C’est Le Super Prius!

Toyota—and Audi, and Porsche—show Neal Pollack the future at Le Mans.

Super Prius
Mallory Short/Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Last week I was part of a test drive for the new Audi S4 and S5, which included a spin in the S4 around the historic La Sarthe racetrack in Le Mans. Whether or not I deserved to be there, I can report that those cars drive fun and fast and tight, are comfortable enough inside, and are pleasant to look at when painted red. They are also old news, nimble-enough little dinosaurs before the comet hits.

As part of the drive program, I heard a presentation from the very German-named Jorgen Konigsgolt, who developed the cars’ diesel turbo engine, which gets 354 hp (by European counting) and powers the car from 0-60 in 4.7 seconds. The engine has been revamped entirely, he said, containing more than 800 different parts, shaving off 14 kilograms of weight. This leads to “fairly frugal fuel consumption” and a “worldwide benchmark in all V-6 engines in terms of oil efficiency coefficients.” It is also, he told me later, “the first engine in the world that has a monoturbo in the inner wheel.” I stood with Konigsgolt and watched that monoturbo turn in an engine that sat in a fiberglass case, like some sort of carbon-burning reliquary.

Clearly, it was a feat of engineering, but I also thought: What are we doing here? While the world burns up, the luxury division of the world’s largest car company is still paying homage to incremental improvements in the turbo engine, among the world’s least environmental technologies. This made me very depressed.

And then I went to Le Mans.

There, I learned—because I didn’t know this before—that the turbo diesel engine I’d driven had been developed as part of Audi’s LeMans prototype car in the early 2000s, at the beginning of the company’s legendary dominance of the race. So it’s no wonder they have romantic notions about what it can do. But that also means that it’s dated technology from the age of MySpace, and it’s not what they’re prototyping now.

In the coolest moment of my Le Mans weekend, about three hours into the race, I got to go down into the Audi pits. A previous group of journalists had a tour guide who informed that “this car is ten times more powerful than the car I own at home.” Then she turned her attention to Brad Pitt, who was also visiting the paddock. When I visited the pit, it was mercifully Pitt-less. I got to talk to an aerodynamics engineer who’d worked on the car.

He explained to me that the pit mechanics are on duty 24 hours, and can only rest by taking “microsleeps” in chairs that looked, to my eyes, very uncomfortable. This was fascinating, as was his description of the car’s engine. It has an evil V-6 diesel, and a wicked turbocharger that would shred a side of beef in under a minute. But it also contains one of the greatest batteries ever devised.

The Audi sports car, which finished a questionable third at this year’s Le Mans, was a hybrid. When someone told me this—again, I didn’t know—I nearly squealed, as I’ve been driving a hybrid since 2006, and have been much mocked for my preference. Now, all the greatest race cars in the world, from Porsche, Audi, and Toyota, are being powered by advanced hybrid tech. Honda, which didn’t participate in Le Mans’s prototype derby, ran a pure-electric NSX up Pike’s Peak this year. What smooth beast, come around at last, is slouching towards Bethlehem, ready to be born?

As a Prius owner, I found myself rooting for the main Toyota car in Le Mans. Take 15 Prius batteries, combine them to form Voltron, and that was the Toyota, at least in my imagination. My Prius had evolved, like a Pokemon. As the Super-Prius neared victory last Saturday, I strutted around my fellow automotive journalists like a sexy bald chicken.

“C’est Le Super Prius!” I shouted (I was a little drunk). “Super Prius use thunderbolt!”

The Super Prius was about to become the greatest car in the world. And then it died on the track with a lap to go, right in front of the grandstand where I was perched. Typical. But all the other megahybrids, including Super Prius Two, survived the day.

When I was down in the pits, an Audi prototype pulled in, braking in a freeze frame. The micro-rested mechanics filled it up and cleaned its window. Then it zipped away like The Flash, almost invisibly, and without the desperate carbon farting of most of the other cars in the race. It made Tesla’s Ludicrous Mode look like wading through Jello.

I’d been handed a vision of our electric, or at least partially electric, future. This, or some version of it, is the technology that will be powering the cars of tomorrow. Audi will unveil a whole slate of electric cars in the next three years, and, I’m assuming, beyond that, deep into the 21st Century. I look forward to getting into one of those. Even better, give me an electric Porsche. Assuming it gets most of its energy from a carbon-neutral grid. And that it can drive itself.