Audi hasn’t had it easy of late. Rocked to its core, both morally and financially, by the tribulations of the Dieselgate scandal, the German car maker is only now beginning to emerge from the darkest days in its modern history.
Last year’s introduction of the e-tron quattro marked what former chairman, Bram Schot, described as a turning point after a long line of fines and years of finger-pointing from various global authorities, bringing zero-emission compatibility to the Audi line-up with its first dedicated electric vehicle.
Now, in the second stage of Audi’s €12 billion ($US13.1 billion) electric vehicle plan, it has launched the e-tron Sportback – a crossover–style SUV sister model, which seeks to challenge the likes of the Jaguar I-Pace and Tesla Model X.
The e-tron Sportback 55 quattro, as its name suggests, is a more sporting version of the electric-powered e-tron 55 quattro on sale in various markets since mid-2019 – but not Australia until later this year, if things go as planned.
Outwardly, it is distinguished from its more versatile electric-powered sibling by a more heavily curved coupe-like roofline and liftback style tailgate among other subtle changes, including more aggressive-looking bumper styling and headlamps featuring Audi’s digital matrix LED technology.
Together, they provide the e-tron Sportback with an appearance reminiscent in detailing and profile to the Audi Elaine concept first displayed in 2017.
Sharing certain exterior design elements, including its long bonnet proportions, with existing combustion engine Audi models, the e-tron Sportback 55 is perhaps not as distinctive as the short nose I-Pace. But with a super slippery 0.25 Cd, the new Audi is among the most aerodynamically efficient series-production SUVs yet, beating the Jaguar’s 0.29 Cd by a considerable margin thanks in part to the availability of virtual exterior mirrors that use cameras to project a digital rear-view image onto the forward part of the interior doors trims.
Like the e-tron 55 quattro – alongside which it is produced at Audi’s factory in Brussels, Belgium, the e-tron Sportback 55 quattro is based on a modified version of the MLB Evo platform that houses a 95kWh lithium-ion battery pack made up of cells supplied by LG Chem between its axles.
At 4901mm in length, 1935mm in width and 1616mm in height, it is 85mm shorter, 60mm narrower and a considerable 89mm lower than the Q8, its newest combustion-engined stablemate.
The e-tron Sportback 55 quattro’s drivetrain is also borrowed wholly from the e-tron 55 quattro. It uses two differently specified three-phase asynchronous electric motors, one sitting up front with a nominal peak of 125kW and 247Nm of torque and a larger unit at the rear with 140kW and 314Nm.
In 'D', the combined output is put at 265kW and 561Nm. Like the e-tron quattro 55, however, there’s a so-called Boost mode, activated by slotting the gear lever into S. It offers a stronger 300kW and 664Nm for up to eight seconds of full throttle acceleration.
The Jaguar I-Pace EV400S’s two electric motors, by way of comparison, deliver a maximum combined 294kW and 696Nm.
Power is sent to all four wheels via a single-speed gearbox attached to each motor and networked via a central power electrics system with no less than seven different driving modes: Efficiency, Comfort, Auto, Individual, Off-road, All-road and Dynamic.
In a key departure from the e-tron quattro 55, however, Audi has provided the more sporting of its first two dedicated electric powered models with a decoupling mechanism between the front and rear axles to provide it with genuine rear-wheel drive qualities. It sees the e-tron Sportback 55 quattro send its drive exclusively to the rear wheels via the rear electric motor in everyday driving in D. It is only when you call up greater reserves via the kick-down function in S that the front electric motor is called upon and the front wheels begin to do the driving.
Off the line acceleration is strong but far from explosive in D, owing in part to the e-tron Sportback 55 quattro’s 2480kg kerb weight and the considerable amount of energy required to set it into motion. Once you’ve built initial momentum, though, rolling acceleration is quite sharp. Keep the throttle nailed and the new Audi dispatches you beyond typical highway speed limits with a good deal of torque-led force.
Calling up S instantly heightens the performance, providing more responsive tip-in, noticeably stronger roll-on qualities and greater overall performance intensity. So configured, Audi claims 0-100km/h in 5.7sec, though from recent experience with the e-tron 55 quattro we wouldn’t be surprised if that time was a little on the conservative side. It certainly feels quicker once all that torque is flowing freely to each wheel, and the inherent urgency doesn’t subside until you’re well on the way to the new Audi’s limited top speed of 200km/h.
For perspective, the I-Pace boasts respective 0-100km/h and top-speed figures of 4.8sec and 200km/h.
Driving satisfaction doesn’t only come via the accelerative forces at play, though. A kinetic energy recuperation system offering three pre-set manually selectable modes and well as an automatic setting that draws on the navigation system for topographic information also demands a degree of skill from the driver in seeing how much electricity can be harvested during periods of off-throttle coasting and under braking. In the automatic setting, it’s amazingly efficient. However, it does take some trial and error before you can claim to fully understand what setting best suits any particular situation. Up to 220kW and 300Nm can be recuperated in the most extreme setting - more than any other production car, according to Audi.
Another strong point is the outstanding refinement. We’ve largely become used to the inherent quietness of electric cars, however, Audi appears to have taken acoustic civility to a whole new level here. Rolling refinement, suppression of road noise and resistance to wind buffeting is particularly good.
The operation of the electric motors and the power electrics system is also excellently isolated from the cabin, making the e-tron Sportback 55 quattro a very relaxing car to drive in its more comfort-oriented settings at constant speeds over longer distances – battery charge permitting, of course.
Given the new Audi’s outstanding ability to place those not inconsiderable reserves to the road, it’s a pity the steering doesn’t offer more in terms of feel; the speed-sensitive electro-mechanical system delivers a reassuring sense of sharpness and weighting. However, it lacks feedback.
Don’t let that put you off Audi’s latest electric model, though. The e-tron Sportback 55 quattro offers enough for the driver to be described as engaging. It is capable of stringing together a series of medium to fast corners with excellent resistance to roll and some proper rear-wheel biased handling properties.
With the majority of its weight concentrated low within its platform and comparatively low ride height by SUV standards, it boasts a very low centre of gravity and the sort of assured handling traits that promise to see it win wide appeal.
While it generates some heady levels of weight transfer under braking and in tight corners, body movement is excellently suppressed thanks to a combination of firm damping and fast acting qualities of the standard air suspension. It’s not entirely absent, but the degree of lean is relatively low and sufficiently progressive as not to upset the otherwise respectable balance.
The ability of the four-wheel drive system and its torque vectoring system to apportion drive to each individual rear wheel helps to provide a decent amount of purchase on smooth surfaces; the optional 255/50 profile tyres worn by our test car delivered plenty of mid-corner grip, allowing the new Audi to carry a good deal of speed up to the apex without any premature understeer or intervention from the electronic stability control system. Thereafter, you can be very prodigious with the throttle without any deterioration in overall poise at the exit thanks to excellent traction.
The e-tron Sportback 55 quattro is sold in Germany with the choice of standard 19-inch wheels, with 20-, 21- and 22-inch items all available as optional equipment. On the 20-inch wheels, the ride is nicely struck with firm underlying qualities providing well-controlled vertical movement along with the sort of compliance to tame small bumps.
A further point of note is the outstanding brake pedal feel, which is among the best we’ve come across on an electric car of any guise. Despite having four different energy recuperation modes, it remains strong and positive at all times. Changes to the brake pads, including the adoption of softer retainer springs, has also reduced friction, according to Audi, for added efficiency.
The e-tron Sportback 55 quattro’s 95kWh battery operates at 396-volts and can be charged at up to 150kW from both sides of the car. Audi claims a charge time of 30 minutes up to 80% of the battery’s capacity and 50 minutes up to 100%. Among the options offered by Audi is a 400-volt home charging option with 11kW.
Drawing on experience gained from the e-tron 55 quattro, Audi has reworked the cooling system for the battery. Instead of using two water pumps, the e-tron Sportback 55 quattro uses a large single unit, saving weight, cost and energy in a move that’s claimed to contribute to a 10km increase in range over the e-tron 55 quattro at 446km under the WLTP testing procedure.
Inside, the changes over the e-tron 55 quattro are slight. But that’s no bad thing. The attention to detail here is outstanding. In terms of attractiveness, perceived quality and tactility, the dashboard, controls and trim materials are all premium in nature. A particular strength are the e-tron Sportback 55 quattro’s excellent MMI (multi-media interface) functions, which use high definition digital instruments and separate touch screen displays for the infotainment and air conditioning.
The optional front sport seats are firm and supportive, setting up a pleasantly roomy and airy driving environment at the business end of the cabin. However, accommodation in the rear is compromised by the plunging roofline, which comes at the expense of 20mm in rear head room.
The adoption of a more heavily angled tailgate has also reduced boot capacity, which includes both the front and rear cargo areas, by 45 litres over the e-tron 55 quattro at 615 litres. Still, it’s quite versatile, offering 58 litres more luggage space than the I-Pace.
The e-tron Sportback 55 quattro is more driver-focused than the e-tron 55 quattro, if not quite to the degree we were led to believe and expected when Audi first revealed it at the Los Angeles auto show late last year.
The difference between the two on pure performance alone is quite subtle. But with a more sporting shape, greater athleticism over more challenging roads, further improved refinement and a superb interior that continues to offer a good deal of everyday versatility, it sets a high standard.