Possibly the best thing about Audi’s first attempt at all-electric mobility with the e-tron SUV is that there’s few indicators to highlight that you’re in anything other than a regular Audi SUV.
It does without the kitsch, attention-grabbing X-Wing doors or a dash that goes all Santa Claus at Christmas like you’ll find on the Tesla Model X and it’s not trying to create a new genre like the Jaguar I-Pace. Instead the e-tron feels just like another member of Audi’s off-roading family.
After the initial re-adjusting of the brain to get used to the silence when you first press the accelerator, the slightly revised transmission layout and the almost gimmicky, but optional cameras for door mirrors, it felt remarkably like any other Audi Q to drive.
The interior comes across as a mild facelift to the mid-sized Q5 or big Q7 featuring quad-zone climate-control and no less than four USB ports front and rear, while from the outside it could easily be mistaken for either of these two models from a distance.
Available here in the second half of 2019 at around $140,000, it won't be the first car to wear the e-tron badge (plug-in hybrid versions of the A3 took that title) but will come stand for electrification as part of Audi’s corporate vocabulary the way Audi Sport represents performance products.
Initially, Abu Dhabi seemed an odd place to launch a zero-emission car that shuns fossil fuel but just as the auto industry is rapidly evolving, so are the Gulf States of the Middle East that once depended heavily on oil exports.
Before localised deregulation, petrol there had remained at a steady 40 cents per litre (AU$) for premium ULP for more than a decade until the 2015 oil crisis when prices were deregulated.
Three years later, a litre of premium has steadily increased on the first day of every month and now hovers around 97 cents which is still good by Australian terms, but they’re catching up to the rest of the world quickly.
Sitting eighth in the list of oil producers behind China, Canada, Saudi Arabia and the world’s biggest producer, the United States, the UAE and its capital Abu Dhabi are focusing more on solar and wind farms than oil fields and are in the midst of rolling out EV charging stations in preparation for a strong sales surge in cars like the e-tron, I-Pace and the upcoming Mercedes EQC.
For auto manufacturers it means that battery technology has to be up to handling not just the energy sapping sub zero temps of Northern Europe but also the extreme heat of the Middle East which halves battery life and depletes the range in summer. So if an EV can get 400km on an average day in Abu Dhabi, it should survive the middle of an Australian summer.
Audi uses the WLTP official test cycle figures to boast its 400 kilometre range, but, as we’ve found with all EVs, those figures are still on the optimistic side.
Our car showed 367 kilometres as we headed off and finished at the lunch stop with 70 kilometres after covering around 230 kilometres. Though they weren’t easy kays as the vast, open plains in outback Abu Dhabi allowed us to reach the car’s top speed once, plough through some sand-covered gravel tracks, cruise at 140km/h for most of the day and was capped by a solid blast up the famous Jebel Hafeet mountain in Sport mode.
Attacking Hafeet’s 60 corners over 12 kilometres as it rises 1200 metres like it was a Targa stage has crippled many a thoroughbred ICE-powered car in the past, but there were no problems here aside from the tyre squeal.
With no temp gauge or tacho to monitor, endless torque, power to every wheel and a centre of gravity as low as the most hardcore sports car, it sailed up the mountain like it wasn’t there. Yes, this is a family-sized, 2.5-tonne, five-seat SUV we’re talking about.
Audi claims that you can regain 30 per cent of its range through coasting and regenerative braking which we tried on the way back down.
Releasing the accelerator and coasting recovers energy slowly while pushing the brake pedal speeds up the process but for added charge you can pull what was previously the downshift paddle on the steering wheel back for an aggressive re-gen which will bring the car to a complete stop from 130kmh if needed.
While the gauge told us we’d robbed it of 36 kilometres by the top of the mountain, on the way down we had recouped 11 kilometres which equated to 3.2 kilowatt hours of free fuel. A leisurely 90-minute stop for lunch and a re-charge and it was back to a 369km range for the home run.
For home fast charging you will need a specially installed three-phase 11kW wall box which will fully charge the car in 8.5 hours, while plugging it into a regular AC slot at home could take up to several days as it’s restricted to 2.3kW or 3.6kW. Audi is promoting the use of publicly available, 350kW fast charging stations which will give an 80 per cent burst in 15 minutes and should be rolling out across Australia towards the end of next year.
If you do end up off-road, e-tron has height adjustable air suspension as standard so you can lift its skirts to climb over gutters and gullies, though its 21-inch standard rims indicate that it’s probably a better car to keep on the tarmac.
The all-wheel-drive e-tron uses two asynchronous motors, one each at the front and rear axles to deliver 265kW and 561Nm of torque for a 200km/h top speed. That’s enough to get it to 100kmh in 6.5 seconds, but select boost mode with the paddle shift you’d normally use for upshifting gears and for eight seconds you get 300kW and 660Nm, which cuts the 100kmh dash to 5.7sec.
Its skateboard platform houses a water-cooled, lithium-ion 95kWh battery pack which is 5kWh better than the Jaguar but 5kWh less than the Tesla Model S. It is however covered by an eight-year, 160,000km warranty.
The battery weighs 700kg, so it’s a good thing much of its weight is so low, as it doesn’t affect the car’s cornering ability but is the reason why the e-tron, at 2490kg, tips the scales at almost the same weight as a Rolls-Royce Phantom VIII.
Given the e-tron's size at 4901mm long and 1616mm tall, albeit 43mm lower than the Q5, it’s remarkably slippery for a family car, registering a drag co-efficient of just 0.28 thanks to a partially closed grille and optional camera door mirrors.
The grille remains functional as a 22-litre cooling system, using the same coolant as your regular combustion engine radiator, is needed to keep the batteries at their optimum temperature.
With no engine under the hood, 60 litres of space has been allocated up front for the storage of the charging cables and ancillary items which is substantially more than the 27 litres offered in the I-Pace while down the back there’s 600 litres of cargo space (compared to 656 in the Jag) and it has a towing capacity of 1800kg.
A single-stage transmission sends nearly all power to the rear wheels unless it’s at full tilt, then it’s a 50:50 split.
From inside, the transmission is no longer operated by a lever, but a thumb button you push forward for reverse and back for drive with a separate button for Park.
This, along with the cameras for mirrors in the doors are the only anomalies you’ll find inside that differentiate it from a regular Audi. It uses the same virtual cockpit LCD screens, with a 10.1-inch unit above an 8.8-inch screen in the centre stack and haptic touch feedback controls.
Even after a full day of trying to get comfortable with the cameras, it was still a struggle to judge distance and blind spots in direct sunlight and at night. The wind-cheating affect reportedly adds 2.5 kilometres to the range but at an optional cost of €1500 in Europe, that’s a fuel saving you’ll never recover on the balance sheet, so was the only questionable part I could find in the e-tron equation.
Overall though, it’s an impressive demonstration of packaging, performance, quality and comfort but it will come with a hefty price tag and the hope that a fast-charging infrastructure will be in place by mid next year.
EDITOR'S NOTE: While we work to establish an effective, lasting and appropriate means of assessing the 'fuel efficiency' of full-electric vehicles, all EVs will be awarded a default 10/10 in this category. We expect to finalise a scoring system in early 2019.