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First drive: Audi’s electric revolution begins

Audi Australia debuts e-tron SUV in conjunction with renewable energy commitment

2 Oct 2020

IS IT just me or does it seem slightly weird that Audi’s first-ever battery-electric vehicle – indeed, the halo model for the 30 electrified cars it promises to deliver to our market by 2025 – is an SUV simply called E-Tron?


Going forward, there will be a more powerful E-Tron S, as well as a Porsche Taycan-derived E-Tron GT sportscar, yet there will also be an ‘E-Tron’ badge worn by every all-electric Audi.


As the world becomes increasingly fixated on EVs, either through personal interest or government legislation, one can only assume that Audi will ‘E-Tron’ every vehicle in its range … to stand alongside the E-Tron.


It’s not quite the organic trickle-down effect from Audi Quattro (big ‘Q’) to latter-day all-wheel-drive quattro models (small ‘q’) now is it?


What’s most striking about Audi’s e-tron SUV, however, is just how normal it is. Apart from several exquisite EV details, there’s no dorky ‘design for the sake of difference’ here.


And the five-seat e-tron is rather useful as a package – filling a niche between the smaller Q5 and larger Q7 SUVs (though it’s closer to Q7-sized), while also acting as the halo product for Audi Australia’s commitment to 100 percent renewable energy as a business from 2021.


Offering six years’ complimentary charging in partnership with Chargefox, the e-tron EV is the cornerstone of Audi’s renewable-energy pledge, accredited through GreenPower and sourced from the Capital Wind Farm precinct skirting Lake George, just outside Canberra.


The e-tron also offers six years’ complimentary servicing, six years’ roadside assistance and an eight-year/160,000km battery warranty, as well as a heap of clever tech enticements to make EV ownership as painless as possible.


If any SUV is going to win over the haters, then this, quite possibly, is it.


Go Auto detailed the pricing and specification of the Audi E-Tron and E-Tron Sportback range back in June, but as a quick refresher, there will be two regular-line models – the 50 quattro (from $137,100) and 55 quattro (from $146,100), available in both body styles – joined by fully equipped ‘First Edition’ versions of the faster, longer-range 55 wagon ($159,000) and Sportback ($169,350), limited to 70 units for Australia.


We drove only E-Tron Sportback variants at launch – an absolute base 50 quattro with only metallic paint and rear privacy glass as options, totalling $151,450, and a 55 quattro First Edition, also with metallic paint, for $171,650.


In terms of how they drive, both are identical to their wagon-esque siblings, including how much they weigh.


That not-so-small matter is literally the elephant in the room here because the E-Tron 50 (with 27 battery modules) weighs 2370kg and the E-Tron 55 (with 36 battery modules) weighs 2490kg. Yet with all those (individually repairable) lithium-ion cells embedded in the floor inside the E-Tron’s wheelbase, you don’t feel that heft like you would in a regular vehicle.


Of course, anyone familiar with Mercedes-Benz’s slightly smaller EQC will know that it too weighs a truckload (2425kg), yet the E-Tron seems to have a distinct dynamic advantage over its German rival.


Where the Benz employs regular suspension struts with adaptive dampers up front and an air-sprung multi-link rear axle, the E-Tron boasts adaptive multi-link air suspension at both ends. And it’s the wafty, cushioned plushness of this arrangement that defines the entire Audi E-Tron experience.


Approaching the 50 quattro Sportback for the first time, its EV cues are obvious, yet seamless. A bespoke grille with active shutters appears different from the single-frame Audi norm and there is, cleverly, a charging port (with electric flap opener) on each front flank to enable charging from either side – AC on the left-hand side; AC and DC on the right.


The Sportback’s fast roofline better accentuates its subtly muscular wheelarch blisters, while its completely flat underbody and (optional) virtual mirrors contribute to a drag coefficient of 0.27, though perhaps not for the Aussie version with its standard wheel/tyre package measuring a substantial 21 inches with 265/45R21 Continental PremiumContact 6 tyres.


Inside the E-Tron’s cabin, think top-spec A7 with a bit more flair. Audi’s seductive screen game is at its peak here – especially if you option the virtual mirrors (standard on First Edition) that insert another screen at the top of each front door, just below the windowline – which includes packaging the wireless charging vertically in the centre console bin to increase storage.


Yet it’s the gear lever that is the sole oddity. It juts out like a square-edged disc from underneath a leather-clad centre arm, and works by being pushed forward or back, with a ‘P’ button on the side for ‘park’.


Underway, there’s little to familiarise yourself with. Audi’s Drive Select system works as per normal, with the Individual option offering the best combination of attributes, and even the gauges are only different when they need to be, which we love.


If you seek information (such as distance of charge left) then it’s right where it would be in a non-electric Audi but with a charge plug next to it rather than a fuel can.


The only real learning curve is selecting the level of regenerative braking force. The E-Tron automatically employs a degree of ‘regen’ when approaching other cars or road furniture like roundabouts (which you can disable in the MMI system), but you can manually add to that via one or two pulses of the left-hand wheel paddle. Then when you accelerate again it resets back to normal, awaiting your next input.


It’s really quite simple once you’re accustomed to it, but is never as forceful as, say, a BMW i3 on max regen (where you barely touch the brake).


And until you’re aware of the small marker in the E-Tron’s Virtual Cockpit denoting which level of regen you’ve chosen, it’s slightly weird tweaking a wheel paddle and not seeing something change (like a gear indicator!).


As for the driving experience itself, think refinement. There’s some regenerative braking whine at low speeds, but in general the E-Tron exudes a hushed calmness that reeks of expense, and it possesses a pleasant level of progression when responding to inputs that adds to that feeling.


On winding country roads, those massive Continentals remain surprisingly subdued as the E-Tron demonstrates a deftness that belies its beef.


It controls body movement well, changes direction promptly and inspires a feeling of planted confidence that goes with the territory. It never feels analogue – no surprises there! – yet there’s a slick fluency to its dynamics that’s quite satisfying.


Interestingly, when cruising the E-Tron is the only Audi besides an R8 to be rear-wheel drive.


To save energy, the front electric motor only comes into operation (instantaneously) when greater traction is required or the E-Tron is cornering, and even then, the drive split continues to favour the rear (at 60 per cent).


With a 71kWh battery and 230kW/540Nm, the E-Tron 50 quattro is certainly brisk enough for most people (0-100km/h in a claimed 6.8s) and super-smooth to boot. But it doesn’t deliver that trademark EV ‘kick’ when accelerating, apart from a brief moment of instant torque.


Its WLTP range is also inferior with “in excess of 300km” but if this is predominantly a city or suburban car, that’s really no issue. The E-Tron 50 quattro will fully charge from Audi’s supplied 11kW AC home-charging kit in six hours, whereas the more powerful 55 quattro takes 8.5 hours.


But there are several benefits opting for the beefier of the two E-Trons. While you can sense the added weight of the 55 quattro, its 95kWh battery offers 265kW/561Nm (for 0-100km/h in 6.6s) and it uniquely offers a ‘Boost’ function if the transmission selector is in ‘S’ (Sport) mode, which lasts for eight seconds.


This shot in the arm hikes battery oomph to 300kW/664Nm and slashes its 0-100km/h time to 5.7 seconds. Quick, yes, but still no Tesla Model X baiter.


What the 55 quattro brings is greater range (“in excess of 400km” according to WLTP measurements) and the ability to cop a larger charge load faster.


At the Goulburn fast-charge station, we increased the 55 quattro Sportback First Edition’s battery range from around half to 80 percent in nine minutes, and Audi says both E-Tron models can reach 80 percent charge from nothing in 30 minutes, or a full charge in 45 minutes. That’s way faster than any competitor, which is all down to liquid-cooling and benchmark thermal management of battery temp.


Audi also makes a song and dance about the E-Tron’s intelligent energy recuperation. Recovery of up to 220kW/300Nm through braking adds 30 per cent to its range and the aforementioned thermal management contributes 15 per cent – all of which makes for a very different EV experience on a long drive.


It was as recently as 2014 that a spirited strafe in an EV (think original BMW i3 or Tesla Model S) saw battery range plummet alarmingly, yet here we have a pair of large SUVs that manage to be both highly efficient transport, as well as luxuriously opulent.


The E-Tron features loads of space for four people, vast 615-660 litre boots, enough tech to impress a teenager (even if the virtual mirrors are an acquired taste) and, in the 55 First Edition, one of the finest stereos (a 16-speaker 3D set-up) this side of Bang & Olufsen’s even more mind-blowing system in the new S8.


Ultimately, though, it’s the practical stuff that wins out in vehicles like the E-Tron. The feature I love is how you can link your phone’s Audi app to the car’s navigation system and get a destination arrival time and distance that factors in battery range, as well as charging time at specific stations along the route for the fastest ETA!


Yet it’s the execution of the total package that makes the Audi E-Tron so convincing. Pleasant to look at, great to sit in, lovely to drive and reassuring to own, it marks the beginning of an exciting decade of motoring.


Now if the Ingolstadt marque can maintain the E-Tron’s level of user-friendly polish and class with the rest of its electrified fleet, the premium segment should be worried.


2020 Audi E-Tron pricing*

50 (a) $137,700
55 (a) $146,700
Sportback 50 (a) $148,700
Sportback 55 (a) $157,700
55 First Edition (a) $159,600
Sportback 55 First Edition (a) $169,950

*Excludes on-road costs

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