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Audi E-Tron S Sportback prototype first drive review: How much better is the S?

The sportier S-badged electric SUVs will have improved performance and control thanks to a new torque vectoring, three-motor E-Quattro system.

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The electric slide.

Audi

Whether you're talking A4 to S4, A7 to S7 or Q7 to SQ7, Audi's S models improve on their respective templates with more aggressive styling and improved performance. The automaker's E-Tron battery electric SUV is now the newest member of the S club with last Friday's announcement of the E-Tron S and E-Tron S Sportback.

The new performance variants are also the first models to feature a new torque-vectoring, three-motor version of Audi's E-Quattro all-wheel-drive system, a change that improves power and handling in one fell swoop. Eager to demonstrate its next electric evolution, Audi turned me loose in a prototype E-Tron S Sportback at its handling course in Neuburg, Germany to find out if three motors are better than two.

E-Quattro remixed

Let's start with a refresher. The standard 2020 E-Tron and E-Tron Sportback use a 184-horsepower, 228-pound-foot electric motor at the front axle and a 224-hp, 262-lb-ft unit at the rear. Together, they make up E-Quattro -- a fully electric version of Audi's trademark all-wheel-drive system -- and combine for a peak 355 hp (or 402 hp for short, eight-second bursts of speed). The E-Tron S Sportback remixes that formula.

Audi started by reversing the motor's placement. The larger rear motor moves to the front axle where it splits 201 hp and 262 lb-ft between the front wheels. The smaller front motor moves to the rear axle before multiplying by two. You'll now find a pair of 177-hp and 228-lb-ft electric motors out back bringing 456 lb-ft of torque to the rear axle party. 

That's a total of three motors and a claimed system output of about 429 hp and 596 lb-ft, or 496 hp and 718 lb-ft of torque during the aforementioned eight-second boost periods (activated by pushing the accelerator past a kickdown point). That's an extra 94 hp and 228 lb-ft for maximum boost.

Give it the beans and the electric S model will sprint to 62 mph in a nearly silent 4.5 seconds -- the non-S does this in 6.6 seconds -- before reaching an electronically limited top speed of 130.5 mph.

Twin motor with electrical torque vectoring

The twin three-phase, asynchronous electric motors are mechanically independent -- mated back-to-back and inline with the axle -- with their own single-speed gearbox and power control unit. (They do, however, share a rather thorough cooling system.) Of course, more motors means more power, but it also allows the E-Tron S Sportback to pull off some extremely flexible torque-vectoring tricks.

For example, when cornering, the E-Tron S can create more torque with the outside rear wheel to help yaw the crossover around a bend, but because each motor has its own dedicated gearbox, that torque differential benefits from gear and final drive multiplication and that means that the difference in driving torque between the inside and outside rear wheels can be a great as 1,549 lb-ft. That potential ability to scoot the EV's boot mid-corner means better control when you need it, more dramatic rotation when you want to get spirited with it and faster, more natural assistance from the E-Tron's myriad stability computers.

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Pairing independent, twin electric motors on the rear axle not only improves power, but grants more control over how that power is used.

Audi

Without differentials or clutch packs to shuffle around, the electric torque vectoring is up to four times faster than a mechanical system, which comes into play when controlling traction. If one rear wheel suddenly encounters low traction -- ice or sand, for example -- torque can be immediately shut off at that contact patch while compensation kicks in at the other end of the axle with the same instant response.

With more motors comes more potential for regenerative braking. The E-Tron S' brake-by-wire system is able to recapture up to 270 kilowatts of power with a full regen stop from 62 mph. That's more than the non-S E-Tron, which is said to recuperate about 220 kW with a perfect stop, or even Audi's Formula E race car (around 250 kW). The system can individually affect regenerative braking across the rear axle -- applying up to 0.3 Gs of regenerative-braking force per wheel -- allowing what Audi calls "negative torque vectoring" during off-throttle cornering. 

Most cars can only pull this trick off with their friction brakes. In fact, on its front axle -- where there's only one electric motor -- the E-Tron S does just that, using wheel-selective torque control or lateral brake biasing to aid in cornering stability to compliment the true torque vectoring at the rear.

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Audi should seriously consider offering the E-Tron S in this matte and fluorescent orange color scheme.

Audi

Difficult to upset, easy to drive 

Along with the powertrain upgrades, the E-Tron S Sportback features wider 285-millimeter tires mounted on standard 20-inch wheels, with bigger rollers (up to 22-inch wheels) available as options. The standard adaptive air suspension is firmer than the base E-Tron in its Dynamic mode and features firmer bushings. The steering has been retuned for better feel and feedback, and the front friction brakes are larger, now sporting 15.7-inch discs. Helping to the auto-leveling suspension keep the SUV flat around bends are larger stabilizer bars on both axles. Look carefully and you may notice that the wheel arches are also slightly flared, enhancing the stance with an additional 0.9 inches of width.

Off the line, the additional power was immediately apparent. The standard E-Tron weighs over 5,600 pounds and -- with an extra motor onboard -- the S must be a bit heftier, but you wouldn't know it. With gobs more torque on tap, the electric SUV felt even lighter on its toes, disguising its mass with aplomb.

Of course, I expected the laws of physics to reassert themselves once it was time to change directions, and they somewhat did, but again I was pleasantly surprised by how stable the E-Tron S felt as I gained confidence and speed with each lap of Audi's handling course. Prodding at the contact patches with varying and sometimes awkward lines through corners, and increasingly aggressive throttle and brake inputs, I found the handling precise with a natural touch right up to the limit and a point-and-shoot feel that made the SUV difficult to upset but easy to drive quickly.

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We don't yet know how these performance upgrades will hurt the E-Tron's range and efficiency.

Audi

More details to come

Aside from more aggressive exterior styling, S badges and embossing around the interior, the rest of the E-Tron S is pretty much the same as the 2020 E-Tron Sportback that debuted ahead of the LA Auto Show last year.

It's packing the same 95-kilowatt-hour battery pack with the same increase to 86.4 kWh (91%) of available capacity for use, and the same newfound ability to totally decouple the front axle during cruising for increased efficiency. And it's got the same 150-kW fast charging that gets it to an 80% charge in about 30 minutes.

I'm still waiting, however, to learn how the performance upgrades and additional weight will affect the E-Eron's 204-ish miles of cruising range. I expect there will be some degradation, but expect to get a range estimate and North American arrival window around the Geneva Motor Show next month, with final WLTP and EPA ratings coming later this year.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

Originally published Feb. 21.