is not high enough. It seems to have been made intentionally weird, as opposed to letting the form follow function. Form should not be artificially weird.”
Musk with faint praise for the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf:
"What Nissan’s doing with the Leaf is sincere. I think Nissan ought to be applauded for its efforts, and GM also for the Volt. That’s not saying those are great products; they’re not great products, but just because the products are not great doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be applauded for those efforts, because they just need to iterate and iterate to make a better electric car. It’s a step in the right direction, and they need to keep going in that direction."
Musk also said that the Leaf’s “battery pack range is just way too low” and that the Volt “essentially split the baby between gasoline and electric, so it’s OK but not great.”

Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid

Audi's A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid goes on sale in the U.S. early next year. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

It may well be that Musk will find something to hate about the Audi R8, also, but unless Tesla has 400-mile cars out by then it won’t be the range. Audi’s well-traveled electrics will also be complemented by the next generation of the VW e-Golf, which is expected to have vastly more range. And the electrics will also share drivetrains with the A7 h-tron fuel-cell announced at the Los Angeles Auto Show and the A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid already on sale in Europe (and headed here).

Meanwhile, Tesla is telling Model X reservation holders to expect their cars, with AWD drivetrains built along the same lines as the Model S 85D, that the first cars will be delivered in the third quarter of next year. But anyone ordering one now won’t be served until “well into 2016.” And Musk himself says he’ll be sticking around at Tesla to harass other carmakers at least for another three or four years, through the launch of the Model 3. 

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.