BIG SPIN, AUDI-STYLE

In the much-hyped E-Tron elec­tric SUV, the mo­tors turn at 13,000rpm-plus AT A GLANCE

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Front Page - JOSHUA DOWL­ING

The mid­dle of a desert is the last place on Earth to test drive an elec­tric ve­hi­cle — and yet here we are in cen­tral Namibia as Audi demon­strates how far plug-in cars have ad­vanced. We are hours away from civil­i­sa­tion — and ser­vice sta­tions — but there are power points.

To make sure the fleet of cam­ou­flaged E-Tron pro­to­types doesn’t flat­ten the bat­ter­ies, Audi has freighted fast-charg­ers and a gen­er­a­tor — which, it’s promptly pointed out, runs on bio-diesel.

We’re here be­cause the sur­face of the Bit­ter­wasser salt pan, about 200km south-east of the cap­i­tal Wind­hoek, is so pow­dery it’s as slip­pery as snow to drive on.

Audi claims to have in­vented the most so­phis­ti­cated hard­ware and soft­ware for an all­wheel drive EV to date.

The salt play­ground is three times the size of Syd­ney air­port and home to one of the world’s best glider-fly­ing lo­ca­tions.

The hot winds from Kala­hari desert meet the cool air from the At­lantic Ocean cre­at­ing a “high­way for glid­ers” 5000 me­tres above sea level, higher than most other coun­tries al­low.

On the ground the heat is a blis­ter­ing tor­ture test for any car, let alone a hi-tech elec­tric ve­hi­cle.

It’s part of Audi’s fi­nal shake­down be­fore the E-Tron ar­rives in show­rooms next year. Price is yet to be an­nounced but us­ing the US cost as guide it works out to about $140,000 once ex­change rates and lux­ury car tax are cal­cu­lated.

Most cus­tomers may buy it for the badge and the dar­ing de­sign — this five-seat SUV slots be­tween Audi’s Q5 and Q7 in size — but there’s plenty of sub­stance un­der the skin.

The E-Tron has the au­to­mo­tive world’s first wa­ter-cooled elec­tric mo­tors to en­sure peak per­for­mance re­gard­less of how hot it is and no mat­ter how many times you use “boost” mode, the equiv­a­lent of Tesla’s “lu­di­crous” set­ting. The ro­tor in each elec­tric mo­tor (one front, one rear) spins up to 13,300rpm.

Audi claims its soft­ware is more so­phis­ti­cated when the go­ing gets rough.

“Other (elec­tric ve­hi­cles) will trig­ger the sta­bil­ity con­trol or cut power but ours works like a con­ven­tional all-wheel drive, so it can han­dle ob­sta­cles,” says Audi en­gi­neer Michael Wein, formerly of Porsche, who has spent the past 10 years de­vel­op­ing the E-Tron’s AWD tech.

To il­lus­trate this point, an E-Tron was set on (and driven off ) an ob­sta­cle that left one wheel dan­gling in the air. Audi claims ri­vals would be beached in the same sce­nario.

The only doubt about its off-road cre­den­tials: what hap­pens if we cop a flat tyre? The can of tyre-in­flat­ing goop in the front boot (the “frunk”) won’t be much of a rem­edy for a split side­wall.

Of course, not ev­ery­one is go­ing to drive an elec­tric car into the desert, let alone off-road, but the know-how has ben­e­fits in the daily grind.

If it de­tects front-wheel slip — such as a patch of ice or wa­ter across the road — the E-Tron in­stantly re­duces power to the rear wheels so they don’t spin, and sends more power to the front to main­tain trac­tion and “pull” the car through the haz­ard.

The breadth of AWD abil­ity means driv­ers can switch from “nor­mal” to “hoon” by tap­ping on a touch­screen. It even has a drift mode ... of sorts. The air sus­pen­sion can be raised or low­ered to match on-road or off-road con­di­tions, though the car will work this out if left to its own de­vices.

The ac­cel­er­a­tion will im­press most fam­ily SUV buy­ers but this isn’t Tesla-quick.

Engi­neers say they could have cre­ated the world’s fastest elec­tric SUV but it would have been pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. Of the E-Tron’s hefty 2490kg weight, 700kg is the bat­tery pack.

In­stead Audi aimed for per­for­mance that still gives a de­cent shove in the back, cer­tainly enough to im­press first-time pas­sen­gers.

In real terms, though, it’s about as quick as a hot hatch in the 0-100km/h dash — 6.6 sec­onds in nor­mal mode and 5.7 sec­onds in “boost”.

The big ques­tion re­mains range. Audi says the E-Tron can travel more than 400km in ideal con­di­tions but the cars tested when fully charged showed a dis­tance to empty of 250km in the harsh Namib­ian en­vi­ron­ment.

Dur­ing a slow con­voy drive of about 10km through a na­ture re­serve, we lost an­other 50km of driv­ing range.

VERDICT

Range anx­i­ety is still real but the E-Tron’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties are lim­ited only by tyre tread.

AUDI E-TRON PRICE From $140,000 (est)

POWER 2 elec­tric mo­tors, com­bined 300kW/664Nm; AWD

BAT­TERY PACK 95kWh

RANGE 400km-plus (claimed)

WEIGHT 2490kg

SPARE None; in­fla­tor kit

PRESTIGE FIRST DRIVE

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