Audi e-tron review: the best or worst of the battery-electric revolution?

Andrew English
Audi e-tron - launch in Abu Dhabi Dec 2018

What is it about electric car making that seems to turn a man's head towards, well, criminal activity? Elon Musk, Tesla's chairman stepped down this year and paid a $15 million fine to settle fraud charges; Carlos Ghosn, chairman of Nissan, was recently fired by the board and is currently cooling his heels in a Japanese prison on charges of understating his renumeration; and Rupert Stadler, Audi's sacked chief executive, is on bail in connection with diesel emissions cheating.

Granted, none of these allegations are linked or similar, but it does seem a bit weird that the first senior car executives to be sacked (and in some cases held in custody) for many, many decades are all involved at the cutting edge of battery-electric car making.

This all-new market does seem to attract those of a buccaneering spirit, where grandiloquence is in inverse proportion to promises honoured, timetables kept to and sales targets met. Yet the electric car is slowly beginning to raise its profile in the public's consciousness as a potential replacement for fossil fuel-powered car.

And Audi's e-tron seems to typify early examples of the breed; an SUV crossover, with four-wheel drive, lithium-ion batteries in the floor, a futuristic appearance and a high-riding stance...

Oh, and expensive. Built in Brussels in a claimed carbon-neutral plant, e-tron goes on sale in the UK in March priced at £82,240. That's for the special launch edition with an uprated spec including cameras and door-mounted screens in place of conventional side mirrors.

The e-tron seems to conform to the class standards of an SUV crossover bodyshell, with four-wheel drive and lithium-ion batteries in the floor. And it's expensive

There are also 30 Edition 1 versions with an even higher spec, although £71,490 will get you into a normal version minus the Government grant of £3,500, of course.

Major competitors include Jaguar's sparkling i-Pace, Tesla's weird but pioneering Model X and the forthcoming Mercedes-Benz EQC. Audi says that the e-tron is part of a 10-strong wave of battery-electric Audis, which will all be on sale by 2025.

So while there are bits of production Audis in there from the company's MLB chassis platform, a big part of the e-tron is all new, including the 432-cell, 700kg, 95kWh lithium-ion battery pack, which sits in the floor weighing about twice that of a conventional engine and transmission.

In theory the e-tron combines the Jaguar i-Pace's handling, the Tesla Model X's sense of occasion and Audi's mastery of interior design. It features Audi's latest virtual dashboard as well as a new media interface using a touch pad and voice control

The twin motor, 4x4 system follows a similar pattern set by rivals, with a 181bhp/228lb ft front asynchronous electric motor and a similar 221bhp/262lb ft motor in the rear. Control electronics sit under the bonnet. Peak power is 402bhp at 13,300rpm (though it gives its 490lb ft peak torque at virtually zero revolutions) but you only get that for 10 seconds before the system reduces the power to 355bhp, which is further reduced after 60 seconds.

The result is a top speed of 124mph, 0-62mph in 5.7sec and a range in the WLTP test of 248 miles. Clearly tail-pipe emissions are zero, but electric vehicles are not an environmental free lunch, the electricity has to come from somewhere and if you take average total UK grid CO2 contributions of 367g/kWh, then the e-tron has a CO2 contribution of 87.3g/km.

Recharging takes about 11 hours on a 32-amp household wall box and Audi is claiming a first with 150kW recharger capability, which will give an 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes.

The large rear seats are comfortable, providing plenty of head and leg room. The seat backs fold on to the cushions, however, which gives a slightly uneven load floor

The only problem is that these chargers don't exist at the moment. They're no unicorns, however, and are the responsibility of the Ionity group consisting of Volkswagen Group brands including Porsche, as well as Ford, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, which is promising 400 such chargers across Europe by 2020, although Britain isn't mentioned. This supercharging capability comes as standard, though an additional charge socket on the other side of the vehicle is extra.

The boot is large enough for a set of suitcases and there's an additional 60 litres of space under the bonnet. The rear seats are large, comfy and there's head and leg room to spare. The rear seat backs fold on to the cushions, which gives a slightly uneven floor, and there's room under the boot floor for a space-saver spare tyre.

In the front there's Audi's latest virtual dashboard which is able to project Google-powered maps and bird's eye view images of the terrain overlaid with digital instruments. There's a new media interface using a touch pad and voice confirmation, but it is neither as good nor as responsive as Audi's previous MMI interface.

The rear-view cameras of Launch Edition versions include small screens in the tops of each front door, although they're not bright or high enough

The camera-based “mirrors” were first seen on Volkswagen's XL-1, and they take some getting used to. The screens in the doors aren't bright or high enough and you find your eyes drawn to the cameras cantilevered out of the side of the vehicle, which makes roundabouts quite an ordeal.

The interior design is very like the current Audi range, so lacks any sense of occasion to drive, and the centre console is an open-sided box from which the contents spill if you do any spirited cornering.

We travelled to Abu Dhabi for the launch and on the long, straight motorways out of the capital, the e-tron's soft springing and gentle damping gave an unreal sensation; divorced from the road, with just the faint roar of the 20-inch tyres and soft whine of the electric drive confirming that we are in fact travelling at 44 metres per second suspended one metre above the road surface.

The boot is large enough for a set of suitcases and there's an additional 60 litres of space under the bonnet, which also houses the control electronics 

With the intelligent cruise control and the lane centring activated, you need rest just a finger on the steering wheel to keep the systems monitoring, steering and maintaining a legal 100mph. Is this driving of the future, or are we just passengers?

We maintain station for almost an hour, slightly horrified at how the desert has sped by with so little effort or attention required of us. There's a bit of roundabout and urban dual carriageway round Al Ain before we end up at the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road, which lies on the border of the Emirates' border with Oman.

Translated as "Empty Mountain", Jebel Hafeet has a road which rises to 1,220 metres above sea level, through 7.3 miles and 60 corners of various stripe. It doesn't actually go anywhere and though there's a radar station, a hotel, a palace and a cafe up there, there's no road beyond the summit. Ascending, the road is between two and three lanes wide; built for driving, then, though I'm not so sure about the e-tron.

The e-tron is a great cruiser, but on a challenging road it's far from the best in class to drive

It's as well to recall that this is as 2.5-tonne car before criticising. Merely hauling the equivalent of two conventional family hatchbacks up this mountain is some feat and you can hear the twin motors working hard as we accelerate between corners. That said, however, this is far from the sharpest car even in its class.

With dynamic steering selected the steering gains a satisfying weight, but no more sharpness. The body heels like a four-master in a gale and contents of the luggage compartment slop back and forth like flotsam in the bilges. The nose washes wide of every apex it is pointed at and easing the throttle to coax a more acute cornering attitude elicits a sluggish and inaccurate response of the “Oh, that's what you wanted” variety.

Thanks to drive to all four wheels, the e-tron proved capable on an easy of-road course

So it's no great performance car, then, but what's it like off-road? Audi provided a small dusty track for testing purposes and on all-terrain tyres the e-tron proved itself capable, if a bit clod-hopping. The accuracy of the throttle action is terrific and you can nose your way into an obstacle with great confidence, but as on the road, the brake pedal action isn't particularly progressive and traction control by braking is crude so you can end up going nowhere with one wheel spinning in the dust.

There's a lot to like about the e-tron, but it's mostly centred on the car's refinement of driver systems such as the steering-wheel paddles, which introduce increased levels of regeneration braking.

And in its effortless ability to softly swallow miles, the e-tron is at least the match of rivals, but dynamically it falls well short and, perhaps worse, it feels a bit, well, boring. Almost criminal, isn't it?

THE FACTS

Audi e-tron

TESTED 95kWh lithium-ion battery pack (and an 11kW on-board charger), four-wheel drive via a 181bhp/228lb ft front asynchronous electric motor and a 221bhp/262lb ft rear synchronous electric motor with step-down gearing

PRICE/ON SALE from £71,490 (as tested in launch edition £82,240)March 2019

POWER/TORQUE 402bhp at 13,300rpm, 490lb ft for 10 seconds

BATTERY ENERGY 95kWh

TOP SPEED limited to 124mph

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 5.7sec

RANGE 248 miles (WLTP)

RECHARGING TIME on 12A household socket, 24 hours. On a 32 amp wall box, 12 hours. On a 150kW DC fast charger an 80 per cent charge takes 30 minutes

CO2 EMISSIONS 87g/km well-to-wheels (see text)

VED zero rated, but liable for £310 luxury car tax from years two to six

VERDICT While others seek to celebrate a new era of electric drive, it's almost as though with the e-tron Audi has gone in the opposite direction. There's little sense of occasion in driving this decent looking, but soft and stodgy-handling, SUV. It's brisk enough, but its traction control by braking is crude and the whole car lacks Audi's typical ingenuity - where's the Technik here?

TELEGRAPH RATING Three out of five stars

THE RIVALS

Tesla Model X, from £82,995

Your 70 grand only buys the 75kWh 328PS version of this seven-seat, five-door SUV. It's a bigger vehicle than the e-tron but lighter. It's ugly though, and those gull-wing rear doors are gimmicky and eat space, but it's a pioneer in this market and while it doesn't ride and handle as well as the Audi or the Jaguar, it's quite a special thing to drive.

Jaguar i-Pace, from £63,495

Brilliant debut for this 4.68m long, 2.13-tonne SUV. It's 90kWh lithium-ion battery pack gives this 394bhp/513lb ft machine a top speed of 124mph and a 0-62mph time of 4.8sec. Good looking, comfortable and fine handling, the i-Pace is a credit to its maker.

Mercedes-Benz EQC, from "the mid-£60,000s"

Based on the GLC SUV and built on the same production line in Bremen, this 4.76m long, 2.42-tonne uses a similar twin-motor, 4x4 drivetrain which musters a total 402bhp and 564lb ft. Its 80kWh, 650kg lithium-ion battery gives a range of about 250 miles, a top speed of 112mph and 0-62mph acceleration in 5.1sec. Recharging times are similar to that of the e-tron.

BMW i3, from £35,1800

One of the nicest EVs around, especially in £40,140 range-extender form which removes at least some of the range anxiety. Rides a little stiffly and looks a little weird, but drives well and its carbon-fibre construction and new 120Ah battery in the battery-only versions means a realistic range of 150 miles is just about achievable.

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