It isn’t the first and it won’t be the last, but the Audi e-tron is the best EV we’ve driven to date. MOTOR’s Ray Leathern reports from Abu Dhabi
It’s head–out–the–sand time, people. The electric vehicle is a thing. The Nissan Leaf, BMW i3 and Jaguar I-Pace, are just some of the 21st–century iterations, but thumb through the knurled pages of history and you’ll see small–scale electric cars were first invented as long ago as the 1820s. And yet, for something that predates the internal–combustion engine, we are still left with a confused, almost reductive sense of EVs – a mire of futurist concepts and harsh realities that struggle to resolve into something genuinely relevant for the man and woman on the street.
There are good reasons for this. One is the theory – some might call it conspiracy theory – that American ‘big oil’ killed off the electric car in the 1980s and ’90s; Google the story of General Motors’ EV1 if you’re not already familiar with it. The other is that established automotive companies, comfortably settled in their fossil–fueled, multi-cylindered paradise were simply unable or unwilling to accept the significance of plug-in mobility. This, after all, would create much brain ache for the company suits, whose only solution to solving problems has been to skim through the format drawer and fit an old problem with a fancy new shape. Most importantly, investment in radical technology and expensive charging infrastructure would hit them where it hurts most, in the pocket. And for what, when some people see electric cars as expensive, unworkable, elitist and in certain corners of the globe, downright unpatriotic!
This internal monologue pauses briefly as I survey the early–morning scene. We’re in a city outside of Abu Dhabi that functions completely off the grid; Masdar City it’s called. Much like the causality dilemma facing EVs, it seems totally deserted except for the Audi contingent who’ve moved in, using it as the starting point for the e–tron world launch. There’s no residential activity but some big corporations like Siemens have apparently taken up office space. It’s the weekend though, so there’s no one to be seen. No matter, because what lies ahead is the most exhaustive EV drive I’ll undertake in my career. With batteries 100% powered–up, 500 km of highway, urban, dynamic and gravel driving lies ahead, with a 150 kW fast charge at lunch to replenish the batteries. Audi claims a 400–km cruising range, which should provide an angst-free 250 km zip to our first stop.
We leave Masdar City and head east on one of the UAE’s expansive motorways, before turning south for the mountains where we’ll eventually tackle the Jebel Hafeet, a sinuous, switchbacking mountain road that could be straight out of a Japanese Best Motoring touge challenge. Operating the e–tron is simple. The starter button, transmission selector and Audi’s Drive Select live in close proximity to one another on the centre console. The only standalone buttons in here. Hitting the starter summons all the instrumentation and infotainment. Of course, with no engine noise, your next target is the toggle which operates the transmission, a hyperspace drive–looking apparatus that’s mostly a place to rest your wrist, but within it lives a self–explanatory D, N, R and P. The transmission is single–speed but there are shift paddles behind the steering wheel which allow the driver to manually control brake regeneration, as if mimicking the gear–up and –down action of a gearbox, but more detail on that later.
Despite being a tech showcase, the e–tron’s fascia is (mostly) free of gimmicky fumblements. By all rights the steering wheel could’ve been something out of Star Wars but it’s in fact comfortingly conventional. For Audi’s first clean–sheet EV, the protruding dashboard, raised centre console and slim glasshouse initially feel bulky and constrictive, the designers talking–up the cocooning effect on the driver, but this is completely a symptom of stowing an entire ‘skateboard’ of batteries beneath the floor of the vehicle and having an electric motor at each axle. E–tron is 150 mm smaller front to rear, 20 mm narrower and 100 mm shorter top to bottom than a Q7; nevertheless, there’s still seating for five adults, and a Q7–aping 660–litre luggage capacity that grows to 1725 litres with the rear seats folded flat.
Impressive practicality is abetted by top–level digital multitasking with Audi’s all–in–one 12.3–inch TFT Virtual Cockpit ahead of the driver, and two prominent screens on the fascia: one with emphasis on sat–nav and MMI – and the other configurable to preferences like climate control or graphical tracking of the e–tron’s energy flow. Both are turned ever–so–slightly towards the driver, which bodes well for this not being some mobile chill–out wagon. Although, cruising as we are with the help of adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist down the motorway, it is supremely relaxing.
This affords plenty of time to consider the e–tron’s nuanced design. At first glance, it comes across conservative, a vehicle that overlaps between Q7 SUV and A6 Allroad, nothing more. And yet designer Marc Lichte’s subtle yet edgy design denotes a concerted effort to honor existing forms while incorporating sophisticated aerodynamics and still charging it with futuristic detail. The emphasis of sharp lines and triangular shapes like the flow–optimised alloy wheels, LED daytime–running–light signature and one–piece, wraparound tail lights are obvious enough but it’s the prominence of the plastic cladding between the front and rear wheels that highlight it as an electric vehicle – that’s where the batteries that power it live.
And of course there are the virtual mirrors which don’t only look brilliant but have an even greater aerodynamic benefit, they reduce the width of the car by 15 cm and help drop drag to 0.27 Cd. A world–first for a production car; in practice, they do take some getting used to. The cameras feed images to two digital screens on the inside of the door but they’re a positioned a few centimetres below where your eye naturally follows to check your mirrors and it takes time to trust that the image contained therein carries no blind spots. Equipped with conventional wing mirrors the drag–coefficient–value increases to 0.28, undoing aerodynamic gains from the computer–controlled radiator ducts, flat underbody and long–edged roof spoiler.
We leave the motorway, notable in these parts for a 140 km/h limit, and hop onto the E22, a road that’ll eventually summit Jebel Hafeet. Progress so far has been silent and effortless, with little distraction from good conversation with my passengers and maintaining a beady eye on the cruising range / state of charge. From the outset the readout has stayed constant at around 350 km as the kilometres have rolled off, but with some topography in our future that’s certainly about to change. Weighing in at 700 kg, the battery unit between the wheels measures 2280 by 1630 by 340 mm and the 432 individual cells add more than enough weight to flatten rare road imperfections. Any benefit of its low centre of gravity, however, is offset by sheer weight: 2490 kg unladen. Even factoring in its girth, the adaptive air suspension, featuring 76–mm ride height adjustment, provides the type of comfort and compliance you’d expect from any premium SUV.
With no McLaren–driving Emirati patrolmen in sight and as if reading my mind, my passenger tells me to, ‘Forget the range and give it some!’ I toggle the Drive Select mode from Efficiency to Dynamic and unleash the drivetrain’s paciest setting. Fed by a 95 kWh lithium–ion battery, the two electric motors are near–identical, generating 125 kW up front and 140 kW at the rear, for better traction and balance. Together in Boost mode the total output is 300 kW / 664 Nm. Not shabby at all when you consider Audi’s Formula E–winning e–tron race car only makes do with 200 kW. The road–going e–tron will see you from 0–100 km/h in 5.7 sec, even out of Boost mode you’ll still Taser Golf GTIs from the traffic lights in just 6.4 sec, but only until a limited top speed of 200 km/h, because the energy use at higher speeds is simply too great.
Soon we’re climbing the Jebel Hafeet and the hills are alive with the sound of… absolutely nothing. Well, I lie, there’s plenty of tyre squeal filling the air, made all the more pronounced without the familiar soundtrack of suck, squeeze, bang and blow to accompany it. While its handling ability is purely of academic interest in the greater context of electric mobility, I do have a morbid fascination with how two–and–three–quarter tons of EV will handle a road that has rubber stripes at every hairpin, as if Mad Mike Whiddett had just ‘Badbulled’ it a second ago. The answer is it’s only dynamic if you make plenty of concessions for what it is.
A long, heavy wheelbase comes with its own unique type of road holding. Turn in is quite urgent, and pitch and roll is neutralised, to an extent, by the air suspension. Unleashing instant punch from the electric motors can leave you lurching mid–corner if you’re not accurate with your throttle input. Which brings the axle–by–axle torque vectoring into play, where an inside wheel is braked and the outer accelerated to attempt to keep you hooked up. The e–tron’s electronics can adjust drive from the motors in just 30 milliseconds, or 50 times faster than conventional quattro, Audi says. One thing’s for certain, with all this intervention in the background, the e–tron doesn’t major in driver involvement. Tangible feedback from the steering, brake pedal, chassis and electric motors are like its wing mirrors… virtually none existent. If I was to level one criticism at the e–tron, it’s that Audi hasn’t explored lightweight componentry beyond its steel and aluminium structure. Something like BMW I’s Carbon Core would be highly beneficial to the package.
And on balance that’s absolutely fine, because with a brisk, heart–in–mouth run up the mountain zapped out of my system we head back down the mountain to test something far more relevant: brake regeneration. Operated via paddle shifters, there are three levels to the motors’ retarding force. I was expecting more of a gearing–down feel but the ‘ratios’ are more progressive than that, more like a switch to adjust regenerative force. If you lift of the throttle do you want to feel like you’re driving headlong into a soft, mild or strong headwind? True EV pros love the one–pedal feel, never wanting to call on hydraulic brake force because that’s wasted energy after all. A spirited drive up the mountain wiped out 25 km of carefully curated range, but purring back down again regenerates 8 km. Nevertheless, the complex drive monitor is concerned about the state of the battery and suggests we find a recharge point sharpish. Unsurprisingly, the sat–nav doesn’t pick up too many public charging points in oil–loving UAE.
Thankfully, we’re not far from Audi’s 150 kW fast–charging demonstration, where we’ll boost battery by 80% in just 30 min to complete the remainder of our journey. I suppose, in that respect, this hasn’t been an entirely accurate reflection of your atypical EV drive because the dreaded range anxiety has been absent, the route carefully calculated and tailor-made to fall within the car’s driving remit. When you’re solely responsible for recharging your e–tron yourself, you have three home charging options: Compact gives you 11 kWh AC charging which’ll recharge the battery in eight hours. Connect goes to 22 kWh AC charging and can be controlled via the My Audi app, recharging in roughly half the time, four hours. The cost of Eskom electricity fluctuates but an estimated cost of R3 to R3.50 per kWh, means a full 95 kWh recharge will cost between R300 and R350. And then there are the 150 kW fast chargers.
Should Audi SA follow Europe’s lead, these will be accessible with a Charging Card, or activated by scanning a QR code with your smartphone after completing a one–time registration on the myAudi app. All charging is automatically billed at the end of the month. In the EU, Audi lets you be part of the scheme for one year before you have to pay for the privilege – plus the charging costs of electricity, of course. So it’s not free like Tesla’s supercharging, and let’s not ignore one large fly in the ointment, that in SA there are tens, rather than tens of thousands of public charging points like there are further afield. South Africa lags behind Europe and the UK 100–to–1 as far as public charging infrastructure is concerned.
But that all lies ahead, for now we cruise back into Abu Dhabi on arrow–straight highways with adaptive–cruise control once again bearing the burden. As we roll silently into the porte-cochere at the downtown hotel, it is job done for now – but as Oscar Wilde once put it, it takes a heart of stone not to laugh out loud when a bellhop turns and gets the fright of his life, doing a Fosbury flop into the nearest lamppost not realising we’re right behind him. In some respects this e–tron first drive has felt like a prototype drive, like the car is still a work in progress. The virtual wing mirrors need further refinement and the car must still be fitted with a government–mandated low–speed warning that alerts pedestrians, animals and bellhops to its presence below 30 km/h (an e–tron sound engineer played the sound for me and it sounds like a tiny, whiffling V8). Despite these niggles, the e–tron is plainly a technological tour de force, one that’s good enough to feel hopeful about the future of electric mobility. Progress is a one–way ratchet after all, and technology can only get inexorably better and more sophisticated from here.
In a nutshell
A whole new type of mobility
Expensive, no EV incentives in SA as yet
Powertrain: Dual asynchronous electric motors
Battery: 95 kWh
Recharge time: 80% in 30 min, 150 kW quick charge
Power: 300 kW / 664 Nm (Boost mode)
Performance: 0-100 km/h 5.7 sec, top speed 200 km/h (limited)
Range: 400 km (claimed) / 325 km (tested)
Tyres: 255/55 R20
Economy: 0 l/100 km
Transmission: single–speed, Quattro AWD
CO2 emissions: 0 g/km
Price: TBC (+- R1.7 million)
Arriving: Q2 2019