Release Date: May 2019
Gasoline’s supremacy hasn’t ended yet, but it’s starting to wane. After many years existing on the periphery of the automotive world, electric cars are at long last starting to find purchase. Tesla has carved out an impressive cultural and sales niche selling nothing but EVs, while mainstream manufacturers from Hyundai and Chevrolet to Porsche and Jaguar at the high end have all begun selling full-scale production cars that have no need for fuel tanks.
Into this growing category now steps Audi, leading the charge alongside the Taycan for the entire VW Group. That automotive Goliath has pledged to unleash 22 million new EVs on the planet’s roads by 2028, a plan involving no fewer than 70 new models. And the first one of those wearing the four rings on its nose is this five-person SUV.
What exactly is it?
A midsize crossover that also happens to be Audi’s first true electric car.
No internal combustion engine, no gas tank, no transmission, no tailpipe. No idling, no fumes, no oil changes, no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. No atmosphere-thickening greenhouse gases. Just pure, seamless electric power running everything from the wheels to the heater.
All of that comes in a high-riding hatchback body of the sort that drives buyers these days wild. At 193 inches long, the E-Tron lands roughly between the Q5 and Q7 in Audi’s SUV size spectrum; there’s no third row, but the two leather-wrapped rows that are present both offer ample, if not abundant, space. Somewhat surprisingly, the 1,540-pound battery that makes up an integral part of the floor doesn’t cut into the interior much at all.
What’s special about it?
Well, there’s that whole lack of a place to stick a fuel nozzle. The E-tron’s powertrain consists of a pair of electric motors: one for the front axle, one for the rear, thus enabling the all-wheel-drive capabilities Audi has become known for. They source their flow from a 95-kilowatt-hour battery that sits beneath the passengers, though just 83.5 kWh of that is available, in the interest of long-term battery preservation. The total output of all that comes to 402 horsepower, though that’s only with the shifter in Sport mode, and only for spurts of up to eight seconds.
That said, considering it only takes 5.3 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph, eight seconds is precisely enough time to get you up to extra-legal speed almost anywhere in America. Plus, the instant-on action of electric motors means there’s no need to rev up for full power; it’s all there the instant you breathe on the pedal. As a result, the 5,754-pound E-tron can dust practically anything short of a V8 Mustang at a stoplight in the real world.
You’d never know about its futuristic powertrain from looking at it, though. Audi played things cautious with this first foray into mainstream electrification; inside and out, it looks every bit in line with the rest of the carmaker’s lineup. (Contrast that with the Jaguar I-Pace, which wears its Tomorrowland tech proudly with unmistakable styling that looks like nothing else on the road.) It drives with the same sort of smoothness and tautness of every big Audi, be it a crossover or sedan. There’s not a whole lot of feel through the steering, but it’s well-weighted and immediate enough that you don’t mind much.
Indeed, the entire mission brief seems to have been to minimize the electric-car aspects as much as possible, in order to make it seem as unthreatening as possible to electric-curious soccer moms. Unlike Tesla, Nissan and Jaguar, for example, the E-tron doesn’t offer one-pedal driving (where the power-regenerative capabilities of the electric motors kick in as you reduce pressure on the throttle, causing it to slow down without pressing the brake).
And like the styling inside and out, the infotainment, materials and controls all seem interchangeable with any other Audi. The only time outsiders would be aware how different it is from its siblings is when they hear the odd science-fiction warble it makes at low speeds to let pedestrians know it’s nearly.
What the hell is “E-Tron,” by the way?
E-Tron is Audi’s branding for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. The name dates back more than a decade, first appearing on a sleek, R8-esque concept car ostensibly driven by four electric motors that Audi claimed made a combined 309 hp and 3,319 lb-ft of torque. (No, that’s not a typo.) The moniker continued to show up on a series of concept cars until 2013, when it finally reached showrooms — not as an EV like the concepts, but as a plug-in hybrid version of the A3 hatchback that could go all of 31 miles on electricity alone. So aside from an effectively inconsequential run of all-electric R8 E-trons that existed as much to make Tony Stark look cool in Iron Man 3 as anything else, this five-person crossover is the first Audi to truly live up to the E-tron brand.
What does it compete against?
The aforementioned Jaguar I-Pace is its closest competition. They share a lot in principle: they’re around the same size and start around the same price, mark their makers’ first real foray into true EVs, and are forced to deal with the infrastructural issues that challenge any non-Tesla EV. Speaking of Elon Musk’s car company: the Tesla Model X also stacks up right against the E-tron in price, though it’s a bit larger and goes much farther on a charge.
The biggest issue is the current lack of current, so to speak. Right now, there’s no expansive network of easily-accessible fast chargers for Audis the way there is for Tesla drivers in the form of the Supercharger network. Audi claims the E-Tron can chug electricity at up to 150 kW, enough to add 54 miles of range on a 10-minute charge. Sounds great, in theory. In practice, it proved more difficult. I managed to find a Level 3 charger at an Audi dealership north of NYC and plugged it in with 111 miles of range remaining — only to be told it’d take an hour and 46 minutes to bring it back to max charge. That’s still faster than a Level 2 charger — those take about nine hours to replenish the battery — but it’s enough time to put a serious kibosh on the flow of your day.
(Also, a minor aside: when I tried to detach the charger, it was jammed. An Audi tech at the dealership was able to pop it loose by opening the hood and yanking the emergency release; he claimed it’s been a problem with E-trons. I can’t speak to other units, but I would recommend making sure you know how to use that emergency release before you leave the dealership.)
That wouldn’t be quite as much of a problem if the E-tron could go farther between plugs. The 204 miles of range drops to 196 with the climate control on, which makes it a more relevant number for most people. That’s a fine number for a commuter car or a weekend jaunt to a country house, but it effectively means you’ll need to budget for a lengthy charging stop every three hours or less on a road trip — and again, that’s if you can find a charger along your route.
Volkswagen’s Electrify America network of EV chargers, once fully operational and rivaling those Superchargers in scale, should help out quite a bit. For now, though, that web of plugs only has 2,000 fast chargers in 500 locations around America — compared with 168,000 gas stations across the land.
TL;DR — why should I care?
Because it’s the future — even if, like the players on Saturday Night Live in the ’70s, it’s Not Ready for Prime Time. The E-tron is Audi’s statement of intent, proof of concept for the next decade. As EVs evolve and places to plug in become more prevalent, the disadvantages will fade, leaving only the good parts: the thrilling power delivery, the lower amounts of maintenance, and of course, that whole “save the planet” thing.
The limited range and current dearth of charging stations make it hard to recommend choosing this Audi as your sole vehicle right now, unless you never, ever conceivably seeing yourself driving more than 200 miles in a day (and have a dedicated place to park every night). But if you’re looking for a second car and also thinking about trying to find an easy way into the EV pool…the E-tron will do right by you.
Audi provided this product for review.
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