Audi’s E-Tron electric crossover surges past its German rivals

First drive: Superbly refined and packing a useful range, the E-Tron’s only flaw is in its looks

 

25 degrees Celsius. That’s the ideal room temperature for a cosy Christmas in front of the fire. It’s also the sweet spot for Audi’s new electric crossover. That’s why we found ourselves criss-crossing the desert roads of the UAE, a Middle-East state whose economy has boomed thanks to our dependency on burning the remnants of dinosaurs to stay on the road.

It initially seemed like we were there simply to signal to the local sheiks that they’re days of controlling our energy supplies are coming to an end. However, the E-Tron’s 95Kw battery pack performs best at a balmy 25 degrees. Any warmer and it needs to use energy to stay cool, and colder and it needs to heat up. Clearly ploughing through the snow to visit Santa in this electric SUV was never on the cards.

Victory

The e-tron has scored a serious victory in beating its German rivals onto the road. The premium car giants have all been working on electric cars for several years, launching a few niche models along the way. But with every projection showing the greatest growth in crossovers and SUVs across the globe, the format of the first big volume versions was set in stone some time ago.

First honours might be awarded to Tesla for its Model X, but from the mainstream brands it was Jaguar’s I-Pace that won the race to market. However, it’s not really a conventional SUV, so the Germans were still pitting with each other to get to market first. Mercedes Benz unveiled its EQC, a variant of the current GLC crossover. BMW, meanwhile, is set to deliver an all-electric version of its X3 next year.

So kudos to Audi: but what’s the car like? Well the first key point is the promise of a 417km range. That’s the official promise at least, although when we pressed the start button on our fully charged test car it offered an estimate of 322km. That estimate is based on the driving style of the last person behind the wheel, who clearly had a heavy right foot.

Range

With outside temperatures at a near perfect 27 degrees, we hit the motorways, travelling at steady speeds of 120-140km/h on largely straight motorway. First impressions are the e-tron manages to keep a straight line without any bother.

With 80.9km driven, our range had dropped to estimated 177km, although if we engaged the car’s Range Mode assistance system - which turned off the air-con - we could get a further 9km

With 80.9km driven, our range had dropped to estimated 177km, although if we engaged the car’s Range Mode assistance system - which turned off the air-con - we could get a further 9km. As this was not an endurance test, we never bothered.

A faster run took us to 153km by which time our range had dropped to 100km, which is pretty consistent. Then it was up the hill side of Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road. For those who don’t know it, this is one of the great driving roads on the planet. In the middle of nowhere lacing around a non-descript hill is a perfectly manicured three lane twisting stretch of tarmac. All roads leading to it may be mind-numbling straight but the myriad of climbing twists and turns on it makes up for the trip.

Then it was up the hill side of Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road. For those who don’t know it, this is one of the great driving roads on the planet

Racy

Hardly the first place you’d consider showcasing a mid-sized family crossover, however. Unless it packs a punch, which is exactly what the e-tron does. By now we need not reiterate that electric power delivers torque by the truckload. The trait worth highlighting here is that thanks to the low-set battery in the car’s floor this crossover handles like a hot hatch. The steering feel could be a little sharper, but with four on board the e-tron was happy to be thrown around the bends with the screech of tyres more audible thanks to the lack of engine noise.

Audi claims at 0-100km/h time of 6.6 seconds - 5.5 seconds if you engage the acceleration boost. That’s pretty sprightly for a car of this size that weighs in at 2.5 tonnes.

What goes up must come down and on the same way back we got to recoup much of the energy expended on the way up. Gravity is a great boon to electric cars it seems, for we left the hilltop with an estimated range of 64km left and hit the bottom with 71km.

At this stage it was time to recharge, and Audi used the time to showcase its new 150Kw charging points, six of which it hopes to install in Ireland. With the promise of charging to full in about 30 minutes, these heavy duty power supply units are a major part of the answer to range anxiety. While potential buyers don’t fancy sitting around filling stations or car parks for three hours getting a charge, 30 minutes is the sort of time many families spend at service stations already, what with refuelling, toilet breaks and queues for coffee.

Audi's new Ionicity 150Kw charging points can fill the E-Tron's 95kw battery in about 30 minutes. Expect six of these chargers in Ireland. 

In total, we did nearly four hours of driving in the new e-tron, ranging from motorway to mountain climb and even some light off-roading down the sand tracks, starting with a full charge and grabbing a 30-minute top-up along the way.

Design flaws

So the e-tron is an electric star? In terms of performance, yes. But it has its flaws. For a start, there’s the look. It’s hard to understand why Audi opted to take such an innovative new car and drape it in the body of one of its blandest SUVs. At the same time as the e-tron was being drawn up, Audi was conceiving the look of its gorgeous Q8. Did no one offer up the option to steal its look for what’s meant to be the poster car for the future generations of electric Audis?

The Audi E-Tron's interior is of the same benchmark build quality we have come to expect from the brand. Class leading sums it up. 

Similarly inside, where we get the usual gold standard build quality now associated with Audi interiors. Top class fit and finish with the latest tech. Yet the e-tron hides all the charge status information - that’s highly relevant to electric car users - behind a myriad of menus. Even when you are recuperating power by going down hill, this information is only garnered by watching a rather confusing dial on the centre binnacle.

And when they do seek to wow us with new tech, it’s by replacing the regular wing mirrors with a camera system that is at best a gimmick and at worst an excessively expensive but less useful toy. Tech only serves a purpose when it improves on what went before. Simple glass mirrors beat this camera system hands down. It’s the little things that annoy us about the e-tron.

Price is going to be an issue, of course. Starting at €91,750 after the various government grants, it’s not for the light of wallet. Then again, none of its rivals will score high in value terms when they arrive. The e-tron is slightly bigger than the Q5 and as such can claim to be a five-seater equivalent of the flagship Q7 SUV. It certainly delivers in terms of comfort, refinement and Audi build quality. What’s annoying about it is that it could have been that bit better.

Even on the desert sand the Audi E-Tron delivers a decent crossover all-wheel drive experience

Lowdown: Audi E-Tron

Power: 95Kw battery powering electric motors delivering up to 664Nm of torquein all-wheel drive mode

Range: 417km (WLTP figures)

CO2: 0g/km

Price: From €91,750 after government grants

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