To gain performance kudos in the electric car ranks, it seems it‘s no longer sufficient to endow your top model with just one electric motor. To really stand out from the crowd, you need two or, as is the case with the new 2021 Audi E-Tron S Sportback driven here, three.
That’s right, three electric motors: a larger one sitting up front and two smaller units nestled within a subframe at the rear, making the new Audi the first volume production electric car to feature such a layout.
The electric motor used up front is the same as that featured at the rear of the twin-motor E-Tron 55 Sportback. The two smaller motors at the rear, meanwhile, are similar in specification as that used in the front of the E-Tron 55 Sportback.
Altogether, the three electric motors develop a combined 320kW and 808Nm of torque, giving the E-Tron S Sportback 20kW and 144Nm more than peak outputs of the E-Tron 55 Sportback.
That’s not all, though. A so-called overboost function triggered on kickdown in Sport mode adds a further 50kW and 165Nm for brief periods of full-throttle thrust, taking the E-Tron S Sportback’s overall reserves to 370kW and 973Nm.
And what thrust! Audi’s latest electric model may tip the scales at a truck-like 2620kg, but all that torque makes for memorable off-the-line qualities.
Acceleration is instant and none too subtle as the driveline loads up, dispatching you down the road with all the force of a well-sorted sports car. The official 0–100km/h time of 4.5sec really doesn’t do it justice. The E-Tron S Sportback always feels faster on a loaded throttle.
By way of comparison, the E-Tron Sportback boasts a 0–100km/h time of 5.7sec, while the Jaguar I-Pace, whose twin electric motors develop a combined 294kW and 696Nm, comes in at 4.8sec. The top speed of the new electric-powered Audi, meanwhile, is limited to 210km/h.
The deployment of the combined reserves is sent through a single-speed gearbox each end and controlled by a newly developed four-wheel-drive system.
As well as offering three levels of energy recuperation accessed via the steering-wheel-mounted paddles, it also incorporates a new electronic torque-vectoring system, giving the E-Tron S Sportback the ability to individually control the amount of drive fed to each individual rear wheel with greater accuracy than any of Audi’s existing systems.
It’s described as being significantly faster than any of its current mechanical systems, too. All up, there are seven different driving modes: Efficiency, Comfort, Auto, Individual, Off-road, All-road and Dynamic.
Our first drive in the E-Tron S Sportback was on a variety of closed and open roads. First, we were let loose on Audi Neuburg test facility near Ingolstadt in Germany. It’s the same facility where Audi’s motorsport department develops its various race cars, so there are long straights, plenty of corners and lots of run-off.
The second part was on public roads in and around Neuburg, including some flat-out Autobahn running and a good deal of country-road touring.
Straight up, there’s a lot to like here. Agility is outstanding for such a heavy SUV, aided by a relatively low centre of gravity, and so is traction, which clearly benefits from the speed at which the drive can switch from front to rear and between each of the rear wheels.
Both improve on those of the E-Tron Sportback, itself a very impressive car in its own right, making its more powerful sibling an even more endearing driver’s car than any E-Tron model before it.
The fast-acting qualities of the rear differential help to provide the E-Tron S Sportback with great handling. It resists understeer exceptionally well, remaining engagingly neutral even at high corner-entry speeds. The drive that can be generated out of corners is also very impressive, and a further credit to Audi’s achievements with its latest four-wheel-drive system. Even in constant drizzle, its ability to lay its power and torque to the road is always strong, making it feel very well planted.
The variable-ratio steering, while nicely weighted, lacks for ultimate feel, but the chassis is well up to the job. You can hook the E-Tron S Sportback up with lurid oversteer on a circuit when you call up sport and switch its electronic stability-control system off. On public roads, with all the various driving assistant systems working in the background, the handling proves fluid if a touch synthetic.
Audi’s latest electric model never really rides as calmly as the E-Tron 55 Sportback, though. Firmer springs and uprated dampers do a great job of reining in body movement, but in combination with the 285/45R21 tyres fitted to our test car, they also take the edge off the ride refinement.
There’s greater vertical movement over pockmarked bitumen, and the E-Tron S Sportback is more sensitive to coarse surfaces than its more softly sprung and liberally damped sibling.
That said, it’s a very impressive car to knock back long distances in thanks to the near-silent qualities of its driveline and, on models like those we drove equipped with Audi’s virtual rear-view mirrors that swap the standard exterior mirrors for a pair of cameras, a relatively low level of wind buffeting at speed. The overall drag co-efficient is put at just 0.26 – an exceptional figure given the E-Tron S Sportback’s generous frontal area and wide tyres.
Speaking of distances, with a 95kWh lithium-ion battery juicing its trio of motors, the claimed range, while not class-leading, is a respectable 365km on the WLTP test cycle. Judicious use of the throttle quickly depletes energy reserves, though. Along with standard mains power, the new Audi can be charged at either 11kW via a wallbox or a rapid 150kW charger – the latter allowing you to place an 80 per cent charge in the battery within 30 minutes, according to the German carmaker.
The E-Tron S Sportback is differentiated from the E-Tron Sportback by a number of styling changes, including a new front bumper, wider front fenders, a revised diffuser at the rear, unique wheel designs and some subtle S badging. It’s a smart and contemporary-looking machine that, on the strength of the early example we drove, appears as well built as any electric car we’ve come across to date.
The same can be said of the interior, which is dominated by Audi’s sharp 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit digital instrument display, the latest version of its MMI infotainment system and new front sport seats.
Overall, it’s quite versatile, with impressive rear leg room and a 555L rear boot. There’s also a 50L cubbyhole under the bonnet that can be used to store smaller items.
Buyers can choose between the Sportback body style here, or the more upright stance of the E-Tron SUV model, which brings added versatility and a larger 605L boot.
The E-Tron S Sportback lives up to its billing as Audi’s most athletic electric model. It’s faster and more sporting in character than the milder E-Tron 55 Sportback.
But with a price tag that’s set to top $200,000 when it reaches Australia next year, and a range that’s around half of that of Audi’s more conventional diesel-fuelled SUV models, you’ll need squeaky-clean finances and easy access to high-capacity chargers to take full advantage of its magnificently effective electric driveline.
As a guide, the E-Tron Sportback 55 Quattro goes for $157,700.
A definitive verdict will come once we get the chance to drive it on Australian roads, but based on its strengths on smooth-surfaced German roads, it’s a more accomplished car than, say, the Jaguar I-Pace, more fun to drive than the Mercedes-Benz EQC, and light-years ahead of the Tesla Model X on build quality.