As we step into 2019, it's a big year for electric cars – especially SUVs (that's 'sports utility vehicles' if you're not in the know). No longer will it be solely the brand name Tesla that spills from peoples' lips. Sure, the American brand has been years in the business and its Model X is a relative success, but with the Brits getting aboard in 2018 with the Jaguar i-Pace, it's now the turn of German marque Audi to put its oar in the electric pool with its all-electric e-tron.
Make no bones about it: the e-tron is a very important SUV for not only Audi, but the car world as a whole. It's an SUV that will help to normalise what electrification is all about: it doesn't make a big song and dance about being an electric car per se; rather this is an Audi that happens to be electric, with all the benefits that this brings – and some inevitable downsides, too.
At the tail-end of 2018 we spent a couple of days in the United Arab Emirates driving the e-tron across roads, rock, tracks and sand to see whether this SUV puts added punch into the electric market. Or, as the naysayers will say, is Audi a little too late to the game to make its mark?
Design: It's an Audi… but electric
- All-electric SUV is the company's first all-electric vehicle
- Familiar Audi design language, signature e-tron lights
There's not a great deal about the Audi e-tron that screams 'electric car!'. Which, for many, will make it an appealing prospect. It's the future without going too Blade Runner in its visual ambitions (except for those digital wing mirrors, which we'll get to in a moment).
The only flourish beyond what's a fairly conventional Audi design is the yellow-edged 'e-tron' logo on the side of the car – giving it some additional flair over its conventional petrol/diesel counterparts.
Still, the e-tron brings together everything about design boss Marc Lichte's modern Audi design language. It's edgy, with snarling headlights and cutting lines – strips of four segmented e-tron lights, no less – offsetting the broad, muscular shoulders and otherwise flowing bodywork. As there's no huge engine under the bonnet, the front overhang of this long-wheelbase SUV is rather squat, but the large wheels help to deliver a strong stance.
Ultimately the Audi e-tron is designed to eloquently slot into the company's SUV line-up. It's a different proposition to a Q5 or Q7 – but one that doesn't rock the boat so hard that it'll be off-putting for potential customers of the more conventional Audi options.
What about those digital wing mirrors?
- Virtual Mirrors: Camera-based wing mirrors display on OLED panels interior
There is one obvious stand-out feature that's very 'future': those digital wing mirrors. Rather than use exterior mirrors to catch a glimpse of the side-rear surroundings, the e-tron offers camera-based wing mirrors that display their digital output onto small screens left and right within the doors. How about that for bragging rights?
There are a few catches though. First, these aren't included as standard, and come as part of a yet-to-be-priced pack, raising the list price yet further. Second, they're not going to be road legal everywhere in the world, so you won't see them in the US unless laws are adapted. Third – and this is the biggest one, really – they're incredibly strange to use, because the camera image displayed near to driver's side isn't in the conventional place and it's rather odd to be glancing so close and low.
These futuristic wing mirrors are undoubtedly a talking point, with Audi citing an additional benefit as improved aerodynamics, decreasing drag and, therefore, further upping potential efficiency. Adjusting them is easy too: like using a smartphone it's a case of dragging across the screen in the relevant direction to tweak the view as required. Both positive points to help counter their downsides.
A tech suite that leads the way
- Black Panel Technology wrap-around OLED touchscreens with haptic feedback
Really it's not those wing mirrors that are the most important tech here. The e-tron joins an increasing number of Audi vehicles with the latest tech suite (from late 2017 onwards, first seen in the A8). It comprises multiple screens and a predominantly touchscreen-led interface that's visually rich and can be tailored for your personal preferences too.
When we first played around with this system we thought the largely touch-only controls were somewhat distracting when driving down the road and that some more physical dials would be of use. We still stand behind that view – but can't deny that having used this tech setup in multiple Audi vehicles that it's become evermore familiar and easier to use over time. Ultimately, with a little time and tailoring, this system will feel like second nature to an e-tron owner.
Furthermore it's a better tech setup that you'll find in the Jaguar i-Pace in our view. The JLR tech suite just isn't as well integrated, something we also found in the Range Rover Velar. Even Tesla, despite its 17-inch main touchscreen, is arguably not as well considered as the Audi setup. We really do find the German brand to have the upper hand here.
Why? Foremost it's the Virtual Cockpit: Audi's digitised driver displays, which show digital speedometers, rev counters, information, sat nav and more – depending on what you want shown and when – which is displayed independently of the main screen above the centre tunnel. But there are other details too: the customisation of app shortcuts that can remain permanently on display, which means you needn't get lost digging in the menus; the haptic feedback of the screen feeling more convincing and 'real' than any touchscreen (it's on par with Apple iPhones); and the integration of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto making for seamless smartphone integration (something absent in a number of Audi's main German SUV competitors – BMW, for example, doesn't support Android Auto at all).
No, the e-tron might not have the automated self-driving skills of the Tesla, but Audi really isn't far behind on this front – we would suggest it's simply more 'cautious' about implementing its driver assist and is seeking the correct legislation from all countries as relevant (it's only in Germany, for example, where you'll find the A8 with a one-touch Audi AI button for level three autonomous driving). We suspect that, in addition to the e-tron's lane-keep and adjustable cruise control with auto-braking, this SUV will have more autonomous driving features in the future – and likely through software updates, thus not impinging purchase date.
Overall the e-tron's in-car tech is delightfully well implemented, of a high standard, and comes with all the necessary features at its base level. Extra packs will be available for features like the sound system, to add yet more grunt to an already solid setup.
So how does it drive?
- 0-62mpg in 6.2 seconds; 5.7 seconds with Boost mode
- Multi-select Drive Mode to adapt drive dynamics
- Adjustable suspension for off-road antics
Electric cars don't use combustion engines, rather electric motors, which has the immediate benefit of high torque for on-demand power. Under the e-tron's exterior are two electric motors, delivering a combined 265kW/365hp of power. That means 0-100km/62mph in 6.2 seconds, or 5.7 seconds when slipping the gearshift into boost mode (well, its Sport mode, really).
No, the e-tron isn't Tesla P100D with Ludicrous Mode fast, but for a hefty SUV it's got plenty of pep to see it sail along down roads – nice and smoothly with limited cabin noise, too. Sat behind the wheel of the e-tron feels rather a lot like driving another Audi SUV but without the engine noise. Audi really has made, well, yet another Audi. We can see how that'll make it accessible, even if it doesn't make it next-level exciting to drive.
That's the thing about the e-tron: it's so easy to drive, so comfortable and elegant in its ways. Yes, you can rag it around a bit, as we did up hillsides outside of Abu Dhabi, but the extra weight doesn't see it handle with the same rawness and excitement of the Jaguar i-Pace. But does anyone buy an SUV/crossover for such style? Not really.
Like we say, the e-tron ticks all the right boxes. It's peppy, smooth, quiet, comfortable and sophisticated. It lacks the rawness that many car enthusiasts will harp on about – which is exactly the thing most members of the public don't want from a family car. In that regard, Audi has got its typical 'Audiness' just right.
There are other off-road modes, with adaptable suspension to cater for clearance, should they be needed. We did a short off-road track at Abu Dhabi zoo which wasn't too challenging but that no Ford Fiesta would ever get through. In that regard the e-tron will tackle more than just your average driveway – which will be handy for unusual terrain, snow, sand and so forth.
What about range, battery and economy?
- 95kWh battery with rapid charge (80 per cent in 30mins) from relevant charging points
- Quoted 399km/248m range per charge (we achieved around 325km)
More critical to the driving experience is the economy and range delivered from the batteries. Officially quoted at 399km per charge, we were achieving around 325km from what was measured on the in-car computer – and there's an easy-to-glance display in the Virtual Cockpit so you know how you're getting along and when a charge might be necessary.
That range is actually very good, providing us with around three-and-a-half hours of time on the road in various conditions, including a lot of motorway driving at the 100/120/140kmph set limit of the UAE's road system. It didn't make us anxious at any point, stopping for lunch for an hour to get the recharge on the go.
Connected to a fast charger (at 150kW), the battery can be refilled to 80 per cent in just half an hour. Again, great, although chances are you won't find such a charger in most infrastructure (Motorway stations tend to be 100kW, which would put 80 per cent on in around 45 minutes). There's not the same support as there is for Tesla Superchargers just yet – but you can use all manner of charging spots or charge at home, so long as you're willing and able to wait longer. Ultimately fast-charging will progress in abundance on roadsides across the world, so such opportunities will only improve over time.
It's also possible to drive with even greater economy. A tap of a lever can set auto-braking between two levels (or switch it off), so that regenerative energy is put back into the battery. If you're going downhill, for example, then with all feet off the pedals this braking method isn't particularly invasive to driving style – but you do need to be thoughtful and proactive to actually engage it and understand what it's doing. A great idea that other electric cars also use, but which could be implemented in a yet simpler way to make it more viable to use for the general public.
The e-tron falls well into the current range expectations. The i-Pace, which has a slightly less capacious 90kWh battery pack, achieved a few kilometres more – but then it's a smaller, lighter crossover alternative rather than the full-fat SUV experience of the Audi.
In the e-tron Audi has made a great SUV, which just happens to be electric. It's a car that doesn't make a massive song and dance about being an eco warrior of the future; rather it normalises electrification and will help ease the all-electric future step change.
With arguably the best-in-class tech suite, a smaller starting price tag than the Tesla Model X, a decent range and fast-charging possibilities, the e-tron delivers on all the mod cons that modern buyers will want.
Sure, Audi is later to the game than Tesla, and the e-tron isn't as exciting to drive as the Jaguar i-Pace, but in looking, feeling and acting like an Audi that an abundance of buyers will want to own it ticks every box. If, that is, the price tag isn't too much of a hurdle to overcome.
Ok, so it's not as roomy as the full-fat Audi SUV style, but this crossover is a little cheaper and a little more fun to drive. The on board tech isn't as refined as Audi's offering though.
Tesla Model X
The first all-electric SUV might be seen as the go-to option, but it's pricier and unnecessarily flashier. It does have the 'Tesla appeal' though, which will sell it for many.