A tempting taste of Audi's electric sports car
I ease the muscular, low-slung four-door onto the street and into the Friday morning traffic. The acceleration is swift and mostly silent. A distant high-pitched whine increases in pitch as speed rises, accompanied by the percussive patter-crash of low-profile 22-inch tires at war with a stiffly sprung, hastily calibrated suspension. Most concept car drives take place in the smooth safety of a secluded proving ground or a closed racetrack. But I’m driving the hand-finished Audi E-Tron GT concept on the cratered streets of downtown L.A. There’s confidence for you.
Audi’s confident because this “concept” is no hand-built dream machine, designed to do its best work sitting under lights on an auto show stand. It’s basically an early prototype of the production Audi E-Tron GT. Swap the 22-inch wheels and tires for 21s, add door handles and bigger rearview mirrors, take away the glowing e-tron logos front and rear, and what you have is what you’ll see sitting in Audi dealerships in 2020. Revealed just days before the first media drives of the production E-Tron SUV in Abu Dhabi, the E-Tron GT concept underscores Audi’s soaring ambition in the premium electric vehicle segment.
Built on the Porsche-developed J1 BEV platform, the production E-Tron GT shares its underpinnings with the forthcoming Porsche Taycan electric sports car. That means all-wheel drive, courtesy of e-motors mounted front and rear that pump out a total of 590 horsepower, enough to propel the lavishly equipped Audi to 60 mph in less than 3.5 seconds, and to a top speed of 149 mph (240 km/h). The innovative 95-kW-hr battery pack—scalloped out to provide footroom for passengers, with additional cells stacked under the seats, thus enabling a low floor and low center of gravity—delivers about 250 miles (402 km) of range under the WLTP test protocol. And, says Audi, the 800-volt onboard charging system can bring the battery back to full charge in about 20 minutes.
Few automakers hide shared parts and components as masterfully as VW Group, and the E-Tron GT is no exception. The windshield and the high-definition screens in the cabin are the only items sharp-eyed enthusiasts will be able to pick as being shared with the Taycan. Everything else customers see and touch is unique to the Audi, the work of design chief Marc Lichte and his team. Lichte says he has been involved in designing 60 vehicles over his career—40 for Volkswagen and 20 for Audi—but none has excited him as much as shaping the E-Tron GT. “This is definitely my masterpiece,” he says with a grin as he walks around sheetmetal teased out over big wheels and around the close-coupled cabin, surfaces hugging muscle as tightly as Dwayne Johnson’s T-shirt. “Michael Mauer at Porsche always does cars like this. I never got a chance to do one until now.”
Design highlights include voluptuous rear quarter panels that Lichte says took nine months to finesse: single stampings whose deep draw—about 2 feet from the outer edge of the fender to the inner edge of the rear window—was difficult to execute without the metal cracking or warping. The top surfaces of the front fenders sit a mere handful of inches above the front wheels, rising almost imperceptibly to creases that run from the base of the A-pillars forward to the top corners of the grille and frame a sunken hood. The low roofline—2 inches lower than that of the svelte A7—emphasizes the E-Tron GT’s broad-shouldered stance. And speaking of shoulders, the Audi Quattro blisters over the wheels front and rear are defined by a chamfer rather than a knife-edge. Softer character lines like these are something we’ll be seeing more of in future Audis, says Lichte.
Audi interiors have a reputation for being special, and the concept suggests the production E-Tron GT won’t disappoint. The steering wheel with a flattened top and bottom, will be on the production car, albeit with real buttons not touchscreens in the spokes, and the tiny, touch-actuated door handles will be replaced by hinged items. The beautifully rendered high-def screens for the virtual cockpit and infotainment systems are existing VW Group hardware, already used in Porsches, the Bentley Continental GT, and high-end Audis.
But where the E-Tron GT’s interior makes its biggest statement is in its strong, clean form language and innovative use of materials. The leather is synthetic, the seat fabric is made from recycled plastic bottles, and the floor coverings started life as old nylon fishing nets. “We take sustainability seriously,” says Lichte. “And I think it fits perfectly with a BEV. The challenge has been making the materials and the execution sophisticated.” Challenge met. The E-Tron GT cabin is the definition of modern luxury, a compelling distillation of technology and style.
You ride low. From behind the wheel the E-Tron GT feels like a sports car, close to the road, buttoned down, and wrapped around you. But it’s also a genuine four-door, four-seat grand turismo, with room aboard for four adults. Though I had to wiggle my big feet past the front seat’s backrest, once settled on the back seat there was ample footroom and enough clearance for my knees, even with the driving position set to accommodate my 6-foot-2 frame. The standard fixed glass roof ensured adequate headroom. (A lightweight carbon-fiber roof panel will be available as an option, along with a sliding glass roof.)
I can’t tell you much about how the production E-Tron GT will drive. The concept’s oversized wheels and tires and cobbled-together suspension delivered a crashy ride with plenty of unwanted secondary body motions from the rear axle. Regen was limited—lift off, and the concept coasted down like an internal combustion powered car with an automatic transmission—and the steering felt very light. But all this is stuff that will get fixed as Audi engineers begin final calibration of suspension and powertrain hardware and software.
The one thing the E-Tron GT won’t feel like, insist Audi insiders, is a Porsche. Expect an oilier, quieter ride, and VW Group insiders have already confirmed the powertrain will be tuned to deliver marginally less performance than in the Taycan. This much is clear, though: Stuff just got real, Tesla.