Audi’s first dedicated electric vehicle, the E-Tron, will arrive in the U.S. this summer. It comes amid a flurry of premium competitors to Tesla, but brings innovative twists that make it a standout. The question is whether car buyers – Tesla’s success notwithstanding – are truly ready to go all-in on EVs. Of course, this depends on their enthusiasm for driving such vehicles and their access to convenient charging, but also the vehicle itself. Is a vehicle compelling enough on its own merits to make it attractive regardless of its powertrain? The E-Tron, a five-seat SUV, brings solid performance and handling and an innovative all-wheel-drive mode that makes it one of the most capable EVs to hit the streets. That and an assortment of key details nudges it across the line from a great EV to simply a great car.
The Good: Most notably, the E-Tron has a uniquely terrific all-wheel-drive system that capitalizes on the advantages of an electric powertrain. Power can be modulated to an extraordinary degree of precision at incredibly high speed, but it also allows for some fun. The E-Tron is the only electric vehicle that allows drivers to fully disable its stability control system. With its torque fully unleashed, it’ll drift like a champ. Critically, though, it’s a functional and usable SUV, whether you want it for hauling family or gear, commuting or road-tripping. It’s not a crossover of the sort that places breezy design over true functionality, or a hulking mass of a full-size SUV. For many, this is the real sweet spot.
Who It’s For: First of all, you have to be bought into the idea of an electric car. You have to be prepared to think out your long trips a bit to ensure there are charging options along the way, and you’ll have to have a plan for daily charging. That could be a home-charger installation or easy access to nearby public charging. If you’re squeamish about such things, this car isn’t for you. If you are into that and you’d want an SUV that’s far lighter on its feet than any other in its category, you’ll love the E-Tron. It’s smooth, quiet and quick, not to mention loads of fun to drive on a daily basis.
Watch Out For: If you live outside the United States, think twice before opting for the virtual side mirrors available there. These use cameras and small door-mounted OLED screens to replace the external mirrors. The idea is great in concept but will need another generation to be fully intuitive, as well as bright and high-resolution enough to actually be better than conventional mirrors. U.S. customers don’t have that option, which is good. Otherwise, drivers mostly need to be sure the car’s range capabilities – not yet confirmed but expected to be between 200 and 220 miles per full charge – matches their daily driving needs.
Alternatives: There are only two other vehicles currently on the road that really match the E-Tron: Tesla’s Model X and the Jaguar I-Pace, both fully electric. The former is pricier but has better range and the mystique of the Tesla brand – or the obnoxiousness of it, depending on your perspective – and, of course, those crazy gullwing doors. The latter is a bit smaller, but has more robust off-road capabilities, including the ability to scramble easily up steep slopes and over rough terrain, and it also soaks up turns at high speeds better. A third contender, the Mercedes EQ C, won’t be out until early next year.
Review: As much as everyone slags legacy carmakers – that is, the stuffy old guys like Ford, Mercedes, GM, and today’s hero, Audi – for being slow to respond to Tesla’s electric cars, ultimately the first-mover advantage won’t mean squat. In the end, what will truly matter is quality: how well the cars are built, and whether or not they live up to, or exceed, each carmaker’s standards. You can’t just gin up an electric car from scratch because someone else did. It takes time; it takes patience.
I mulled that while racing like my hair was on fire down a sandy road in the desert outside Abu Dhabi, trying to catch a sunset for photography. After all, a bit of patience is fine in the long run, and it will clearly serve well those entering the EV market as either makers or consumers. But don’t feed the bulldog when you’re trying to catch the day’s last rays three hours before your flight home. In my case, screw patience – I need speed.
The E-Tron delivered, wriggling a bit at every stretch of loose sand but keeping reliably on course against my madman-like stabbing of throttle and brake as I hustled toward my destination. Its suspension swallowed up the divots and the undulations of desert driving, and the Quattro all-wheel-drive system so expertly managed the wildly varied terrain that I couldn’t even sense its presence. (That’s how you want it.) It just drove through the unpredictable path like it was no big deal.
I reached a suitable spot right before the sun dipped behind the dunes and dove into a cutout by the side of the road, not really considering the possibility that I’d become trapped there. Which, of course, I did. When I got back to the car, I realized it was in completely loose sand on a slight but ultimately insurmountable incline. I tried steady throttle with no luck, then tried rocking it back and forth with similar lack of success. Fortunately, backup was nearby – Aud had other SUVs positioned along the route with tow straps. All I would have to do was wait it out.
But an idea suddenly popped into my mildly humiliated noggin. I looked over my shoulder at the terrain behind me, popped the E-Tron in reverse, and floored the throttle. Instant torque available from the twin electric motors, totaling 402 horsepower and 490 lb-ft of torque, coupled with the benefit of a few milliseconds of a slightly downhill head start, allowed me to build momentum in a flash. I arced the wheel into the approximate path I’d entered the sand in and aimed for the roadway, keeping the throttle balanced as the all-wheel-drive system worked to sort out the craziness. It did, and I bounced backward up onto the asphalt like Wrong Way Corrigan showing up in Ireland in 1938 after leaving New York for Los Angeles. I smiled smugly, having pulled victory from the jaws of defeat.
That’s an edge-case for EV performance, of course, and the rest of my drive through the UAE revealed the gross average: The E-Tron is a silky-smooth and almost disconcertingly quiet family hauler, always ready for a quick bit of acceleration and eager to help you maximize your driving efficiency as you instinctively stretch out the battery. Or ignore that instinct, as I did, and just thunder down the road as fast as you please. I had a hard time detecting any range penalties based on driving style, and that’s to the car’s credit, as well as its engineering. The team in Ingolstadt worked extra hard to ensure that the fully integrated system expertly controls power expenditure and recapture – via regenerative braking – so that the driver doesn’t really have to think about it.
One of the potential disappointments to some EV nuts in this respect would be the E-Tron’s lack of single-pedal driving. Many EVs are capable of producing a pronounced resistance from the motors when you let off the gas, allowing the system to recoup energy more aggressively while also slowing the car down. The E-Tron bakes regenerative efficiency into the entire drive process, activating it in those millisecond moments of coasting even between braking and accelerating. You can still detect it when you let off the gas – and it can be tuned to be more aggressive, just not so much that you’ll be able to lay completely off the brake, except when more urgent stopping is called for.
All this – the trick AWD, the deep-tissue regen – takes us to the brave, slightly weird new world EV driving. Everything is managed down to the millisecond by computers, in ways we can’t even really see, but which the car delivers on its own, as it needs. I saw this also on the turns, where some of the limits came to the fore. On the approach to the peak of Jabal Hafeet, a mountain along the eastern border of the UAE, there turned out to be quite a bit more body roll than I’d bargained for. But still it was less than a comparable SUV would possess, given the E-Tron’s low center of gravity. (Due, of course, to the heavy battery pack in the floor.) But it was still there and while it made for slightly uncomfortable apexes, the exits were always thrilling thanks to the brisk torque response.
On the flat stretches, the car is smooth, comfortable and responsive. It’s also built to Audi’s customary standards of quality, with none of the loose parts and kludged fixes you hear about with Teslas these days. That’s one of the advantages of a stuffy old legacy carmaker playing catchup to the upstart. They do tend to do it very well.
Verdict: Of all the qualities of luxury, the most essential in a moving vehicle aren’t necessarily speed, cushy leather or even generous space. Instead, it’s the calming and cosseting impact of quietness and smoothness. Electric vehicles come to both pretty naturally, but they also risk exposing creaks and vibrations that were previously masked by raucous engine noise. Audi managed to use electric propulsion as a starting point for luxury, not a free pass. It tightened up the chassis, the road noise and the construction to ensure that this would be a serene driving experience, and they succeeded. The fact that it’s also a practical and usable car, as well as fun and quick, is simply gravy.
What Others Are Saying:
• “Sure, it delivers the modern styling and bleeding-edge infotainment Audi is known for, but this is as close as an electric vehicle comes to the traditional luxury-car experience. For buyers who continue to be skeptical of battery-electric technology, the e-tron has the best chance of being the oil that greases the transition from gas vehicles to EVs.” — Eric Tingwall, Car and Driver
• “We’ll need more time in the saddle to know for sure, but the combination of practicality and comfort with capability make E-Tron a compelling option for those looking to enter this new era of premium electric cars. Sure, it may not be a ringer when it comes to outright performance when compared to the Tesla, but for anyone cross-shopping there, those four rings on the E-Tron’s nose might just be the biggest selling point of all.” — Tim Stevens, RoadShow
• “The e-tron is a well-rounded luxury SUV that barely shows off its electric nature. Audi knew exactly what the objective was, and so the e-tron is adequately quick, but also sensible, practical and tech-heavy enough to reach a wide audience. Unlike the BMW i3 or the Jaguar i-Pace, this EV wasn’t designed to make a bold statement, and with its smooth power delivery, mainstream design and ultra quiet cabin, it doesn’t need to.” — Máté Petrány, Road & Track
Audi E-Tron Key Specs
Price: Premium Plus, $75,795; Prestige, $82,795
Powertrain: Dual AC induction motors; 95 kWh lithium-ion battery; single-speed direct-drive transmission
Horsepower: 402 (combined)
Torque: 490 lb-ft (combined)
Weight: 5500 lbs (est.)
0-60: 5.7 seconds
Top speed: 124 mph
Range: 200-220 miles (est.)
Audi hosted us and provided this product for review.
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