Let's start by pointing a spotlight at the sizeable elephant at the back of the room here. The sleek-looking Heffalump that's wearing a SpaceX t-shirt and giving off the electric hum: Tesla. Because while the established premium makers are set to launch something close to a tsunami of expensively developed new EVs over the next few years – with the Audi e-tron being driven here in prototype form one of the vanguard – few of these are going to get close to the shock and awe that Tesla's products already deliver.
The e-tron is a good case in point. A 5.7-second 0–100km/h time (when operating in its 'boost' mode) is entirely acceptable for a 2.5-tonne SUV, but it also means that Audi's electric flagship is only just as quick off the line as the slowest car Tesla produces, the entry-level rear-drive Model 3 (currently only available in the States.) Saint Elon's vociferous army of fanbois are unlikely to be renouncing their faith any time soon.
But like the Jaguar I-Pace that has beaten it to production, the e-tron has a different mission – appealing to Audi's existing clientele and representing what the brand regards as its core values. That means a car that can do more than deliver ludicrous acceleration in a straight line, but which can handle every other situation in an appropriately Audi-like manner. It's a technical tour de force packed with innovation beyond its ion-fuelled powertrain, with Audi flying us to the Namib Desert to experience a first taste of a late prototype version.
The disguised mules have certainly got some air miles in, having been used extensively in Europe and then sent to the US to demonstrate their ability to harvest energy under braking by being sent down the Pikes Peak course. After another stop in Germany for re-fettling, they've been flown out to Africa for our first drive. The Audi engineers are keen to point out that the generators doing the fast charging are being run on biodiesel...
Although a pioneer, the e-tron doesn't sit on the new PPE performance electric platform that is being co-developed by Porsche and Audi. Instead, it uses a heavily modified version of the MLB platform that sits beneath the company's more traditional models, with the biggest change being the presence of a sizeable 750kg 95kWh battery pack beneath the floor. This drives two motors; the one at the front producing up to 125kW continuously or 135kW for up to eight seconds in the 'boost' mode that comes with putting the gear selector into Sport. The brawnier rear motor makes 145kW continuously and up to 165kW in boost, giving a maximum system total of 300kW.
The effort of the e-motors is divided laterally across each axle by brake-biasing torque vectoring. Other technical innovations include brake-by-wire – a first for a VW Group car – flowing coolant through the rotors and stators of the e-motors to manage temperatures, and a camera-based virtual mirror option; one that finally delivers on the promise that motor show concepts have been making for decades.
The e-tron's design isn't going to startle the horses, or even mildly surprise them. We've already seen images of the finished car, and even beneath the prototype's disguise, it's clear the e-tron shares much of its styling language with the existing Q5, Q7 and Q8. In terms of size, it's the missing link, being pretty much a Q6 dimensionally – the 2928mm wheelbase being 96mm longer than that of the Q5, and 66mm shorter than the Q7.
It's the same story in the cabin. Apart from some e-tron badges, an eco-focussed version of Audi's Virtual Cockpit digi’ instruments and a redesigned gear selector – which now uses buttons for drive and reverse – it could be any other upmarket Audi. The e-tron shares the same twin-screen infotainment and ventilation control system that made its debut in the A6 and A7.
Room is good for both front and rear seat passengers, with a good range of adjustment, although the claimed space dividend that has come from the lack of a transmission tunnel is barely obvious thanks to the still-sizeable console between the front seats. There's a decent 660 litres of luggage space with the rear seats in place, or 1725L with them folded, but there's no spare wheel, only a can of get-you-home foam and inflator under the bonnet.
If you're here for the full drive verdict, then apologies for the wasted trip. My time in the car was limited – I reckon I managed about 20km in total – and was conducted entirely on loose surfaces at a place called Bitterwasser; a one-horse dorp about 150km from Namibia's capital, Windhoek. The reason for coming here was obvious from the light plane that brings me and a motley group of international journos in: the vast natural salt pan that acts as both an impromptu runway for our landing and also as the e-tron's playground. Audi has laid out a course designed to show off the ability of the all-wheel-drive system to deliver traction in a quattro-appropriate fashion.
The sand and dirt have been chosen because of the similarity to snow – the e-tron's launch schedule not working with the more traditional arctic 'pre-drive' – but the time constraints have delivered a more Australia-appropriate location.
First impressions of the hard-beaten prototype are good. The e-tron launches keenly despite the low-grip surface and with just a hint of electric whine. There's none of a fast Tesla's ability to extract expletives, but the urge feels solid and appropriate for the car, and the Audi engineers reckon it will still run from rest to 100km/h in around seven seconds on the loose. But they're not kidding about the lack of adhesion: the lack of resistance in the steering in the first corner, and the equally limited bite from the front, makes it obvious the e-tron is only going to be harvesting a very modest crop of lateral Gs today.
The all-wheel-drive system certainly does its best to help. There's a bit of twanging to be felt as the brakes try to bias the torque to the traction, and also to help the car turn. With the ESP system fully activated, the e-tron feels secure but 'front-endy', nosing wide on the gravel turns. While the centre of gravity is lower than Audi's other SUVs, with the strength of the low-mounted battery pack also adding a welcome boost to torsional rigidity, the e-tron weighs a sizeable 2490kg in its cotton socks.
Turning the stability control to its Sport setting – and switching the Drive Select mode to Dynamic – sees more effort transferred to the rear and allows the car to be powered into modest tail slides. While turning it off fully – something Audi says is a first for an electric car – turns it into a proper drift machine once the initial tendency for understeer is defeated. It's fun – obviously – but I doubt there's going to be much relevance in the way real buyers will drive their luxurious e-SUVs.
To be honest, the really clever bit about the e-tron is how natural it feels. The instant torque of electric motors makes it far trickier to manage their outputs in slippery conditions, but the e-tron never feels scary or edgy. The brakes are impressive as well – up to 0.3g of retardation is delivered entirely through regeneration. Despite this, substantial 430mm brake discs sit behind the 20-inch alloy wheels – testament to Audi's belief the e-tron has to be able to match the stopping performance of any other model in a full anchors-down emergency.
Other stuff? Beyond some low-speed washboard – handled well – there wasn't any chance to assess ride comfort, although the combination of air springs and variable dampers delivers good body control in other big Audis. Similarly, I've got no steer on refinement given the quantity of stones and gravel pinging off the underside whenever the car was moving.
The virtual mirrors can safely be called out as a gimmick, though. The screens are positioned lower in the doors than the normal mirrors they replace, which takes some getting used to, but even their brightest setting was too dark for the African sun. They are visible, but there's a pause while your eye readjusts, especially when wearing shades. They feel like the answer to an unasked question, although Audi Australia says it is working on getting them approved for use here.
We're promised up to 400km of range on the new Euro-standard WLTP test programme, with the e-tron supporting fast charging of up to 150kWh. All the usual provisos about charging infrastructure apply, although these are probably concerns that early adopters will already have worked out their own solutions to.
The production version will get here in the middle of 2019, and although there is no confirmation on price, the steer is to expect it to come in close to the Q7 e-tron hybrid, meaning around $140K before on-roads.
- Engine: Twin asynchronous electric motors, front and rear
- Transmission: Single-speed reduction, open differentials, torque biasing through braking
- Power: 300kW (peak system output in boost mode), 270kW (continuous)
- Torque: 664Nm (boost mode), 561Nm (continuous)
- 0–100km/h: 5.7sec (boost mode)
- Top speed: 200km/h (limited)
- Weight: 2490kg EU DIN
- Mileage: N/A
- CO2: N/A
- Price: $140,000 (est)