(Pocket-lint) - In this new series of features, we're looking at life with an electric car. We're starting with the biggest barrier for a lot of people - range anxiety - and the realities of using an EV when you're away from home.
Your average diesel car will give you in excess of 500 miles pretty easily with filling stations in easy reach nationwide, equipped with multiple nozzles. But what happens when you ditch easy option?
We loaded the Audi e-tron with the family and dog, and braved the great bank holiday weekend rush to escape London and head to sunny Cornwall.
Let's talk about range
Audi says on its website that the e-tron will give you 388km on a combined WLTP cycle - that's 241 miles from the 95kWh battery. It could be more, it will often be less.
As our UK e-tron was delivered, it arrived with 52 per cent battery, reporting 113 miles. With a journey of approximately 244 miles to be done that evening, we went out to find a full charge for it.
The Polar Network "pump" was down an access road to the side of the hotel. Some laundry cages had been deposited in the bay, but we slotted the e-tron alongside, tapped the RFID card, watched the handshaking and left the car to suck up as much range as it could.
That didn't get us enough range for the entire journey - and longer drives are all about planning when you have an electric car, so plan we did.
The Audi e-tron is Audi first, electric car second
When Audi designed the e-tron, the intention was to give Audi drivers everything they expected. It's a premium SUV, sitting alongside the Audi Q8 which is basically a combustion equivalent and bedecked with just about every luxury you can think of. We already know that the Audi e-tron is a great car, as you can read in our full review.
There's no sense that you're in an electric car - in fact you'd be hard pressed to find any indicator of its power source - save for the e-tron motif on the dash and that the left driver dial isn't a rev counter, it's a power meter.
That ethos of being an uncompromising Audi is everywhere, from the quality of the interior, to the extensive options list. Certainly, as far as five-seat SUVs go, the Audi e-tron is right up there as one of the most sumptuous on the road. It also weighs 2.4 tons, so it's a big beast.
There's also a 55 moniker on the back. This is part of Audi's universal labelling system designed to reflect the power of the car. In the case of the Audi e-tron, there's 360PS in normal mode (a boost mode to 408PS is also available). Switch to the Audi Q8 and there's also a 55 model - in that case it is 350PS in either petrol or diesel, so you can see how the power levels compare.
It's entirely deliberate that the e-tron is as fully Audi as any other. For an owner that's great - there's a conventionality and familiarity - but at the same time, some of the electric heart of this car feels tucked away.
Audi's driving modes are all present - auto, comfort, dynamic, offroad - for example, but we stuck to efficiency when driving. That seemed prudent. But elsewhere, hidden in the menu there's a "range" setting. It takes a few clicks to find and we'd rather there was just a driving mode or button that engaged full range, just to make things easy. Convenience without compromise.
Jumping on the Electric Highway
The UK's motorways are served by Ecotricity's Electric Highway. You have to sign-up and create an account to use the service using the smartphone app and the service very much unlocks longer drives for EV owners. (You don't have to sign-up, you can make ad hoc charges putting in your card details every time, but who will do that?)
At 30p per kWh it's not hugely expensive - but you are limited to a 45-minute charging time, which in the case of the Audi would give you just over a third of the total capacity when connected to the 50kW "rapid" CCS pump.
Ecotricity's "pumps" are spilt in the types of connector they offer - frequently they offer CCS - the one we wanted - and CHAdeMO (which you'd use with a Nissan Leaf) both of which are rapid DC chargers.
Some pumps instead pair the CHAdeMO with a Type 2 AC connector. The latter of these only gives a slow charge - and in many cases, the 45 minute allowance would only give you enough charge to get to the next service station. It's fairly universal, but it's also pretty useless on a motorway. (You can find out more about electric car charging right here.)
The Electric Highway is a bit hit and miss
Liquid fuel pumps have a numbers advantage, churning through cars every couple of minutes - and with lots of pumps on offer for each fuel type. While Tesla has installed banks of Superchargers in some locations, Ecotricity's offering isn't as comprehensive - it's a bit hit and miss.
The chargers will tell you when they are occupied and the app will also report when a charger isn't working - but if you're driving the car, accessing that information is a bit of a challenge. It's not integrated into services like Waze and while the e-tron will navigate to charging stations or include them in a route - that's also a bit hit and miss - sometimes it doesn't seem to know where the chargers are and searching for them isn't as immediate as it should be in the satnav system. This could so easily be better for drivers.
On our route down to Cornwall the first rapid charger we tried to connect to immediately reported a fault, saying there was a grid failure. The second - some 50 miles later - worked as it should, but it still meant we had to deviate from the plan. Being restricted to a single rapid charger is a limitation of many charging sites and that seems to be the case for many CCS Combo users.
We experienced the same on the return journey. The planned stop for a rapid charge failed to work, pushing us onto a different charger, in this case about a 100 miles later. We're talking about getting to the end of comfortable range in some cases. While "fast" chargers remain an option - when you have long distances to cover, having to divert from the motorway to find an alternative option is a bind - it's not the experience that's going to sell green motoring to the masses. In this regard, there is still a sense that range anxiety is an issue.
Electric car charging services need to improve their apps
The apps aren't the most sophisticated either - when we're living in the era of Uber or Citymapper - some apps don't really come up to muster when it comes to charging your car. Like many car parking apps, Electric Highway feels dated when you come to use it.
The biggest problem we encountered was that the app lost track of the charging session. Normally you have a meter showing the charge and a big button to end it. When the app loses track of that, it seems impossible to get it back and end the change the way that Ecotricity wants you to.
The result was that we then found a pending transaction for £41 on our account, until Ecotricity figured out that we had ended the charge and actually, it was a £2 slow charge instead. Just to note - we were never actually overcharged - but there's a lingering confusion before this situation gets resolved, which in some cases took 24 hours or so.
We found other problems with GeniePoint charging too. This service wants to run through a web app rather than a proper app. This was probably someone looking to save money on development costs and again it makes for a messy experience. GeniePoint (commonplace across the southwest) does at least let you register an RFID card so you don't need to use the app - and the masterstroke here is you can register any RFID card you like - your existing Polar card, for example.
Just for balance, let's also mention Polar. The RFID card is "free" - you have to pay a monthly subscription for the service so it's wrapped up in those costs - and it's useful to have a card rather than using the app. For us, having registered online and received that card, we've never been able to sign into the Polar Plus app.
Bridging all the different services are other apps. Zap Map is particularly useful in locating and identifying the pumps that are working - although the community comments are the most useful. Some chargers reporting a fault might actually be working fine - using community feedback is sort of fun, but it's not the long-term solution.
Overall there's a sense that - while electric car charging services and locations are plentiful - they don't really feel very modern. That's a strange position for technology vying to be the future. The apps need to be more stable, it needs sexier design and the pumps need to more reliable. It feels like it needs some Silicon Valley startup polish.
And it doesn't feel as though it's going to scale up as the demand increases.
It's not the car's fault
With the launch of every new electric car, there are two consistent messages - that charging at home will cover most needs and that rapid charger deployment is increasing in pace.
Sure, charging at home when you never face the prospect of running out of charge eliminates the notion of range anxiety - the weekly shop or a 30 mile commute - but at the moment it feels like there's a lot of work to be done once you step out of that comfort zone and it comes back to infrastructure.
The Audi e-tron delivers on its promise: it's comfortable, it's powerful, it's thrilling to drive when full of charge and eating those twisty Cornish B roads. The feeling when you can afford to let it expend some of that power, knowing that Asda in St Austell has a rapid charger waiting for you, is sublime. That right-turn, crossing a dual carriageway, uphill, lets the Audi show off the huge torque dump that electric cars offer and the skill that Quattro has in keeping you stuck to the road. It's brilliant in many ways.
But at the same time, Cornwall is a surprisingly large place and you can gleefully drive yourself into a remote area, only to need to limp back to a charger hoping that it's working. None of that is the car's fault.
Having an electric car didn't stop us doing anything we wanted to do, but it did involve a lot more checking, planning, double checking to find those chargers, check they were working, and it did extend the time the motorway portions of the journey took compared to a combustion engine.
At the same time, range anxiety is a very specific thing that will only apply to those who actually try to go longer distances. Can you do long journeys? Yes, you can. Can you get to remote places and still charge an electric car? Yes, you can.
Could it be a better experience? Yes, it definitely could.