By Marc Rutten
The automotive world is changing, the EV revolution is upon us in 2019 and Tesla will no longer be alone in the premium, luxury electric vehicle market anymore. The Audi e-tron is just the beginning, with both BMW and Mercedes releasing their SUVs to the market over the coming months, and many more brands planning to showcase their electric lineup. The e-tron is Audi's first full-electric car after the cancellation of the Audi R8 e-tron market release a few years ago. The Germans are now clearly ready to take on the EV market. They offered me, along with a large number of other journalists the chance to drive the new SUV in Abu Dhabi, a rather odd choice of location given the region’s immense oil reserves and rock-bottom fuel prices.
The Emirate is however heavily investing in solar energy and connected one of its unique locations to the release of the new e-tron. Masdar City is one of the world's most sustainable urban communities and acted as the pickup location for my Catalunya red metallic e-tron. The core of Masdar City is a large, square-ish building that is the Middle East headquarters of Siemens. A 45-metre Teflon-coated wind tower helps channel cooling breezes down a shaded street equipped with a grocery store, bank, post office, a canteen, and a couple of coffee shops.
Walk up to the pure premium SUV and you notice the deliberate conservative design language of the vehicle. The e-tron can easily be confused for one of its internal combustion SUV family members. The front grille with e-tron badges and wheels are giving the game away, but on first sight a passenger wouldn't know that they are entering a fully electric Audi. Open the door of the e-tron and the same story continues on the inside. The dashboard resembles the latest A7 model and the rest of the cabin is nothing different from any other Audi. High quality, properly built in a factory in Brussels, (and not in a tent like Tesla) and with hardly any noticeable differences to other Audi vehicles in the German brand's line up. Audi has created a car that people will recognise and understand.
The details make the difference here and showcase that there is a battery-powered heart. The dials in front of the driver offer an electrical range display and a power gauge, but that is about it if you don't dive into the MMI multimedia system. The SUV offers anything you would ask for. There is seating for five, a large 605-litre boot and a range of equipment we know from other Audis such as the adaptive air suspension, LED headlights, 360 degree cameras, keyless entry, 4-zone automatic climate control, premium Bang & Olufsen sound system, head-up display and charging points on both sides of the vehicle.
One thing however is different. It is even a world-first on a production car! You can now get side cameras instead of mirrors. Cameras instead of side mirrors? Yes, on both sides of my test car I found a sleek pod featuring a built-in camera replacing the usual chunky mirror providing a slight improvement of the car’s aerodynamics. The camera relays images on high-resolution seven-inch OLED displays in the upper top front corner of the door panels. A brand new experience which we have seen on many different concept cars the last few years, but which has finally landed on a production car.
Decent quality on the virtual exterior mirrors. Be aware of your passenger blocking the view!
The quality of the screen is really good, especially during the night, but the position of the display takes some getting use to. At first glance, you will always look at the camera, not the display, since this is the location where you expect the mirror to be. After a few hours of driving you get the hang of it, but the initial experience is rather annoying and awkward. Another point to note is that the passenger side display is of course positioned lower than a conventional passenger side mirror, which requires the passenger to take more notice of possibly blocking the screen in case he or she wants to grab something out of a bag in the footwell, or wants to open the glovebox or change the radio station on the central screen.
The start of the drive is pretty straightforward. You presume the car is "on", move the drive selector in D or S, and release the brake pedal. Touch the throttle and you move forward. No special modes or other complex features. Just turn the steering wheel and control both pedals. If required, you have the ability to switch between driving modes like any other Audi SUV. From Off-road to Efficient to Comfort and Dynamic. The most noticeable differences between the modes are the battery-saving and the ride height. In Off-road mode the air suspension rises by 35mm for useful extra clearance. Overall, comfort is the one to go for, and if a dynamic ride is required flick to S on the drive selector.
The driving entertainment and propulsion comes from two electric motors; a 168bhp unit at the front and a 188bhp at the rear. The rear motor is more powerful offering a torque split roughly 40:60. The e-tron rides on 20 inch wheels with 21 inch being available as an extra option. The ride is more aimed at comfort than performance and in combination with the air suspension you are piloting a comfortable and relaxing tourer par excellence.
The handling offers the typical electric car refinement and a seamless surge of acceleration which is fairly ‘normal’ inside an EV. It is not as agile and rewarding as Jaguar's I-Pace, but that is not what the e-tron is aimed at. The steering feels light and on point with a progressive amount of understeer when you attack corners. On the subject of handling, the biggest impact is its weight of 2,490kg, which is over 300kg more than a I-Pace and 150kg up on a Tesla Model X 75D. Still, you don't really feel that weight. It clearly benefits from its lower centre of gravity and its refined character, which slightly underwhelms.
Looking at its outright performance, the e-tron isn't overly fast, not by electric standards. It is rapid, but isn't ridiculously fast as for instance the Tesla Model X. 0-62mph goes in 5.7 seconds, and the top speed is limited at 124 mph. It can go faster, according to Audi, but they aren't offering it in favour of battery drainage. Where the e-tron lacks performance, it offers an increased ability to go off-road. It is definitely not a Land Rover or G-Class, but it is able to cover ground in a way the Model X and I-Pace definitely can't.
On paper, the e-tron looks competitive within the market of electric cars. The Germans claim that it can run more than 400km (249 miles) from a charge and its 95kwh battery under the latest and stricter WLTP rules, with up to a third of this figure made up with recuperated energy. On my run, I managed to achieve decent numbers, which were slightly lower than Audi's claims. Nothing out of the ordinary. It never felt that I would run out of power sooner or later than I expected.
At lunch, I connected the e-tron to a 150kw fast charger allowing it to charge from 36% to 100 per cent in 48 minutes. Sweet! And it is even possible to get 80% capacity from zero, or roughly 160-185 miles of range, in 30 minutes. Not looking at the enhanced charging capability, the e-tron's numbers are relatively conservative in comparison to its competitors, still it seems to have the best value when it comes to the range it can travel, but this will of course differ with regards to the chosen specification.
Looking back at my initial experience, I am left with a single thought that the Audi e-tron is "an Audi" in every possible way. It offers high quality standards when it comes to build quality, refinement, comfort and the range of equipment. It is by far the best electric daily in the premium luxury segment and mostly aimed at persuading regular Audi drivers and family SUV buyers to take the leap into the future opting for a full electric SUV. Of course, there is still a lot to wish for, but as a first member in the slowly growing lineup of electric vehicles, I really feel that the Germans at Audi have clearly nailed it.