by Ian Kuah
After the protracted build up of anticipation created by the various events this year that slowly revealed the Audi e-tron's design and technology, there was always a chance that the actual driving experience might be an anti-climax.
But this is Audi we are talking about, and the e-tron exudes every hallmark of the world-class design and build that we have come to expect from the marque with the four rings.
To prove that their first ever production full electric car has the right stuff and a decent enough range to be practical in the real world, Audi took us to Abu Dhabi where we drove it on urban and suburban roads, highways, a twisty mountain road, and a desert off-road course.
While we had the chance to photograph the e-tron in a studio in San Francisco back in September, this and indeed a motor show stand is never a realistic or indeed flattering place to judge a new design.
Abu Dhabi gave us the chance to see the e-tron in a real-world environment. This first contact situation was most enlightening, the e-tron's modern, elegant lines blending in nicely with the traffic, yet clearly a cutting-edge Audi SUV, sans any of the pretentious, pseudo-futuristic features adopted by some electric and hybrid cars.
While the e-tron comes with 19-inch wheels as standard, our test cars all wore the optional 21-inch diameter wheels, shod with 265/45ZR21 Goodyear Eagle tires that visually shrink the car in isolation. In reality, with an overall length of 4,901 mm (192.9 in), on a 2,928 mm (115.3 in) wheelbase the e-tron sits between the Q5 and Q7 in size.
The accentuated haunches over each wheel arch add muscle to the e-tron's flanks, giving this elegant design a purposeful stance that befits its full-sized SUV status.
Comfortable, well designed, and beautifully crafted, the cabin offers plenty of room in the back, along with a decent sized trunk.
The cabin architecture is a product of the same school of thought we have seen with the new Q3, using stepped horizontal layers to define different functions such as the telematics and ventilation system. This accentuates the apparent width of the car while at the same time creating a 3D effect that usefully diminishes the visual mass of the dashboard.
The Audi Virtual Cockpit instrument pack will be familiar to drivers of current Audi models, with only the bespoke readouts pertaining to the cars electric drive as new features. Meanwhile, the big touch-activated MMI widescreen in the center console will also be a familiar element to owners of the current generation A1, A6, A7, A8 and Q3.
With a rear compartment that offers plenty of leg and headroom for passengers, the e-tron might even become popular with VIP chauffeur companies operating in emissions controlled urban areas like Central London where free entry is granted to zero emissions vehicles.
Relative silence is a big part of any luxury car experience, and here Audi's engineers pushed the boat out to reduce road and wind-induced noise to a whisper to match the inherently quiet electric drivetrain.
"As an electric car has no internal combustion engine noise, every other sound is no longer masked," explained Wolfram Jähn, the engineer responsive for Sound System Development. "That means road and wind noise suddenly become more prominent to occupants. While engine noise mostly changes in pitch and frequency unless you are cruising, wind and tire rotational noises are more constant, and become tiring over distance."
The engineers thus launched a two-pronged attack on road and wind noise, with the axles, motors and wheel housings isolated by sound deadening material to prevent road noise reaching the cabin. The wheel arches benefit from the same sound absorbing lining technology that makes road noise so low in the Q7.
Reducing road and mechanical vibration noise from the front electric motor and axle area is fairly straightforward since it is further away from the cabin and occupant's ears. However, the rear electric motor is positioned in the center of the multi-link rear axle right under the rear of the cabin and so requires more sound deadening as well as elastic mounts to reduce mechanical vibrations. In addition, the sub-frame is decoupled from the bodyshell by bespoke rubber bushes.
The optional double-glazing was fitted to our test car, along with the virtual rear mirror system whose slim aft facing cameras have a fraction of the physical size of conventional mirrors. They help to reduce both aerodynamic drag and wind noise.
The larger 20 and 21-inch wheels available on the e-tron feature tires with a special foam band on the inside opposite the tread area. This technology, which arrived with the Mercedes-Maybach in 2015, and is even used to good effect on the McLaren 570GT, achieves a reduction of between 6-9dB in rolling noise reduction depending on the road surface, and is a valuable contributor to the super quiet e-tron experience.
The e-tron is powered by two asynchronous electric motors, the rear one being more powerful to achieve the desired rear-biased handling balance. The two motors jointly produce 95kWh, which is the equivalent of 402 hp and 490 lb-ft of torque.
To maximize efficiency, the rear motor does the driving under light load conditions, and when the car is 'gliding' on level ground both motors operate free of magnetic drag torque.
However, the e-tron tips the scales at a hefty 5,500 lb (2,500 kg), which takes its toll on outright performance. Thus, the 0-62 mph time of 5.7 seconds and 124 mph top-speed numbers are far from mind-blowing.
Range is a constant issue with electric cars, and the quoted 248-mile range is more realistically around 210 miles in real world conditions with a lot of highway driving where throttle off and brake recuperative charging hardly come into play. In town, range can go as high as 330 miles with recuperation accounting for up to 30% of range.
Because of this and other real-world issues, EV users will have to learn a whole new paradigm based on practical range that varies with the weather and terrain amongst other things.
Whether gasoline or diesel, a combustion engine thrives on cold, dense air, with its fuel consumption only slightly affected by ambient temperature. In contrast, the battery performance, and hence the range of an electric car drops off significantly according to downward changes in ambient temperature.
While the e-tron can eke out 330 miles in urban driving in mild temperatures, equivalent to 111 mpg in a normal car, this plummets dramatically to just 230 miles in cold weather, with a similar level of range degradation seen in highway driving.
Thus, the combined average urban and highway range of 260 miles in mild temperature conditions drops to around 200 miles in cold weather. In addition, terrain, driving style, and heating and air-conditioning usage all affect power consumption, and hence range.
Another (current) downside of EVs is long charging times, but by developing its own fast charging system Audi has scored a leg up over the Jaguar I-Pace, Mercedes EQC400 4matic and Tesla Model X 75D.
If you charge the e-tron from the 11kW AC mains charger provided with the car it will take all of nine hours to top up the battery. But Audi's wall mounted 150kW three-phase DC fast charger can deliver enough juice in half an hour to take you 184 miles. In comparative terms, this is 38%, 21%, and 22% faster respectively than the e-tron's above-mentioned marketplace rivals.
To manage expectations let's make one thing clear from the get-go. The e-tron's full size SUV architecture and sheer weight mean that it is never going to be the last word in performance or handling on a twisty road.
Once you accept this you will find that Audi's first all-electric production car does exactly what it says on its elegant and faultlessly crafted tin, providing an admirably seamless and serene driving experience.
Once you have 'energised' the system by pressing the Start button you select either D or R to go forwards or backwards. In D you can then select the driving mode you want such as Sport.
The standard Adaptive Air Suspension hardware is shared with the Q7, so its effectiveness in providing good ride comfort is a given with Comfort, Normal, and Sport settings on tap. The system has an operating height adjustment range of 3.0 inches (76 mm), and in Off-road mode the ride height is raised by 1.4 inches (35 mm). Meanwhile the four position ESC (Electronic Stabilization Control) has Sport and Offroad settings, and can also be de-activated completely.
The power steering is a variable ratio system that becomes more responsive when you are in Sport mode, and has quite natural feel and feedback. Interestingly, while I found the brake pedal to be just fine in its application travel and force requirement, my German driving partner had great trouble moderating the pedal throughout the drive, and complained about it to the engineer riding in the back.
To illustrate that the e-tron handles well Audi gave us the chance to push it hard through the bends on the mountain road leading to Jebel Hafeet, the highest point in Abu Dhabi. This recently constructed road has two lanes per side and so is plenty wide.
Selecting Sport mode and switching off the ESC we charged the corners on this mountain road. Using both lanes on a racing line, we went deep into some of the longer bends under trail braking to settle the front end and rotate the tail round in an attempt to reduce the inherent stabilising understeer.
As the heavy battery pack is mounted on the floor in the middle of the car, literally the lowest point of the e-tron, it should help handling and make for a lower polar moment of inertia. But you really feel the sheer weight of the vehicle, and despite adopting these late apexes to mitigate understeer the e-tron does not respond with the agility of the much lighter Q3 or Q5. Even a Q7 equipped with the optional rear steering feels much more agile, and is actually significantly lighter.
Despite the more powerful rear electric motor that is supposed to deliver a more driver-oriented handling balance there is simply not enough grunt to more than marginally throttle steer the e-tron. It seems that Audi was being over ambitious in tempting us with this mountain road, where it quickly became apparent that the e-tron is not a sporting SUV.
Until such time as an S or RS version becomes available the e-tron should be considered a town or highway cruiser par excellence. It is in its element in this role, and cossets occupants with a level of comfort and refinement worthy of high praise indeed.
On the sandy off-road course where we drove cars wrapped in the white, black and orange disruptive camouflage seen on the roll-out in Copenhagen earlier in the year, we soon came to appreciate the strengths of the electric drive on loose surfaces.
Unlike with a combustion-engined vehicle where too much power can be applied and is then cut back by the electronic traction control system, the sensors that feature millisecond response will only deploy the right amount of power to the driven wheels. Couple this to the electric motors that deliver peak torque just off 'idle' speed, and you have an ideal powertrain for off-road driving that offers the built-in advantages of high and low ratio gears.
Thus, we made it round the off-road course with ease and no sign of wheelspin or any other traction related histrionics normally encountered while negotiating loose surfaces on gradients.
As the sun began to set we left the desert road and turned onto the highway that would take us back to Abu Dhabi. Cruising serenely once again at the enlightened 90 mph speed limit, the most prominent noise we heard was the constant splattering of local insect life coming to a sticky end on the front windscreen.
Our drive in and around Abu Dhabi, encompassing urban, highway, and off-road driving highlighted in no uncertain terms that the e-tron is a well conceived, well engineered, and comfortable vehicle that performs as advertised.
To verify that the e-tron is no one trick pony we rated the multitude of objective qualities mentioned above during our test drive. On top of that we also scored the cars subjective feelgood factor, which had been an open question before we got behind the wheel.
In this regard, the e-tron felt so well sorted it even managed to convince this sceptic just how well rounded and mature an EV can be even at this relatively early stage of the electro-mobility game.
The only thing we never quite got used to or indeed liked was the rear mirror camera system. While we appreciate that this reduces the cars drag coefficient from 0.28 to 0.27, the fact that the screens lie flush with the door panels means that their images sit at an unnatural near 90-degree angle to the reality.
And with the image also several inches below where you expect to find it on a normal exterior door mirror you tend to take your eyes off the road that little bit longer as you try to first find it and then interpret what you see.
That freaked us out at the beginning of the day, and we were still not entirely comfortable with it at the end. Since it hardly benefits fuel economy this is one cost option we can live without. In any case this camera mirror system is not legal in a number of countries including the US, so the argument may well be a moot point where you live.
The Audi e-tron goes on sale in Europe in early 2019, with North America following in spring 2019, and China and Asia in August 2019. The basic price has been pegged at 79,900 euros in Germany and $74,800 in the US.