Lamborghini helps give parent Audi a technical edge

Thu Apr 17, 2014 3:00am EDT

* New Huracan model is precursor to Audi R8

* Has pioneering chassis technology, telemetry system

* R8 boosts Audi's U.S. pricing power vs BMW, Mercedes

* Audi, Lamborghini devise new sportscar platform

By Andreas Cremer

BERLIN, April 17 (Reuters) - Lamborghini is flaunting a technology-packed supercar at this week's Beijing auto show that will spice up its parent company Audi's own offerings just as the second-biggest luxury carmaker struggles to prove its technical prowess.

Audi has little to show this year opposite BMW's new "i" series of electric cars or Mercedes' spate of redesigned models and company sources have said overhauls of the brand's top-selling A4 saloon and Q7 SUV will be delayed until 2015.

Some analysts even say that, while German rivals are pushing new technologies and designs, Audi risks looking like a laggard in an industry where innovation is key.

Technical advances by its Italian subsidiary may help Audi regain the initiative.

The new Lamborghini Huracan LP 610-4, which attracted over 1,000 buyers within two months of taking orders, "is at least ten times more intelligent" than the Gallardo, the brand's all-time best-seller and predecessor, its top engineer said.

The 14,022 Gallardos assembled between 2003 and 2013 represent about half of the company's all-time production.

Sant'Agata Bolognese, Italy-based Lamborghini has been prospering since being bought by Audi in 1998. It sold twice as many cars in the past decade as it did in the previous 40 years, is pushing plans for an SUV and still has waiting times of more than 12 months for the 300,000-euro ($414,500) Aventador three years after its launch, R&D chief Maurizio Reggiani told Reuters.

The Huracan breaks new ground with a pioneering hybrid chassis of carbon fibre and aluminium jointly developed by Audi and its sister brand. The new technology will make the chassis 10 percent lighter than the Gallardo's aluminium-based framework despite making the car 50 percent more torsionally rigid.

The Huracan's second highlight is an advanced telemetry system developed for the aerospace industry that delivers data on how the 610-horsepower model is performing. The information is used to improve the car's steering in real time.

"It's our job to achieve every time a bigger jump in technology," Reggiani said in an interview. "We must be able to surprise everyone with a car that completely changes the game."

R8 SUPERCAR

As Audi's own parent company Volkswagen (VW) keeps pushing commonality - the proportion of parts that can be shared among different models - a lot of what makes the Huracan so enticing will also feature in a 2015 overhaul of Audi's top-of-the-line R8 supercar, Audi's R&D boss Ulrich Hackenberg said at last month's Geneva auto show.

The Huracan's hybrid chassis is derived from a new adaptable platform devised by Audi and Lamborghini under the label MSS, or modular sportscar system, two sources at Audi said.

The underpinnings are made at Audi's Neckarsulm plant in Germany and final assembly of the 169,500-euro Huracan takes place at Lamborghini's facility in northern Italy.

Four models, the coupe and roadster versions of Lamborghini's Huracan and Audi's R8, will be designed around MSS as their base, sources said.

"High-tech applications are often more expensive and more risky," Boston Consulting Group senior partner Nikolaus Lang told Reuters. "Modular production helps carmakers to spread the high development costs, for instance from using new materials (like carbon fibre), over larger volumes."

LAMBORGHINI "MILESTONE"

VW's modular platforms have become the central tool to the German group's strategy to surpass Toyota as the world's No. 1 carmaker, allowing it to engineer and build a wide variety of vehicle sizes and shapes for specific markets at lower cost.

In 2012, VW launched the MQB architecture for as many as 4 million cars and Audi is now upgrading a platform dubbed MLB that underpins larger models also from VW and Porsche.

Hackenberg, who also coordinates product development across the VW group, said the Huracan will be a "milestone" for Lamborghini. It may also prove a boon to the parent.

Since its 2006 launch, the mid-engine R8 has polished Audi's overall appeal and helped the brand increase the price customers are willing to pay for Audis in the United States, the biggest market for luxury autos.

Audi's average selling price in the U.S. has surged by almost a fifth since the R8 arrived to $51,798 in 2013, compared with a 6.3 percent gain at BMW and a 2.5 percent decline at Mercedes, according to U.S. automotive website Edmunds.com.

First-quarter data from Edmunds.com showed Audi's U.S. prices at a record $52,472, a tad more than $52,259 for BMW which sells twice as many cars in the U.S. Mercedes tops the ranks at $57,139.

Back at Lamborghini, Chief Executive Stefan Winkelmann expects the Huracan to exceed the 1,800 peak sales of the Gallardo next year on demand from the United States and China, its two biggest markets, and a rebound in Europe.

"It's easy on the road and absolutely able to perform on the race track - it will redefine the super-sportscar driving experience," the CEO said. ($1 = 0.7238 Euros) (Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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