Audi’s electric SUV goes for victory through familiarity

Secret to success of e-Tron Quattro could be hiding new tech under conventional looks

 

It has been a rocky couple of weeks for premium electric SUVs. First of all, Mercedes showed off its EQC battery-powered crossover, and found itself in hot water thanks to conflicting claims for its one-charge range, which vacillated between just enough and not near enough, depending upon to whom you were speaking and what time of day it was.

Then BMW revealed its iNext concept, of a new 2021 model to a near-universal chorus of vomiting at styling that is at best challenging and at worst nauseatingly awful.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco – not at all coincidentally in Tesla’s back yard – Audi has just taken the covers off its e-Tron Quattro SUV. It’s the Ingolstadt company’s first all-electric model, and while disguised prototypes have long since been on the publicity trail, this was our first chance to see it undisguised.

Frankly, they needn’t have bothered with the disguise. Leave a new e-Tron in a car park full of Q5, Q7, and Q8 models ( the e-Tron is sized roughly between the Q5 and Q7) and you’d be hard pressed to pick it out. It has a slightly more striking grille and bumper arrangement than those of a Q5, but it looks quieter than the somewhat over-styled Q8. It’s clearly new, but looks very familiar. Normally this is the point where we’d criticise Audi for more cookie-cutter design, for making its cars all look the same as each other, but this time I’m not so sure. The reaction to BMW’s iNext (concept though it is) seems to show that while people are ready for electric cars, they’re not necessarily ready for those electric cars to look any different. Audi may hedged its bets just right with the e-Tron, in style terms if nothing else.

Deposits

The e-Tron will make a debut on Irish soil in November, and will arrive on sale early in 2019 and, within certain limits, it’s already a success.

Audi Ireland has already taken what it says are “multiples of dozens” of €2,000 refundable deposits for the car, and if you include those who’ve not paid up front but have asked to be kept informed of when the car is available, then those numbers stretch into the thousands. Prices will be in the ballpark of €85,000-€90,000 for a basic model, and the range will be kept simple with just SE and S-Line models, plus the usual lengthy options list.

Doubtless much of the appeal of the e-Tron is down to its claimed one-charge range, with which Audi seems to have stolen a march over rivals such as Mercedes and Jaguar.

Mercedes, at the EQC launch, stunned us by initially claiming that the car would have a one-charge range of just 322km, which is not a lot for a high-priced, big-battery SUV. That figure las later revised up to 382km, but by then the publicity damage had been done. Audi seems to be making no such mistakes, and is coming out of the gate with bullish claims for its car’s range. The range originally spoken of was 500km, but that was on the old NEDC economy test.

Even under the new test regime, though, Audi’s Uli Wittmann, one of its senior engineers on the project, told The Irish Times: “Currently we are in homologation process, so we aren’t ready to publish the exact numbers, but we can promise that with the new WLTP standard we can guarantee we can get more than 400km of range with this car, and for most of the customers’ profiles we think that this is a good solution.” Audi’s powertrain experts told us that, unless you’re exploiting the maximum acceleration potential, 350km on one charge in mixed conditions should be easily achievable.

Overall the e-Tron is 4.9m long and, thanks to the fact that the battery pack is all located under the floor, there’s a 660-litre boot. Audi won’t be exploiting that space to install a third row of seats to create a rival to Tesla’s seven-seat Model X though. It’s built on the same MLB Evo platform that underpins the Q5, Q7 and new Q8, but that won’t last long. Audi is working on a new, cutting-edge, electric premium car platform with Porsche, so expect the e-Tron to have a relatively short model life, certainly on its current platform.

Combined, its twin electric motors (one for each axle, which brings huge possibilities for torque split and power distribution) make 407hp and 664Nm of torque (those outputs are throttled back a little, for increased range, in Normal mode and only fully unlocked when you select Dynamic). To get to 100km/h from a standing start takes 5.7secs and the top speed is limited to 200km/h.

Audi has managed to keep the weight distributed 50:50 front-rear and there’s adaptive air suspension to help keep the body under control when cornering. It can also drop the ride height by 76mm for improved aerodynamics when cruising on the motorway. Power comes from a 95kWh battery, which is compatible with the next generation of 150kW ultra-fast chasing points. Audi, along with other car makers, is investing in the pan-European Ionity network, and five 150kW stations are earmarked for Ireland, due to open in 2019.

House survey

Audi Ireland will also, in due course, offer an optional service that includes a survey of your house to ensure that you can achieve the optimum 11kWh charging speed and we were shown a prototype of a mobile 22kWh charger, basically a set of batteries on wheels, which will be eventually offered to service providers to give the e-Tron an emergency juice up when needed.

Helping the e-Tron scavenge as much extra range as possible is a clever new braking system, which is entirely electronic. “The one-pedal systems in the market so far have a disadvantage for me, which is that they don’t use a brake-by-wire system. We do. That means when you apply the brake, the system decides whether it’s advantageous to regenerate or to brake more heavily with the mechanical brakes,” Siegfried Pint, one of the senior power-train engineers for the e-tron project told The Irish Times. But the system is even more clever than that.

“We have an intelligent regeneration system, which takes data from the sat-nav and the front-facing camera,” said Pint. “So if you lift off and there is no car in front of you, nor a corner or a roundabout coming up, the car will just coast. But if it knows that you have to slow, then it will use the regeneration system. It’s fully automatic, but you can turn it off if you prefer a different feel.”

Pint, who previously worked across the Bavarian divide on the BMW i3 definitely feels that the e-Tron’s more conventional styling is a major bonus for the car.

“My take is that Audi has the right approach, in that the car is not diverging significantly from our petrol-driven cars. The e-Tron looks like an Audi, drives like an Audi, feels like an Audi. But it’s electric, and I think that’s the right approach. A car needs to hit the market in significant volume, you need a certain minimum range, passenger capacity, drive train, and then it has to look right. You do not want to have to start with electrification in a niche,” he said.

Marc Lichte, Audi’s head of design, has been excoriating in his criticism of the BMW i3, saying that its oddball styling has held it back in the marketplace. While the two cars are not direct rivals (the i3 is a much smaller, more affordable hatchback) it will be very interesting to see how the e-Tron’s initial sales compare.

Certainly the e-Tron will appeal to those of a tech-savvy nature. One of its major innovations is the optional digital rear-view system, which replaces the door mirrors with a pair of slim rear-facing cameras. Although Lexus has beaten Audi to the punch by launching a similar system for the new ES model, it’s currently a Japan-only option, whereas the Audi system will be global.

The cameras display what they capture on a pair of high-definition OLED screens, supplied by Samsung, set into the door tops. The screens are adjustable, and you can even zoom in on distant objects (which may no longer be closer than they appear), and the system will give the usual warnings of cars hovering, unseen, in your blind spot.

Aerodynamic package

It’s not just a gimmick, either. The cameras are part of an extensive aerodynamic package which includes a near-flat underside, moving air intake shutters behind the grille, and a complex front bumper which ducts air in and through the front wheel arch to smooth out the airflow. It adds up to a very sleek 0.27cd figure, which is pretty remarkable for a tall SUV.

There’s not an awful lot of talk about autonomous features, although they do of course form part of the car’s electronic package. Audi, pointedly, showed off the entirely autonomous Aicon concept car (which lacks even a steering wheel) alongside the not-even-slightly autonomous PB18 concept supercar at the e-Tron’s reveal event. There does seem to be a sense that outlandish claims of imminent full autonomy are being, to a point, rolled back on.

Uli Wittmann told The Irish Times that Audi was still committed to autonomous tech, but seemed to suggest that fully autonomous cars would be outlying, specialist models, at least in the short term. Doubtless Audi has become somewhat cautious, having made major claims for the autonomous tech in its new A8 luxury car, only to have that tech severely restricted by current legislation.

What comes next? Well, production kicks off in Audi’s Brussels factory now, at an initial capacity of 200 cars a day. Next year, an extra e-Tron model, designated Sportback, will be added. Eventually the idea is that the e-Tron name will follow the path that Quattro did – starting out as a specific name for a specific product, and eventually developing into a sub-brand that’s applicable to all Audi models.

What will buyers make of it when it’s sat in the showroom next to the existing petrol and diesel range? We’ll see, but never underestimate consumers’ desire for the familiar and the (seemingly) ordinary.

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