Audi e-tron 2021

2021 Audi RS E-Tron GT review: Prototype test

International first drive

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Most premium 'legacy' brands focused on the volume-selling SUV market for their initial tilt at electric vehicles – but now the super saloons are coming to take on Tesla's Model S.
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It would be very easy to view the upcoming Audi RS E-Tron GT as little more than a re-bodied version of the Porsche Taycan – and with pretty good reason. Take one look at their respective specifications, and you quickly discover there is precious little that separates the two electric-powered luxury sedans in terms of hardware.

That’s no coincidence. Under the auspices of parent company Volkswagen, they have been twinned in a move aimed at amortising development and production costs, while providing a means to getting them to market in the quickest and most efficient way possible.

We already know the E-Tron GT is based on the Taycan; the two cars share the same dedicated hot-pressed high-strength steel and aluminium platform structure, twin-motor electric drivetrain, two-speed gearbox, four-wheel-drive system, lithium-ion battery, optional 350kW charging function and sophisticated chassis, complete with a steering system and three-chamber air suspension partly shared with the Porsche Panamera, among other important components.

In fact, there are no significant engineering differences between them apart from their uniquely styled bodies and interiors. They are also produced just 50km apart in Germany. The E-Tron GT is assembled in the same Audi facility as the R8 in Neckarsulm, while the Taycan hails from the traditional Porsche factory in Zuffenhausen. On a good day, you can drive between the two plants in less than 30 minutes along the A81 autobahn.

And yet here we are on the Greek island of Rhodos driving a prototype version of the top-of-the-line E-Tron GT, the 475kW RS no less, on public roads for the first time. And for all its similarities, it doesn’t feel much like the Taycan Turbo – but more on that in the near future. (Read our existing Taycan stories here.)

Sure, there’s a familiar low-slung feel to its driving position, inherent smoothness to the delivery of its two electric motors and, flaming heck, is it ever quick on a loaded throttle. Compellingly so when the driving mode, road conditions and your mood allow.

But compared to the Porsche, there’s a more measured feel to Audi’s steering, which comes with a rear-wheel-steer function as standard on the RS, as well as a heavier feel to its throttle in Dynamic mode. And that complex Panamera-sourced suspension has clearly been tuned to deliver greater compliance on less than smooth surfaces. Overall, it’s a more accommodating car – less sports car and more grand tourer, if you like.

It is a subtle but important change in character. One that the head of the E-Tron GT’s development, Victor Underberg, says aims to see it appeal to a different customer base than the Taycan. “With all the various electronic systems we use today, there is a lot of scope to alter the driving characteristics through software recalibration to reach a particular development target.”

At Audi, the particular development target here is clearly greater everyday suitability and comfort than that pursued by Porsche. But before we get into the nitty-gritty of it all, it is worth noting that the E-Tron GT has barely changed in shape since it was first unveiled in concept car guise at the 2018 Los Angeles motor show.

The RS E-Tron GT prototype we’ve been handed the key to is covered in Audi’s characteristic marketing wrap. However, it is described as being fully representative of the production version, which is planned to see Australian delivery by the end of 2021. The body is made from a mixture of aluminium, high-strength steel and, for the roof of the RS model, carbon fibre.

Dimensionally, it’s very similar to the second-generation A7 measuring 4990mm in length, 1950mm in width and 1400mm in height, while riding on a 2890mm wheelbase. As with a number of existing combustion-engine Audi models, it relies on a number of active aerodynamic elements for cooling and downforce, including a two-stage rear spoiler.

At over 2300kg (a final figure is yet to be divulged), it’s heavy, and there are times when it fails to disguise its heft. Happily, though, much of its mass is concentrated very low, and as the Taycan has proven, heavy cars can do exceptional things with a low centre of gravity.

Like the Taycan, there will be a complete range of E-Tron GT models in time, including a base single electric motor rear-wheel-drive model, we’re told. But, as mentioned, it is the top-of-the-line RS model that we’re in here.

Sister model to the Taycan Turbo S, it runs a pair of Magneti Marelli-produced electric motors – one up front developing 175kW and a second unit at the rear with 335kW. Together, they provide a nominally combined 440kW, though overall output actually increases to 475kW during short periods of full-throttle overboost, at which there’s also a whopping great 830Nm of torque on tap, too.

The prodigious reserves are channelled through a two-speed gearbox connected to the rear electric motor. The lower ratio is aimed at providing the new Audi with maximum high-torque accelerative ability, with the higher ratio chosen for ultimate high-speed efficiency, says Underberg. An electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system uses an electronic differential to provide torque-vectoring qualities between the rear wheels.

Electrical energy for the pair of electric motors is provided by a 93.4kWh (net 83.7kWh) lithium-ion battery consisting of 396 individual pouch cells supplied by Korean battery specialist LG Chem in 12 different modules. It’s mounted completely within the floor pan and beneath the rear seat, cleverly allowing for proper footwells.

Audi is not giving too much away on the range just yet, but we’d be surprised to hear if there is any great differentiation to the 388–412km figure touted for the Taycan Turbo S, which like the RS E-Tron GT boasts a drag coefficient of 0.25 (up from the 0.22 of lesser-performing models, according to Audi), though also carries higher peak motor performance.

All E-Tron GT models will come with an 800-volt electrical system, twice that of the 400-volt electric car norm. It’s claimed to allow thinner wiring and save up to 40kg. It also allows the new Audi to charge at up to 270kW – taking it from a five per cent to 80 per cent state of charge in a little over 20 minutes on a high-powered DC system.

Step inside and you find a rather sporty driving position – low-slung with your legs positioned straight and high, just like in a dedicated sports car, and the centre console set high next to you. There will be four- and five-seat options for the new Audi, though space in the rear is quite limited, especially head room. Boot space is claimed to mirror that of the Porsche at 366L. It also has a handy frunk (front trunk), whose capacity is put at 87L.

The dashboard of our test car was covered to hide its detailed features and functions, so we can’t tell you much about the way it looks or the quality of the materials. However, the E-Tron GT is claimed to use the same dashboard and trim elements showcased by the earlier concept of the same name.

What it does offer is a bright and easy to read digital instrument panel and equally impressive touchscreen infotainment display – both taken from the Taycan Turbo S, but with unique graphics and menus. The steering wheel will be familiar to anyone who has seen the early concept, with its capacitive controls and all. The seats of the prototype, meanwhile, were upholstered in a recycled plastic material, though buyers will also be able to specify an artificial leather created using vegan products.

Press a button to put the new Audi into standby mode and draw a lever forward to select drive. We ease away and out onto a public road – smoothly and silently, with only the distant rumble of rubber over a coarse road surface and a light lick of wind around the large exterior mirrors (there will not be an option of rear-view cameras on the E-Tron GT) to indicate our progress.

There are three nominal driving modes accessed via the Drive Select function: Efficiency, Comfort, Dynamic, with an additional Individual mode to allow you to tailor the car to your liking. Additionally, there are three drivetrain modes: Efficiency, Balance and Dynamic.

Even in the most subtle of modes, Efficiency, the new Audi delivers comparatively strong step-off performance and brawny acceleration up to posted limits. It is in Dynamic on a deserted back road, though, where its true potential is unleashed.

Rampantly strong performance is an inherent attribute we have come to expect from any electric vehicle with similar sporting ambitions to the RS E-Tron GT. Even so, its overall responsiveness and resulting accelerative vigour may come as a shock to many potential buyers.

The advanced new sedan’s off-the-line intensity is matched by all but a handful of the most powerful and heavily focused combustion-engine road cars. It launches from standstill on a wide-open throttle with great urgency, without threatening to defy the brilliant traction delivered by its four-wheel-drive system.

Audi puts the 0–100km/h time at 3.5sec, making it quicker to the traditional acceleration benchmark than any other Audi model save for the 449kW 5.2-litre V10 petrol-engined R8 Performance. Though there’s as much as a 0.3sec gap between the two.

“More important than the acceleration figure itself is the RS E-Tron GT’s ability to reproduce it five, six, seven times,” says Underberg.

A memorable night session on a military airstrip, where we recorded a standing 400m time of just 11.74sec, proved this beyond doubt. Once launched, the heady torque sees it deliver outstanding rolling performance, the new Audi accruing momentum with great urgency and outstanding longitudinal stability up to a top speed limited to 250km/h.

Swift real-world pace is certainly high on the list of the RS E-Tron GT's achievements. Although, it suffers the same fate as all electric vehicles, in that the near-to-silent attributes of its drivetrain inevitably make it seem a little characterless, particularly at constant cruise speeds.

Thankfully, though, the driver can opt for the sound of a traditional V8, whose volume rises and drops with throttle inputs, as part of a synthetic sound package. It is not really required during periods of relaxed cruising, but the added acoustic qualities do enhance the driving experience over more challenging roads, where they help the driver to more accurately judge the position of the quite heavily sprung throttle.

Next to it, the brake pedal progression and modulation are excellent by electric-vehicle standards. It’s easy and straightforward to slow the RS E-Tron GT smoothly and precisely, both from low and high speeds. It's a worthwhile development, too, because you’ll inevitably be covering ground at a heroic rate when you need the enormous brakes – optional 410mm (front) and 365mm (rear) carbon-ceramic discs grabbed by 10-pot (front) and six-pot (rear) calipers on our test car.

What’s missing, though, is the agreeable one-pedal driving characteristics of other electric-powered Audi models. There’s some faint regenerative braking in either of the two regeneration modes, but it’s not sufficient to automatically slow the new four-door with any truly noticeable deceleration as you step off the throttle. It’s an odd decision because greater brake regeneration would surely eke out greater energy efficiency over any given journey, if and when chosen by the driver.

Still, the brake-energy regeneration issue is but a small omission in the RS E-Tron GT’s otherwise compelling dynamic repertoire. Although it never feels quite as determined as the Taycan Turbo S over a challenging back road – the likes of which are plentiful on the island Rhodos, by the way – it is nevertheless an undeniably exciting car to drive with phenomenal point-to-point ability and remarkable composure.

You can’t throw it around in the way you might with perhaps a smaller and lighter car – it’s just too big and heavy for such an approach. But once you’ve committed to a corner at speed, it is quite sublime.

It is the Dynamic mode you want here, and it provides just the right blend of compliance and control for rapid corner-to-corner running. While lacking the more heavily assisted feel and ultimate sharpness off centre of the Porsche, the steering of the new Audi is nicely weighted and, thanks to the super-stiff structure to which its variable rack is attached, very accurate in its action.

Even at high entry speeds, the front end follows your chosen line with great tenacity and fabulous grip. The inclusion of rear-wheel steering, which operates at a steering angle of up to 2.8 degrees, helps. It rotates the rear to quell any understeer, without ever providing the feeling the two ends are acting independently to one another.

Mid-corner body control is perhaps not quite as impressive as that of the Taycan, but the three-channel air struts and active roll stabilisation – both standard on the RS – see the E-Tron GT corner in a fast and flat manner.

Get hard on the throttle at the exit, and you can marvel at the ability of the electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system to apportion the prodigious torque delivery by each electric motor to the wheel where it is best deployed. It has been developed to provide a fully variable apportioning of drive, and works up to five times faster than Audi’s traditional Torsen-based mechanical system.

Therefore, you can even get a whiff of oversteer as you power out of corners as the drive is transferred predominately to the rear. However, it is quickly and smarty captured by the electronic rear differential, which provides torque-vectoring qualities, and the ESP (electronic stability program).

It is the ride, perhaps more than any other aspect of its dynamics, that separates the RS E-Tron GT from the Taycan Turbo. There are two suspension modes: comfort and dynamic. In the former, there is an added degree of suppleness and compliance to the Audi compared to the firmer-riding and slightly less forgiving Porsche, despite our test car running on optional 265/35ZR20 profile (front) and 305/30ZR21 (rear) Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres.

It’s not a lot, but the added touch of ride refinement and overall consistency of the absorption, even over badly pitted roads, is enough to suggest it could be the better long-distance prospect.

Like the Taycan Turbo S, there are four different levels of ride height: raised, normal, dynamic and efficiency. The latter of which reduces the ground clearance by up to 22mm from the normal setting to reduce aerodynamic drag and, in turn, maximum range.

The E-Tron GT might just be the most dynamically accomplished four-door Audi model yet. It’s better to drive than the RS6 and RS7 – two of the most exciting models to ever exit the German carmaker’s Ingolstadt headquarters. It also manages to rise above Audi's first two dedicated electric-powered models, the E-Tron Quattro and E-Tron Quattro Sportback.

But given that it is still at a prototype stage of development, it is too early to provide it with the usual CarAdvice ratings. If we were to do so, though, it would likely come very close to the 8.6/10 we bestowed upon the Taycan Turbo S when we first drove it late last year.

As it stands, the new Audi is a more comfortable and generally more agreeable everyday proposition than the Porsche upon which it is unashamedly based.

The difference in driving character between the two cars is indeed subtle, but it is nevertheless important in providing the e-tron GT with an appeal of its own. The sort of appeal, I’d say, that better suits the typical Audi buyer. The less immediate feel of its steering, greater comfort provided by its reworked suspension, and other small changes help to separate it from the Taycan. It does so without taking away any of the mind-blowing performance potential, highly competent dynamic qualities, and general attractiveness for which the Porsche is renowned.

We’re yet to see its definitive production exterior without the disguise of the prototype, and there are still some question marks hanging over the look and quality of its interior. But it fulfils the role of an electric-powered grand tourer with real distinction.

One thing’s for sure, it’s going to give Tesla and its soon-to-be-upgraded Model S more than a few headaches. If not in top-of-the-line RS form, then certainly lower down the range where it is expected to be priced under its comparable Porsche siblings.

NOTE: As a prototype review, we have left this story unscored. Watch for our first full drive of the production car to come in the months ahead.

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