Audi eTron is full of sparkle but lacks some spark behind the wheel

Road test: Spacious electric crossover has a claimed official range of 391km

Make: Audi

Model: e-tron

Year: 2019

Fuel: Electric

Date Reviewed: July 9, 2019

Wed, Jul 10, 2019, 07:15

   

Buying a new car these days is as much about the Dáil as the dealership. Politicians are now active players in the motor trade thanks to their grand plans to tackle climate change.

It’s worth recalling the last time politicians played an active part in the Irish car market, overhauling our tax regime in 2008 to focus on CO2 emissions. It decimated resale values for petrol cars and led to the dominance of diesel.

We should have known what was to come. The policy drivers in the Dáil are masters of the U-turn. The message now is that diesel is dirty, petrol has regained a positive image, hybrid is an option, but electric is the only way to go. At least that’s until the hydrogen lobby bends enough ears on Kildare Street.

Is it any wonder car buyers don’t know which way to turn? Should you stick with diesel and risk a tax rise in the upcoming budget, and a consequent hit in resale values? Should you dip your toe in the electric wave with a hybrid and if so, should you move quickly in case the Government lifts the incentives on these cars? Is there anything to be said for being the first among your friends to make the move to electric, or will the models due next year deliver much better range, and as a result a better resale value in years to come?

So far the only role politicians have played in this is to add to the uncertainty by announcing grand targets for electric car sales and deadlines for the demise of combustion engines, while failing to detail how the tax and incentive plans will work through this transition. Ultimately all the politicians have done is undermine the Irish motor trade at a time when Brexit’s impact on sterling is already biting into the market.

If you want to take the electric plunge you currently have a choice from just over a dozen models, from an overall market of over 260 on sale in Ireland. And of these the options are either mid-sized hatchbacks at €25,000-plus or larger premium models at over €90,000.

There are just over a dozen electric models on the Irish market at present, out of a total model range of over 250. And that’s new cars: the supply of used electric cars is very limited and those available will be from the first serious foray into electric, which means a very limited range between charges.

Several years ago someone in the automotive world fired the starting gun on a race to market for premium electric crossovers. On the starting grid were the three established German premium brands – Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz – and the plucky Indian-owned but UK-based Jaguar brand.

Jaguar won the race, and the international acclaim, with its I-Pace picking up a multitude of awards, including the prestigious Car of the Year title in Europe. But there remains a question over whether the I-Pace is really a true crossover. It could be argued that it’s really a very large hatchback.

Plaudits

If so, then Audi takes the plaudits for a premium crossover with this e-Tron. It’s a cookie-cutter silhouette from the car company’s wide array of crossover SUVs. In fact, there are many who will struggle to spot the eTron angle.

What we have here is a spacious five-seat family-sized crossover, running on electric power, with a claimed official range of 391km. A boot of 605 litres should be big enough for most people’s needs, and no one seems to be ruling out a seven-seat version in the future.

While its footprint is similar to the Q7, this is a completely new car from the tyre tread to the roof rails. This platform underpins not just this car but the upcoming e-Tron Sportsback, a high-end electric coupe arriving next year.

Each axle gets an electric motor – with slightly more powerful motors on the rear wheels – wired to a 95KwH battery pack centrally located in the floorpan between the wheels.

With a total output of over 300bhp and superbly low centre of gravity for a crossover, it would seem like a recipe for driving success. However, the battery weighs in at 700kgs, bringing the total gross weight of the car to over 3 tonnes.

That means that while acceleration is impressive, the 6.6 seconds 0-100km/h doesn’t pack quite the punch you might expect. If you’ve driven the fast-paced BW i3S for example, then this can feel sedate for an electric car.

However, it’s likely Audi will offer a range of power options for the e-Tron in the years to come, sacrificing some range for pace, and vice versa. So the final chapter of the e-Tron crossover has yet to be written.

On the road the e-Tron drives like the Q5: it’s incredibly competent and composed, but far from engaging. It’s a great mile muncher, but it’s hardly ever exciting. Again, Audi is incredibly capable of engineering exciting cars – even large crossovers as the Q8 proves – but here it seems they went for something that makes a good case for the advent of autonomous driving.

Recharging is simple, if you can secure a recharging point that works. There is a growing issue with the accuracy of the information on the ESB’s electric car app, identifying charging points that are no longer in service.

Ionity

Audi is part of the Ionity joint venture, rolling out fast-charging infrastructure in Ireland, with six stations offering up to 30 charging points of up to 150kW on major national routes where you can get from virtually no charge to 80 per cent in 30 minutes or fully charge the battery pack in 50 minutes. That will be a boon for owners. In fairness, during our time in the car the most impressive feat was the fact it lived up to its promised range, even on motorway runs. You can trust the on-board computer to predict your remaining range, something that can’t be said for all electric cars at present.

Inside this crossover, possibly the most noticeable difference is the gear lever which is on a rocker to the side of a centre console handrest. It takes about 10 seconds to get used to this. There is a smart paddle regeneration system that’s also intuitive to use.

Otherwise the cabin is yet another stellar performance by the Audi engineers, setting another benchmark for the rest of the market to try and emulate.

One of the talking points is the virtual mirrors that replace conventional exterior mirrors with cameras, which transmit images directly to OLED touchscreen displays fitted to the doors. They look futuristic, they’re a great way of impressing the neighbours, but they are a waste of money – €1,637 on the last pricelist I looked at – and don’t function as well as the simple mirror. There’s a reason rivals aren’t queuing up to copy this idea. It’s an over-engineered gimmick.

Overall, the e-Tron crossover delivers proper premium flair in a family-sized car, but at a hefty price. With only five seats and a range that is sure to be beaten by rivals – and within its own fleet – in the next three years, it’s great to see it on the road, but hard to see many buyers other than well-heeled early adopters opting for this. Then again, we thought the same about the Jaguar I-Pace and it is selling strongly across the globe.

Of the rivals, the Jaguar is more exciting to drive. The Tesla Model X will also make a potential shortlist, but the Audi beats it for fit and finish, is better to drive, and is frankly far better looking. The Tesla’s silly gullwing doors make the Audi virtual mirrors seem like a sensible purchase.

Of the Germans, the new Mercedes-Benz EQC is also more engaging to drive and packs a better electric punch. And if you want some real electric fun, and the chance to save €50,000 or so, then the BMW i3S is the best buy right now. Sure, you sacrifice on space, particularly in the boot, but it’s the most fun you’ll have in an electric car with a premium badge right now.

If there is an over-riding issue with the eTron it’s that it achieves all its goals with precision, German efficiency, but with a lack of sparkle. This is meant to point the way towards the exciting electric future. Yet it looks, drives and feels little different from what’s here already.

It’s not a failing. Audi has made a conscious effort to make the transition to electric as easy as possible for owners. And they’ve certainly done that. The criticism is that, in doing so, they’ve omitted the excitement that should accompany the €90,000-plus purchase of a car at the cutting edge of the motoring revolution. Audi says its “concept clarity”. No, I don’t have a clue what that means either, and it was explained to me several times.

Pit this against the Tesla Model X or the Jaguar I-Pace and it lacks the pizzazz. But then again those brands desperately need to draw a new crowd. Audi already has an audience. If you value comfort and refinement above sporty drive, then this is the standard bearer of the crossover electric class. For us, the driving fun just shades it in Jaguar’s favour, but it’s a very close call. I sense that when it comes to reliability the Audi might shade it as well. It gets three stars out of five but it’s really a 3.95 score for this new car.

As to what the future holds, while the car companies are mapping out their plans for better range and more models, we’re likely to be in the dark as to the Government’s strategy for achieving its grand targets for some time to come.

Lowdown: Audi eTron 55 265kW

Power: Electric quattro all-wheel drive puttingout 664Nm of torque and 265bhp (300bhp in boost mode)

0-100km/h: 6.6 seconds

Top speed: 200km/h

Electric range: up to 391km (WLTP)

Price: €101,750 (before up to €10,000 in grants for private customers)

Our rating: 3/5

Verdict: It’s very close to being the class leader. It get three stars out of five here but it’s really a 3.95 score for this new car.