Driving Audi’s brilliantly executed electric luxury SUV
Dunes ripple off into the distance under a brassy sky. The Audi dances over stutter bumps as it slaloms between piles of soft sand. A quick flick of the wrist and flex of the right ankle: instant grip and grunt, dust and gravel spitting from all four wheels. The irony of the moment is delicious. We’re in the Middle Eastern emirate of Abu Dhabi, driving through a desert soaked in oil, having fun in an electric luxury SUV. Meet the 2019 Audi E-Tron.
The E-Tron is built on a brand-new battery electric vehicle (BEV) platform designed and engineered in-house at Audi. It follows the now-typical skateboard format, with a 95-kW-hr battery pack between the wheels and under the floor, and it has motors mounted front and rear to provide all-wheel drive. Despite a near 50/50 weight distribution, it’s not, however, as symmetrically laid out as other skateboard platforms. The rear motor is mounted coaxially with the rear driveshafts, but the front motor has been rolled rearward and upward, away from the axles, to allow Audi engineers to package steering from the MLB Evo components set used in vehicles such as the A6 and A8. They did it to save the expense of developing a bespoke system. For the same reason, the E-Tron platform also incorporates MLB Evo suspension and brake hardware.
That’s not the E-Tron’s only asymmetry, either. The rear motor is rated at 187 hp and 231 lb-ft, the front at 168 hp and 182 lb-ft, specifically to give the E-Tron a sportier, rear-biased dynamic balance. Audi claims the powertrain will deliver a total system output of 355 hp and 413 lb-ft on a sustained basis for up to 60 seconds, allowing for successive acceleration bursts with no reduction of performance. A boost mode gives a total of 402 hp and 489 lb-ft for up to 8 seconds. That’s enough, Audi says, to propel the 5,489-pound (2,490-kg) E-Tron (the battery pack weighs 1,543 pounds (700 kg)) from 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 124 mph (200 km/h).
Freed from the need to package a bulky internal combustion engine and all its complex ancillaries, Marc Lichte’s design team endowed the E-Tron with a sporty silhouette and broad-shouldered stance. Dimensionally, it’s closer to Audi’s Q7 than the Q5, and it’s more efficiently packaged than either. Two key dimensions tell that story. Although it’s 6.6 inches shorter overall than the Q7, the E-Tron’s wheelbase is within 2.6 inches of the bigger Audi’s, and its roofline is 4.9 inches lower. It’s lower, even, than that of the Q5, which is a massive 9.4 inches shorter overall and rolls on a 4.3-inch-shorter wheelbase.
The E-Tron’s angular interior aesthetic is less conspicuously upscale than that of an Audi A8 or Q8, but with three HD displays—one Virtual Cockpit instrument panel, as well as haptic touchscreens for the infotainment interface and HVAC controls—there’s no mistaking the technology quotient. The center console features what appears to be a leather-covered handrest, but the silver tab at the end of it is the shifter. Move the tab forward with your thumb to engage reverse, rearward with your forefinger for drive. Tap it rearward again, and you’ll get Sport mode; tapping it rearward twice in quick succession activates Boost mode. Park is engaged by pressing the button on the side of the tab.
And that’s about as tricky as driving the E-Tron gets. Everything else, from the Virtual Cockpit and Audi drive mode menus to the functionality of the infotainment and HVAC screens and the buttons on the steering wheel, works the same way as it does in any other current Audi. The E-Tron feels familiar on the road, too: Apart from the lack of engine noise and the eerily elastic surge of acceleration, it drives pretty much like, well … an Audi. The key to that is Audi’s innovative new electrohydraulic braking system.
In simple terms, the E-Tron braking system seamlessly combines motor regen and hydraulic braking. All braking up to 0.3 g is handled by the motors, which send the captured energy to the battery. But if the E-Tron’s neural network senses that more braking power is required, it activates a spindle drive on a displacement piston in the hydraulic braking system to get the calipers—six-piston units up front and single-piston items on the rear—to clamp the brake rotors, just as in a regular car. As most braking events in normal driving are less than 0.3 g, Audi claims regen handles 90 percent of the E-Tron’s braking chores. (It has even programmed the system to apply the hydraulic brakes at least once a day to clean rust off the rotors.)
The technology is clever, but the execution is brilliant. Unlike other BEVs, the E-Tron’s brakes have a wonderfully linear and consistent pedal feel. It is impossible to tell whether regen or hydraulic power is slowing the car, at any speed. At very low velocities—under 7 mph (11 km/h)—the system automatically dials back the regen and switches up the hydraulic system, enabling you to gently glide to a smooth halt or engage in back-and-forth parking maneuvers without any of the herky-jerky shunting endemic with BEVs.
Also, because the system recoups so much energy under regular braking, the E-Tron can be driven without any liftoff regen dialed into the powertrain. This means the E-Tron coasts just like a regular car when you lift off the accelerator, which is useful for maintaining momentum when running on freeways—and releases you from the tedium of always having to have pressure on the accelerator pedal just to keep rolling with the traffic. It also enables you to better balance the car on corner entry when driving it enthusiastically on a winding two-lane.
You can dial in low and high regen settings if you wish; the latter allows the E-Tron to be driven with one pedal like a Tesla or Jaguar I-Pace in similar modes, but unless you desperately want to feel like you’re driving an electric car, don’t bother. Audi says the E-Tron is actually more efficient at recouping energy when the system is set to auto mode (where it works with the sat-nav and speed limits to further optimize the amount of energy recovered). More important, however, it endows the E-Tron with a lovely, fluid road manner other BEVs simply can’t match.
“One-pedal mode was a crutch for early BEVs to keep you from using the hydraulic brakes,” Audi product development exec Andrew Carter Balkcom said in Abu Dhabi. After driving the E-Tron, it’s hard to disagree. Audi’s electrohydraulic braking system is a game changer, a benchmark for BEV brake systems.
A height-adjustable air suspension is standard. The E-Tron’s default ride height is 6.8 inches. At speeds above 75 mph (120 km/h) the suspension automatically drops the car 1.0 inch to reduce drag and improve handling. Switch to Off-Road mode on the Audi Drive Select menu, and the suspension lifts the E-Tron 1.4 inches. With 8.2 inches of ground clearance, Audi claims an 18.2-degree approach angle, 24.4-degree departure angle, and a 16.8-degree breakover angle. A Lift function provides an extra 0.6 inch of ground clearance when needed.
The two trim levels available in the U.S. at launch—the $75,795 USD Premium Plus and the $82,795 USD Prestige—come standard with 20-inch wheels fitted with 255/50 tires. Buyers can opt for more efficiency-oriented 19-inch wheels and 255/55 tires at no cost, and 21-inch rims with 265/45 tires will be available as an option at a later date. We sampled cars with both the 20- and 21-inch wheels in Abu Dhabi, and there wasn’t much between them in terms of ride comfort and noise. On either tire the E-Tron doesn’t quite have the rolling plushness of a Jaguar I-Pace, but it is quieter and more comfortable than a Tesla Model X.
Part of our drive included a spirited sprint up the iconic Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road, which packs 60 turns and 4,000 feet of elevation change into just 7.3 miles (11.7 km). Pushed hard, the E-Tron’s powertrain delivers the same punch and responsiveness as some of the more performance-oriented SUVs, and the chassis feels well planted and has less obvious body roll through corners. You need to watch all that instant-on torque, though—get on the power too early, and the nose will push wide—and although the weight is low in the chassis, there’s no mistaking that you’re waltzing almost 5,500 pounds (2,495 kg) across the road during rapid changes of direction. The downhill run was equally entertaining, not the least because the electrohydraulic braking system barely broke a sweat. No smoke, no smell, no spongy pedal as we rolled back onto the flat. Impressive.
OK, the question everyone wants answered: What’s the range? Audi’s not quoting an EPA number yet, but the 248-mile (399-km) range it claims for the E-Tron on the European WLTP test cycle suggests it will be somewhere between 210 and 225 miles (362 km). That would put the E-Tron just behind the Jaguar I-Pace’s EPA-rated 234-mile (376-km) range and the efficient Tesla Model X 75D’s 238-mile (383-km) range.
What’s more, our testing shows the Jaguar to be a full 1.5 seconds quicker to 60 mph, and that the Model X 75D matches the Audi’s claimed 5.5-second time for the sprint. On paper, then, the E-Tron doesn’t seem to move the needle. But the Audi’s cabin is way more upscale than the Tesla’s, and it offers better rear passenger room than the Jaguar. The E-Tron’s real strengths, however, include better everyday drivability than either, courtesy of that clever brake system and a quieter powertrain, plus superior build quality. And the Electrify America 150-kW fast chargers being installed around the country will bring the E-Tron’s battery to 80 percent charge in a Tesla-rivaling 27 minutes.
The E-Tron is the first of four all-new, all-electric Audis scheduled to go on sale in the next two years, the spearhead of a sweeping transformation of VW Group’s premium brand that will see a fully electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle available in every model line by 2025. Audi is betting heavily on electrification. But if our first experience with the E-Tron is any indication, it’s a safe bet. Quick and quiet, stylish and practical, innovatively engineered and intelligently executed, the E-Tron brings the BEV another step closer to the automotive mainstream.