AUDI E-TRON

Audi’s whis­per-quiet E-tron EV ar­rives as the first Ger­man of­fer­ing to ri­val Tesla and the Jaguar I-pace. Can it put them to the sword?

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents - WORDS ASH WESTER­MAN

In­gol­stadt’s hot take on the elec­tric SUV

ON THE face of it, this first drive had the mak­ings of a modern-day West­ern. An out­sider in an arid and in­hos­pitable land; side­ways glances from a few slightly sus­pi­cious lo­cals; an un­spo­ken strug­gle be­tween the past and the new­comer’s claim on the fu­ture. High up in the parched Ha­jar moun­tains that di­vide Abu Dhabi from Oman, we re­ally needed a sound­track of tum­ble weeds and per­haps a lone steel gui­tar. In­stead, we had a sound­track of ... noth­ing.

Well, not quite noth­ing. When you de­mand full ac­cel­er­a­tion from the Audi E-tron’s two elec­tric mo­tors, a cocked ear will de­tect a faint me­chan­i­cal whir, but the sound is so muted it’s al­most like hear­ing some­one us­ing an elec­tric tooth­brush from be­hind a closed bath­room door. Very quickly, if the au­dio sys­tem is off, tyres on pave­ment and air mov­ing over the car’s slip­pery ex­te­rior are the sounds you (only just) no­tice.

This was not our first ex­pe­ri­ence of Audi’s de­but EV: Wheels rode in a pi­lot-build car at Pikes Peak (Septem­ber is­sue), but this was our first chance to drive the pro­duc­tion ver­sion, on the flat lands around Abu Dhabi, up the mighty Jebel Hafeet moun­tain road, and over some not-too-gnarly off-road ter­rain.

It’s a mostly su­per-im­pres­sive de­but, and when E-tron ar­rives in Aus­tralia around the mid­dle of 2019, it looks set to bat­ter Tesla’s Model X in the course of go­ing toe-to-toe with Jaguar’s I-pace and the Mercedes-benz EQC.

Size-wise, E-tron is slightly big­ger than sta­ble­mate Q5, but a lit­tle smaller than Q7. The pack­ag­ing ad­van­tages of the elec­tric driv­e­train mean rear-seat room is gen­er­ous, and the ex­tra length (219mm) over I-pace trans­lates to ap­pre­cia­bly bet­ter rear legroom than the Jaguar.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the I-pace when talk­ing about E-tron, as the Jaguar has beaten Audi to mar­ket by about seven months, and the two luxo EV of­fer­ings are sim­i­larly priced. When the E-tron ar­rives, it’s ex­pected to sell for around $140,000, putting it in the up­per end of the $120-140K zone strad­dled by the three­tiered Jaguar line-up.

Yes, any way you cut it, $140,000 is a hefty wedge for an Audi SUV, given that just un­der $100K gets you into the swift, well­sorted SQ5 qu­at­tro. That’s fully 40 per­cent more for an elec­tric SUV that de­liv­ers broadly sim­i­lar on-road per­for­mance, and there’s no way that the lower run­ning costs of an EV will see an owner save any­thing close to the price premium over a typ­i­cal own­er­ship pe­riod. Still un­de­terred? Ex­cel­lent.

Un­like the I-pace, which de­lib­er­ately blurs seg­ments and stylis­tic bound­aries, the E-tron’s ex­te­rior de­sign treads far safer ground. Its in­te­gra­tion into the Q-se­ries SUV line-up is clear, but it sports a more hun­kered down, stylised form that al­ludes to its for­ward-think­ing as­pi­ra­tions. The deep sculpt­ing of the lower sills, for ex­am­ple, is in­tended to visu­ally high­light the fact that this is the area in which the car’s power source is pack­aged. And those (op­tional) ex­te­rior cam­eras, which re­place air-dis­turb­ing mir­rors, are all very Tron. It’s slip­pery, too – aero­dy­namic mea­sures in­clude ac­tive shut­ters in the up­per grille and lower fas­cia to con­trol the air­flow de­pend­ing on the cool­ing needs of the bat­ter­ies, mo­tors, and HVAC, as cal­cu­lated by the com­plex plumb­ing sys­tem that cir­cu­lates 22 litres of fluid through the ar­ter­ies of the car.

Liq­uid cool­ing, ac­cord­ing to Audi’s pow­er­train en­gi­neers, is es­sen­tial to the car’s abil­ity to de­liver con­sis­tent hard ac­cel­er­a­tion. E-tron is pow­ered by two mo­tors; one driv­ing the front axle; a slightly larger one driv­ing the rear. Com­bined, their out­put is rated at a nom­i­nal 265kw and 561Nm, how­ever, both can op­er­ate in a ‘boost’ mode for a max­i­mum of eight sec­onds to de­liver a to­tal out­put of 300kw and 664Nm. In nor­mal driv­ing it’s the rear mo­tor that han­dles the bulk of the grunt work, but elec­tronic con­trol al­lows the front mo­tor to phase in and out as re­quired de­pend­ing on load, cor­ner­ing force and avail­able traction. All this oc­curs in a claimed 30 mil­lisec­onds, leav­ing a com­pa­ra­ble qu­at­tro pow­er­train nap­ping.

Feed­ing these two mo­tors is a 95kwh bat­tery pack (made up of 36 mod­ules) which is sand­wiched in the floor. This 700kg unit has a 150kw DC fast-charge ca­pa­bil­ity, giv­ing it a the­o­ret­i­cal charge-

speed ad­van­tage over the I-pace. For the road-trip­ping E-tron owner need­ing to re­plen­ish the bat­tery away from their home wall­box sup­ply, the time re­quired to achieve an 80 per­cent charge is around 30 min­utes.

So how does it drive? The chal­lenge for us mo­tor-scrib­bler types when eval­u­at­ing the new breed of EVS is ac­tu­ally be­ing able to de­liver some kind of mean­ing­ful pow­er­train as­sess­ment that sep­a­rates one com­peti­tor from the other. Fact is EV pow­er­trains are bril­liantly ef­fec­tive at the fun­da­men­tal task of con­vert­ing a driver’s in­ten­tion and in­put into the de­sired mo­tion. Cri­tiquing them is the harder bit. And with no con­ven­tional trans­mis­sion, there’s one less thing for us crit­ics to moan about: no dual-clutch stum­bles at low speed, no hes­i­ta­tion of a torque con­verter auto re­luc­tant to kick down, or revving its nuts off in a too-ag­gro Sport mode.

Nor is there much de­fin­able ‘char­ac­ter’ to dis­sect in terms of torque de­liv­ery, power curve or throt­tle re­sponse. Squeeze the go pedal and a premium EV just ... goes. And so it is with the E-tron. Okay, it’s pos­si­ble that the Audi has an even greater level of me­chan­i­cal noise sup­pres­sion than that of the I-pace. Be­yond that, fun­da­men­tals such as the torque-to-weight ra­tio be­come more telling than any­thing else. In boost mode, E-tron has 266Nm/tonne, ver­sus I-pace at 326Nm/tonne; num­bers which help ex­plain the near-one-sec­ond gap in their re­spec­tive 0-100km/h claims. Still, the E-tron feels swift enough at 5.7 sec­onds, while also feel­ing quicker than our hand-timed 3.5sec 80-120km/h ac­cel­er­a­tion fig­ure.

But it’s the near-in­stan­ta­neous­ness of the re­sponse and the sense of ef­fort­less surge within a vac­uum that’s more im­pres­sive than the hard num­bers. The way this thing will sling you from a rolling start of say 40km/h, deep into triple dig­its, is prop­erly ad­dic­tive. The in­her­ent stealth also has its own ap­peal. Rather than lament­ing the lack of en­gine note, I quickly be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate the ab­sence of any au­ral give­away as to ex­actly how hard you’re pin­ning the throt­tle each time you see some clear air. Your mother-in-law will barely look up from her Candy Crush as you slay dawdling traf­fic.

Driv­ing like this will, of course, suck down those stored elec­trons. Audi claims a range of ‘over 400km’ on the WLTP cy­cle, but good luck achiev­ing it. We saw our ini­tial pre­dicted range of 383km at full charge plunge to 230km af­ter only 70km of fairly spir­ited driv­ing, with claimed con­sump­tion av­er­ag­ing 28.5kw/100km. A more likely real-world range on a full charge will prob­a­bly be in 310-340km zone. Will this be enough for most own­ers? Given that’s around three hours’ high­way driv­ing, the like­li­hood is that your blad­der and your kids will de­mand a break be­fore you’d prob­a­bly drive much fur­ther any­way.

As for dy­nam­ics? First im­pres­sions are that the E-tron’s ex­tra weight com­pared with the I-pace feels ev­i­dent in cor­ners and the Audi doesn’t quite match the Jag’s gen­eral ath­leti­cism. Driv­ing the E-tron hard on the amaz­ing Jebel Hafeet moun­tain road on the out­skirts of Al Ain in the UAE – a glassy three-lane rib­bon of bi­tu­men which climbs to an el­e­va­tion of over 1200m in just un­der 12km – was mem­o­rable, but also an ex­er­cise in man­ag­ing weight trans­fer and al­low­ing a gen­er­ous mar­gin in the brak­ing ar­eas. The steer­ing is quick and pre­cise but over-as­sisted at low speed, and not ex­actly or­ganic in terms of feel. Also, de­spite the torque split, the E-tron never feels rear-driven. In­stead, it gets the elec­tric grunt down with al­most clin­i­cal all-fours ef­fi­ciency, and the low cen­tre of grav­ity helps give it a mostly neu­tral stance un­til you re­ally start muscling the nose in tighter turns.

But more rel­e­vant to most own­ers will be the E-tron’s ex­cep­tional cruis­ing abil­ity. Wind noise is bril­liantly sup­pressed, and the car is happy to coast on a light throt­tle, the re-gen sys­tem able to be set via wheel pad­dles to be quite sub­tle on down­hill gra­di­ents, de­spite its ef­fi­ciency in cap­tur­ing ki­netic en­ergy.

It all makes for ut­terly tran­quil road-trip­ping, es­pe­cially com­bined with the E-tron’s fine ride. The com­bi­na­tion of a long wheel­base and stan­dard-fit­ment height-ad­justable air sus­pen­sion means it de­liv­ers real pli­ancy, even on the 21-inch wheels fit­ted to the test cars. There’s also a high-rid­ing off-road mode that al­lows ex­plo­ration of mildly rut­ted or rocky ter­rain, if you’re will­ing to chance the tyres.

So, on bal­ance, E-tron emerges as deeply con­vinc­ing, even if it can’t quite claim to re­set the ex­ist­ing bench­marks set by its fledg­ling EV op­po­si­tion. Now we await the ar­rival of Merc’s EQC, due late 2019, for the real high-noon show­down in EV land.

ABOVE: SIX-POT CALIPERS ONLY BITE DISCS IF MORE THAN 0.3G OF DE­CEL­ER­A­TION IS NEEDED, OTH­ER­WISE THE RE-GEN HAN­DLES IT. EX­PECT LONG PAD LIFE

ABOVE: OP­TIONAL CAM­ERAS RE­PLACE MIR­RORS AND BEAM IM­AGES ON OLED SCREENS IN THE UP­PER SEC­TIONS OF THE DOOR TRIMS

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