Audi's electric e-tron mimics its conventional SUV stablemates
If consumers expect the coming wave of electric cars to be quirky and different to drive, then Audi is going to surprise with the e-tron.
Driving this battery-powered Audi is almost exactly like experiencing a conventional vehicle, except that you won’t have to pull into a gas station, at least not for fuel.
What’s more, the e-tron looks normal. Its crossover design closely mimics that of its Audi SUV stablemates, sized just a little larger than the popular Q5. Inside, the five-passenger e-tron shares the same multi-screen dash layout as the latest versions of the Audi A8, A7 and A6 sedans, which means it’s state of the art, but recognizable.
The familiar design philosophy is no accident. Audi wants buyers to feel comfortable switching to an electric car. More adventurous Audi EV designs can and will come later: Witness the striking e-tron GT sedan recently unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show and due in showrooms in 2020.
My first drive of the e-tron happened in of all places, Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. An ironic location for an EV program, you might think, given the wealthy region’s oil-based economy. But the UAE is busy prepping for the era of renewable energy with massive solar power projects and energy efficient urban building designs, so there is a rationale for launching an electric car there.
Heading for the desert roads outside Abu Dhabi in 90-degree temperatures, the e-tron didn’t break a sweat. With its big 95-kWh battery pack, the e-tron is heavy at 5,600 pounds, but the standard air suspension system makes it feel relatively light and agile.
Performance is fairly strong, with the 0-60 mph dash taking 5.5 seconds and top speed limited to 124 mph. Compared to the high acceleration rates available in some Teslas, the e-tron is on the tame side, but it is not intended to be a drag strip contender. (On the other hand, I predict the sporty e-tron GT will tick the box for ‘blistering’ performance when it arrives.) Meanwhile, this Audi’s performance is all about smooth and refined progress, with a level of quietness that you would normally associate with flagship luxury sedans.
Only now and again, when decelerating to a stop for instance, can your ears detect the telltale whine of the electric motors. There are two, one in front and a larger one at the rear. Combined, they deliver 400 horsepower.
Our drive route took us to a dramatic 4,000-foot mountain peak called Jebel Hafeet. Rising up out of the sand dunes, Jebel Hafeet is notable for its stark beauty and a fantastic seven-mile road that snakes it way to the summit and is regarded by enthusiasts as one of the best drives in the world.
We pushed the e-tron hard through the 60 or so corners on the way up the mountain and found it handled surprisingly well, with crisp steering and good suspension control. The car’s heft could be felt as understeer in the tightest turns, but with the battery’s weight concentrated so low in the structure, body roll is modest.
Such an aggressive pace on the mountain ascent did suck a fair amount of energy – about 10 kWs – out of the battery, but we made around four kWs back on the drive down as the regenerative brakes recouped electrical energy.
The braking system is an element that separates the e-tron from other EVs already on the market. “We are the only ones who do it right,” claims Carter Balkom, the e-tron sales and marketing chief. “The one-pedal regenerative braking effect was a crutch for early EVs.” Balkom explains that the e-tron can be configured to slow quickly by simply lifting off the accelerator – the so-called one pedal driving method used by most other EVs. But the Audi is designed to be most efficient at recovering energy when the brake pedal is used in normal fashion. As such, the e-tron also delivers a familiar coasting sensation that feels more natural when slowing for a traffic light or stop sign.
The battery itself is being warrantied by Audi for 100,000 miles or eight years, which the company feels should allay one of the biggest consumer concerns about EVs. As for range, an official US government figure has yet to be determined, but it’s expected the e-tron will cover around 220 miles between charges. The car comes with a 9.6-kW charger, which will replenish the battery in about eight hours. However the e-tron is designed to work with a nationwide network of 150-kW fast chargers being established by Electrify America that cut the charging time to 25 minutes. “If we can get the time down to about 15 minutes, then we are approaching a gasoline car refueling experience,” says Balkom.
Audi’s pricing for the e-tron starts at $74,800 for the premium-plus model. The loaded Prestige version costs $81,800. These prices put the e-tron is same ballpark as Jaguar’s I-Pace, but significantly undercut the Tesla Model X.
At this price level the e-tron is obviously not going to be a mainstream EV, but the car’s conventional driving character and refined demeanor should go a long way to smooth its path towards consumer acceptance.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org