► Audi's all-electric SUV
► Goes against the Jaguar i-Pace
► On sale Jan 2019 for £71,490
As conversions go, this is St Paul on the road to Damascus multiplied by rugby sureshot Owen Farrell. Audi, conspirators in Dieselgate emissions cheating, are introducing just the second pure electric crossover from an established premium car maker. From nitrogen dioxide sinner to aspiring zero emission saint, as it rolls out SUV, Sportback and four-door coupe e-Trons over the next few years.
Available to order in January 2019 with UK deliveries following in March, the first e-Tron has a certified 248-mile electric range, overlaid with Audi’s trademark high performance, four-wheel drive and quality. Read out to find out how it drives.
The standard spec: air springs, adaptive damping, all-wheel drive
The e-Tron is sailing imperiously over Abu Dhabi’s highway, which is Romanesque in its straightness and Clooney-esque in its smoothness. The occasional bump or scarred tarmac patch barely ruffles the standard air suspension with continuously variable damping, despite Launch Edition cars rolling on 21-inch V-spoke alloys. The ride quality feels organic, gently rising and falling like the chest of a slumbering person.
The steering is alert, briskly jumping to attention as you swing off the dead-ahead, perhaps a touch light though this can be tweaked using Audi’s Drive Select modes. There’s a good spread of in-built adaptability, with variable ride-height so the e-Tron can go from low-slung aeroliner to teetering rock-scrambler, and adaptive damping to swing from tauter sport to pillowy comfort.
Plus there’s the versatility of continuously variable all-wheel drive, naturally badged quattro. But it’s far removed from the clunking diffs and hollow gearsets that made the rally legend. The e-Tron has an electric motor on each axle, spinning the wheels via a single-speed planetary gearset. In Drive mode, total output is 265kW (355bhp), but the range-preserving limiter comes off in Sport mode to yield a maximum 300kW (402bhp).
Typically the e-Tron is rear-driven but the system can instantly vary the twist action at each axle, changing the bias quicker than a mechanical system could manage. That flexibility also helps conquer wet grass or snow, or off-road terrain in alliance with the variable ride height.
How quick: fast or plain ludicrous?
Bury the accelerator from standstill in Drive and the e-Tron, though brisk, doesn’t steam forward with the instant, giddying surge of a ludicrous Tesla or the punchy Jaguar i-Pace. It’s accompanied by a noticeable and likeable electric whirr, a comforting link to the age-old combustion engine chatter which makes for a more charismatic powertrain than the quieter Jag’s.
Mid-range rolling acceleration is plentiful: a quick squirt to pass the ubiquitous, lumbering Toyota and Nissan big SUVs and the urban 60kmh threshold is long gone, unwise in a country where traffic police are urged to display zero tolerance.
Out of the window, Abu Dhabi appears desolate between its urban areas. Sand dunes look welcomingly benign but would be anything but in the 45˚C summer sun; I see more hitchhikers on this 28˚C morning than you would in a year on the UK road network. A trio of camels strut proudly behind a wire fence; they would make for a very uncompromising obstacle if they strayed onto the highway, with its limit typically 140kmh (87mph).
At this speed the e-Tron displays some low-level wind noise, no doubt accentuated by the EV’s mechanical refinement: for sure it’s a serene cruiser in the Middle East, though that might not be the case on the potholed roads of middle England. V8-powered trucks and a CLA45 AMG roar past bombastically, appearing a little uncouth next to the sophisticated civility of the e-Tron.
Dynamics: the 2.5-tonne SUV vs the hillclimb
Our first major stop is the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road, a 11.7km, wriggling hillclimb with rubber smeared on the hairpins and impact marks from Abu Dhabi’s unlucky road racers along the protective wall. The e-Tron SUV is an imposing car, almost the length of an A6 Avant, taller and weighing a bloated 2490kg unladen.
Its naked chassis doesn’t look to have a centre of gravity as low as the I-Pace’s: there’s a second tier of battery cells above the lithium-ion filled floorpan (all liquid cooled), and the front motor appears almost as lofty as a combustion engine’s valvetrain. But this perception swiftly dissolves as the e-Tron scythes up the mountain road.
There’s that responsive steering again, pointing the nose crisply into corners and, with the right entry speed, no understeer just mighty grip. The e-Tron feels fluid and composed, with the computer-controlled all-wheel drive system braking the inside wheels to help pivot the e-SUV into tight bends.
‘There’s no way an SUV with mechanical four-wheel drive would be as comfortable and agile up there,’ drivetrain engineer Victor Underberg tells me afterwards. I reckon that Jag’s I-Pace would have felt more ballerina nimble, but the e-Tron’s muscular litheness smashes it like a rugby winger. Impressive given the chassis is steel, with only a few aluminium panels to trim weight.
Brake violently, recharge prodigiously
We reach the mountaintop with 81km of range (50 miles) remaining in the 95kWh battery pack. The descent demonstrates the power of the e-Tron’s energy recuperation: lifting trickle charges the battery as you coast along. The brake pedal, with its two-stage action, is more potent. First it activates the integrated braking system to turn the motors into generators to top up the cells more prodigiously than coasting, then it kicks in the hydraulic brakes if you need to pull more than 0.3g of stopping power.
We generate an additional 11km coming down the mountain – Audi reckons it could have recouped 15km from more aggression on the stoppers. Indeed, the Germans claim it’s the most effective recuperative system on the market, recovering more than 70 per cent of e-Tron operating energy input.
Some electric cars – Nissan’s new-gen Leaf springs to mind – are being marketed as a one-pedal driving experience: lift and the car decelerates like you’ve smashed into a brick wall. Switch the Audi’s energy recuperation to manual via a touchscreen menu (or with a toggle of the steering wheel paddle) and the e-Tron does slow more noticeably when you lift, but it’s smoother than a Leaf’s dramatic lurching.
A tech breakthrough: cameras replacing mirrors?
The e-Tron is the first production car to replace side mirrors with rear cameras mounted on spidery black spindles. It took all day and in excess of 200 miles to get used to looking further down than usual, at screens mounted in the doors just above the door handle.
The resolution is sharp enough, but the screens are subject to glare and a bit fiddly to adjust by dragging a finger around the screen. To replicate a regular blind spot warning system, the perimeter flashes if there’s something in your danger zone. This is an important digital failsafe, because for me visibility is not quite as clear as a bog-standard mirror’s. Audi has implemented them nonetheless because they deliver an additional 3 to 6km of range; when specified they reduce the e-Tron’s drag coefficient from 0.28 to 0.27.
How far will she go, mister?
Some electric cars can pull some nasty surprises with their range evaporating at an unexpected rate. In the Middle Eastern afternoon warmth, the stoical e-Tron exhausted its batteries not far off a 1:1 basis. Hammering along at 140kmh and chugging across a desert track, we travelled 193 kilometres, with a trip computer calculation suggesting we’d depleted 219km of range.
On the WLTP economy cycle, the e-Tron’s range is ratified at 400km (248 miles). The battery pack can cope with multiple charging systems, from UK households’ plain old 230 volts of alternating current to a 150kW DC ultra-fast charger, which will replenish the cells in just 30 minutes. Today those chargers are rarer than unicorns in Great Britain, but BP Chargemaster will start rolling them out in 2019. At home, owners can install an 11kW charger running off a 400 volt three-phase outlet, which will v-max the battery in eight hours overnight.
What’s the e-Tron like inside?
Under the skin there are some electric car breakthroughs; on the surface the e-Tron looks disappointingly conservative, just another Audi SUV spun off the MLB components set like the Q5 and Q7. Yet engineers say the e-SUV has a bespoke platform and shares only its steering and air suspension with MLB-based cars. Regardless there’s no evidence of the packaging flexibility that gives Jaguar’s I-Pace a longer wheelbase in a far shorter car, or the cleverness of VW’s forthcoming MEB electric platform which will pack Passat space into a Golf-sized EV.
To create what is a very spacious car with generous rear legroom and headroom, Audi has sized it close to the Q7 in length but the Q5 in height. The wide boot stows 605 litres (and there’s underfloor storage which isn’t always possible in electric cars), extending to 1755 litres with the rear seats folded. Up front the infotainment system is operated by Audi’s twin touchscreens, the lower of which seems a bit under-utilised: it merely displays air-con controls, unless you’re conducting a search and use your finger to scribble letters or words on the screen.
Audi is entering the electric age with the e-Tron, which costs from £71,490 (before the Government’s £3500 subsidy for which the e-SUV qualifies). As you’d expect, the e-Tron’s engineering is polished, what you might not expect is how well it handles given its vast size and weight. The e-Tron is also comfortable and spacious, and will hit the spot for wealthy Audi fans keen to embrace zero emissions. Progress through technology? The future, it appears, is very much Vorsprung Durch Elektrisch.
By Phil McNamara
Audi e-Tron: our first ride
This is the Audi e-Tron, Ingolstadt's first all-electric SUV, and probably one of the most important cars to come from the brand in the past decade or so. We haven't been able to drive it just yet, but Audi has let us sit in the passenger seat. What follows is our first impressions on the new electric SUV, including interior impressions, ride quality and everything else we could glean.
What's the Audi e-Tron like to drive in?
We’re shotgun here, so we’re not about to make any definitive verdicts about how Audi’s e-Tron drives, though we can say it’s very quiet. That’s if it wasn’t for Brothers In Arms on the premium audio system, Audi’s sound engineers loving the opportunity EVs bring for creating the crispest, most detailed 3D stereo systems.
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That’s why we’re here, apparently - that and to demonstrate how quiet and refined the e-Tron is.
Strange, really, when we already know that all EVs are pretty silent.
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What's the e-Tron interior like?
We’re here to see the interior, too. Audi isn't going too radical with its plug-in model, the pair of stacked centre screens and Virtual Cockpit familiar enough - save their e-Tron specific details - but the pair of additional OLED screens in the doors are a bit different, though.
They’ll replace door mirrors if you option them, assuming you’re in a country with enlightened enough lawmakers to allow them. They’re a new ‘digital reality’ for Audi’s first production plug-in, which will reach UK customers early in 2019.
Size and specs
In scale, the new 2019 Audi e-Tron sits between the Q5 and Q7 models, rides on a unique EV-specific platform, its 700kg, 95kW battery powering a pair of motors with a combined output of 265kW. That increases to 300kW momentarily if you select Sport on the automatic transmission, allowing maximum acceleration for a 0-62mph time of around six seconds - and a 124mph top speed.
With four wheels being driven, it’s a Quattro, even if the only link between the axles is digital. Think Quattro Ultra for an electrified age, and you're not far off.
While the intention of today’s ride-along is to demonstrate the interior and all its touchscreen, neatly designed Audi-ness, it’s impossible to ignore the Drive Select function, the hill descent control button and the ability to raise and lower the air suspension for ease of entry and loading.
Unlike some of its plug-in SUV competition, the e-Tron is intended to go off-road; indeed, the Drive Select settings offer Offroad and Allroad modes included among the Efficiency, Comfort, Dynamic and Individual modes (that last one configurable).
There’ll be even more chances to fiddle with how the e-Tron drives, with a Range Mode allowing you to absolutely maximise range by losing air-con, while the regeneration on the motor can be varied to allow sailing at speed or one-pedal levels of generation in stop-start traffic.
The refinement among that traffic is, somewhat unsurprisingly, impressive. Audi promises it’s similarly hushed at speed, thanks in no small part to the 0.28 drag figure. Those trick cameras for door mirrors help here, as does optional acoustic side glass - all get acoustically optimised windscreens as standard.
Charging up: how long to top up the Audi e-Tron's batteries?
Audi quotes a WLTP figure of 248 miles on a full charge, that charge taking as little as 30 minutes should you have a 150kW charger to hand, which is currently pretty unlikely. They’ll come, Audi promises, indeed it’s saying as many as 200 will criss-cross Europe’s highways - each with six plug-in points - in the next year, and double that by 2020.
The infrastructure chicken-and-egg problem is an ongoing hurdle for electric car makers, but it's slowly coming good, it seems.
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At home it’ll be slower, think about eight hours on a high-output wall box, the e-Tron managing its energy draw depending on your preferences, tariffs, your solar panels - really - and more.
Clever stuff, but as promising as that real-world range sounds, time will tell whether it’s accurate in daily use.
What is undeniable is that even this early prototype has the performance, comfort, quality and space to give the existing and forthcoming competition a tough task. Now it’s just a case of finding a charger that’s going to be up for the task of a group test early next year…
By Kyle Fortune
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