As with all new technologies there are pioneers and early adopters. Tesla not only pioneered a viable mass production electric car with good real world performance, but also a novel way of selling their cars directly to customers that disrupted the traditional manufacturer-distributor-dealer chain in the process.
However, despite its sales success around the globe Tesla has been haemorrhaging money, and its production and quality control processes could be better. That notwithstanding there is no disputing the fact that for now at least Elon Musk’s company has a superior battery technology that gives its car a longer range than any would be rival.
Standing back from the fray for a moment, there is no doubt that the whole electric car debate is politically driven, as well as being vastly over simplified by politicians and the mass media alike.
The race to the bottom in CO2 and zero emissions terms will come at a cost, and as we have said before you really must look at cradle to grave emissions and the fact that we do not have the spare electricity generating capacity to charge hundreds of thousands of electric cars. Even if we did, when that electricity is not generated by hydro-electric, solar or wind sources, the burning of coal, gas and oil simply moves the problem from one place to another.
Then there is the question of the rare elements that go into Lithium-Ion batteries and the poisonous substances that have to be safety disposed of at the end of their useful life. There is no easy solution.
The irony was not lost on us when we journeyed to Abu Dhabi, the most oil rich state in the United Arab Emirates, to test the Audi e-tron on urban and suburban roads, highways, a twisty mountain road, and even a desert off-road course.
This also gave us the chance to see the e-tron in a real world environment. Unlike many Hybrid and electric cars that go out of their way to look different the e-tron perfectly blends in with existing vehicles, its modern, elegant lines clearly identifying it as a current generation Audi SUV.
While the e-tron comes with 19-inch wheels standard, our test cars all wore the optional 21-inch diameter wheels, shod with 265/45ZR21 Goodyear Eagle tyres that visually shrink the car. In reality, with an overall length of 4,901mm on a 2,928mm 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 boot. The cabin architecture is a product of the same school of thought we have seen with the new Q3, and uses 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 centre console will be a familiar element to owners of the latest Audi models.
The only thing we never quite got used to or indeed liked was the rear mirror camera system whose reverse image sits at almost 90 degrees to the reality and below where you expect to find it on a normal exterior door mirror. Said to reduce the drag coefficient form 0.28 to 0.27 this camera mirror system is not legal in a number of countries, so the argument may well be a moot point where you live.
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 an absolute minimum to match the whisper 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 tyre rotational noise are more constant, and so become tiring over distance.”
The engineers thus launched a two-pronged attack on road and wind noise, with both axles and motors receiving a blanket of sound deadening material to prevent road noise reaching the cabin.
This is a fairly straightforward process with the front axle since it is further away from the cabin and occupant’s ears. However, the rear electric motor transmission unit is positioned in the centre 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 double-glazing option was fitted to all 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. This helps to reduce both aerodynamic drag and wind noise.
The larger (20 and 21-inch) wheels available on the e-tron feature tyres with a special foam band on the inside. This technology arrived with the Mercedes-Maybach in 2015, and is even used to good effect on the McLaren 570GT. Achieving a reduction of between 6-9dB in rolling noise reduction depending on the road surface, this is a critical component for 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 402hp and 664 Nm of torque.
To maximise efficiency the rear motor does the driving under light load conditions, and when the car is ‘gliding’ on level ground the motors operate free of magnetic drag torque.
However, the e-tron tips the scales at a hefty 2,500kg, which takes its toll outright performance. Thus the 5.7 seconds 0-100km/h time and 200km/h top speed are far from mind blowing.
Range is a constant issue with electric cars, and the quoted 400km range is more realistically around 320km in real world conditions with a lot of highway driving where throttle off and brake recuperative charging hardly come into play. In town where they do range can go as high as 530km with recuperation accounting for up to 30% of range.
Because of this and other real world use 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 petrol or diesel, a combustion engine thrives on cold, dense air, and its fuel consumption is only slightly affected by ambient temperature. In parenthesis the power delivery and range of an electric car can drop off significantly according to downward changes in ambient temperature.
While the e-tron can eke out 530km in urban driving in mild temperatures, this plummets dramatically in cold weather, with a similar level of range degradation seen in highway driving.
Thus, the combined average urban and highway range of 418km miles in mild temperature conditions drops to around 320km in cold weather. In addition, terrain, driving style, and heating and air-conditioning usage all affect power consumption, and hence range.
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 290km. 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 size, weight, and SUV height 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 76mm, and in Off-road mode the ride height is raised by 35mm. 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 a bit more responsive when you are in Sport mode, and has quite natural feel and feedback. Interestingly, while I found the brake pedal just fine in application and use, 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 reducing the ESC we charged the corners on mountain road, using both lanes on a racing line, and going deep into some of the bends on trail braking to settle the front axle and rotate the tail into the turn 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.
That said you really feel the sheer weight of the vehicle, and despite adopting 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 also 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 throttle steer the e-tron much.
We think 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 Audi offer an S or RS version, the e-tron should be considered a comfortable town and highway cruiser par excellence. Here it is in its element and cossets occupants with a level of refinement and comfort 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.
It was very apparent that unlike with a combustion-engine 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 low and high ratio gears.
Thus, we made it round the off-road course with ease and no sign of wheelspin or any other traction 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 140km/h rural highway 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 feel good 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.