First drive: Audi e-tron Sportback
We put Audi's coupé-style electric SUV to the test. - By Andrew English
As the electric-car hyperbole shifts into hyperdrive, it’s worth recalling just how expensive and nascent this technology can be. Take this car for example, Audi’s new e-tron Sportback 55 quattro super SUV coupé, all £79,195’s worth of it as tested – though prices start at £69,100.
That’s without the £3,000 Plug-in Government Grant (PiGG), of course, though at these sorts of prices, that grant is nothing more than a year’s worth of high-cost fast charging - or, you might observe, a sweetener to allow the rich buyers to pay for options such as the £1,050 for the super sports diamond-stitched seats, the £750 Catalunya-red paint job, or the £1,475 panoramic sunroof.
Thing is, though, if you don’t fast charge and instead plug in overnight on a 7.4kW wall box at your home, it will take 16 hours to fully charge its 95kWh lithium-ion battery of which the car uses just 86kWh in the interests of longevity.
Defenders of a battery-electric-based transport might point out that very few owners will require the Audi’s full 241 miles of range as measured in the stringent WLTP test and besides, it takes just 30 minutes to get from zero to an 80 per cent charge on a 150kW fast charger. Detractors might counter that most off-peak electricity rates are only available for six hours in a day, that 16 hours of recharging means you actually need two Audi e-trons, one on charge while the other is at large and that winter operation in hilly areas or at high speed could halve the 241-mile range. They might also point out that there are very few 150kW fast chargers operational in the UK and besides, if you aren’t doing high mileages in this Audi, then what on earth are you buying it for?
The war of words rumbles on…
In the meantime, this is the smarter but smaller coupé version of Audi’s full-sized e-tron SUV launched in the UK 18 months ago. We first saw this car, the second in Audi’s forthcoming all-electric line up, at the LA Show last autumn, which seems like a lifetime ago. Audi was showing off the e-tron’s remarkable LED matrix headlamps, which can tilt their one million micromirrors up to 5,000 times a second to mask on-coming drivers’ eyes from dazzling light as well as illuminating road signs, painted road markings and even make its own warning markings on the road surface. At the show, Audi even boasted that the lights could project a black-and-white movie onto a white surface, although you can keep your old monochrome films in the drawer, since that turns out not even to be a possibility with these £3,175 optional headlamps (standard on the top model Vorsprung), which anyway weren’t even fitted to my test vehicle.
One gadget the new Audi did come with, however, was £1,250 door cameras, which project out from the doors like wing mirrors, but with a much narrower profile that helps increase this car’s wind-cheating credentials to a slippery Cd of 0.25. They are still the widest things on the car, though, so you’ve got a lot to lose on a narrow road if you meet a delivery van. The cameras’ image is displayed on a small screen mounted on the top of each door card, which take some getting used to, aren’t as intuitive as a mirror and the driver’s side one has a very strange perspective.
And while it’s the baby sister, the e-tron Sportback is still a big baby. At 4.9 metres long, 1.61 metres high and, with those camera stalks, 2.19 metres wide – that’s 85mm shorter, 60mm narrower and 89mm lower than Audi’s biggest SUV, the conventionally powered Q8 SUV.
Under the skin, the Sportback is based on aversion of Audi’s MLB Evo chassis platform and it’s built alongside the e-tron SUV at the company’s factory in Brussels, Belgium.
Under the floor and between the wheels lies a 95kWh gross (86kWh net) lithium-ion battery using SDI Bosch/Samsung cells. There are two asynchronous AC motors at each end of the car, the front one producing 181bhp and 182lb ft and the rear one delivering 221bhp and 232lb ft. With a normal peak output of 355bhp and 414lb ft, the 4x4 e-tron Sportback goes from zero to 62mph in 5.7sec with an electronically limited top speed of 124mph.
To accelerate that hard there’s an eight-second ‘over-boost’, where the motors provide a total of 402bhp and 490lb ft, which is activated by moving the gear selector into the S setting.
Each motor has its own step-down gearing and the power controllers are networked together, with the facility to decouple front and rear axles, so the car can drive from the rear in low-demand situations, which increases the range by seven miles over the standard e-tron SUV.
As a practical vehicle, the Sportback isn’t as useful as its all-electric SUV sister. For a start the rear load lip is very high, so watch out aged dogs, especially as the heavily canted screen means they have to lie down before you shut the hatchback. Even the seats-folded load bed isn’t flat since the seats fold onto the bases. Those seats split 40/20/40 per cent, but the folding mechanism for the tiny middle seat is hidden so you need to read the manual to find it. The load space is 615 litres with the seats up, 1,665 litres with them down, which compares with Jaguar’s iPace (577/1,453 litres), Mercedes-Benz’s EQC (500/1,060 litres) and Tesla’s Model X (1,090/2,487 litres in five-seat configuration).
Rear-seat passengers sit in regal comfort, however, on soft, well-shaped leather, but while there’s plenty of leg room, head room is limited and six footers will find their crowns brushing the head lining.
Front seats are spacious and comfortable, with lots of storage space around the driver and a centre console, which is a wonderfully complex design that defies pretty much anything you own to fit inside.
In fact, the whole cabin feels plush and grand, and built for a different, richer and more intelligent race of beings. That definitely goes for the three facia touch screens, which dispense with a lot of mechanical buttons, not always to the benefit of ease of use. At least there’s a simple button to turn off the lane-keeping assist and the heater controls are in a dedicated lower screen. Trouble is, sanitiser-ravaged fingers don’t always register with the capacitance screens, so you end up repeatedly stroking the dashboard, which isn’t the least bit weird…
None of these systems are perfect, but Audi has put more thought in than most. The Virtual Dashboard, where you can chose to display Google Maps underneath the speed and range gauges, is still the best in town. The driver-assistance system and SAE level-two self driving are simple to activate and seem to cope with motorways and dual carriageways as long as you keep your hands on the wheel.
Dial up Normal in the Drive controls and the e-tron’s response to the major controls is soft, borderline laggardly. The accelerator requires an almighty shove to get this 2.5-tonne car moving, and manoeuvring, especially on a hill and even more so in reverse, is a lurching fight between safety electronics and your wishes. In Sport, the controls feel more natural, though the brakes never inspire confidence, not because they are weak (they aren’t), but because for too much of the first part of the pedal’s travel, the Audi is harvesting regenerated electricity rather than getting on and stopping the vehicle. Yes, you can dial in more regen recovery, but a car this big and this heavy, needs positive, powerful and intuitive-feeling stoppers.
Performance is simply crushing, especially in boost mode where the entire cell charge is thrown at the wheels and were you not concentrating like a tight-rope walker carrying a grand piano, you’d be thanking your stars that this car has four-wheel drive and sophisticated traction control. Nothing this big should be this fast, though come the first corner you realise that the Audi is slightly indifferent to changing direction. You end up pushing into the turns with a blind faith rather than knowledge and while the low centre of gravity restricts body roll it still doesn’t inspire much confidence.
A weight distribution of 50/50 per cent front to rear and the sophisticated air suspension helps control the masses and driven briskly the Audi’s ride quality is pretty good. Gentle rather than stiff and overdamped, with soft breathing feel over undulations, the e-tron feels comfortable and long-legged.
Slow down, however and those 21-inch Continental tyres flap and report off every sharp-edged pot hole and bump, which gives a shuddering, busy ride quality – smaller wheels might be a better choice.
Don’t go boasting too much about the environmental credentials of all-electric motoring, especially in this Audi. Using the latest UK electricity generating figures, the Sportback will produce 51.7g/km of CO2 and its efficiency of 2.8 miles per kWh isn’t fantastic. But it does produce less CO2 per mile than its conventionally powered rivals and that’s at least a start.
Next year Audi plans to offer an e-tron 50 Sportback, with a smaller 71kWh battery, slightly less performance and a range of 215 miles. Also, on the way, is an e-tron Q4, a smaller battery-electric SUV, which will be the company's first all-electric car under £50,000. Then there will be the e-tron GT, a large saloon about the same size as Porsche's Taycan and eventually Audi will be allowed to use parent company, VW’s MEB all-electric platform. It’s envisaged that Audi-badged cars will occupy about a third of the total of 75 all-electric cars promised by the VW Group in the near future.
And while Jaguar’s iPace still leads the pack in dynamic terms and is a deal cheaper than the Audi, without being too alliterative, the Sportback is a lovely, long-legged and luxurious but it’s a very expensive way of saving the planet.
Check The Facts.