It's difficult to overstate the importance of the $74,800 2019 Audi E-Tron. As the company's first full-production modern EV, it'd be easy to look on it as something of an experiment. That, however, would be wrong. In reality, the new E-Tron is the tip of the spear -- a $16 billion dollar spear targeted squarely at the premium electric car market.
The future for Audi is electric and while the A3 E-Tron was something of a first taste, it's this full-fat Audi E-Tron that really points the way forward. What is it? Well, it's an SUV that doesn't stray too far in shape or intent from previous cars like the A6 Allroad or Q7 SUV. However, with its design as a ground-up EV, it sets a new template for things to come. And, after much teasing and testing and even a little showboating, I've finally driven the E-Tron you'll be able to buy this coming year. I'm happy to report that it doesn't disappoint, but as ever it's a little more complicated than that.
If you didn't know any better, you'd never think the E-Tron was substantially different than any other production Audi. It's a modern, sophisticated car with a shape splitting the difference between tall-wagon or low-SUV, not straying far from the template defined by the Q7. However E-Tron a good bit lower and shorter and does without that Q's third row of seating. That pushes it more toward the something like an A6 Allroad, but the E-Tron is bigger than that -- and much, much heavier.
A massive weight of 5,490 pounds (2,490 kilograms) will quickly dispel any notion that this might be a lifted sports wagon. That's more than 500 pounds heavier than a top-shelf Q7, a weight that puts it more or less on par with the Tesla Model X, despite this being considerably smaller.
Where is Audi hiding all that mass? Most of it can be found in the new, 95 kilowatt-hour battery pack that makes up the floor of the car. It's this pack of course that provides the juice for the pair of electric motors, one at the front and one at the rear, enabling a new generation of Quattro all-wheel drive. While that placement and overall layout may be similar to what we've seen in Teslas over the years, there are some substantial differences here.
The first is the nature of that pack. Its cooling system promises better thermal management than other current EVs, keeping those temperature-sensitive battery cells happy in their own window of performance to deliver maximum range while also standing up better to trauma. Crash resistance is also bolstered by a massive frame that surrounds the pack, ostensibly ensuring that E-Tron won't enter a thermal runaway situation in even the biggest of impacts.
That frame, of course, adds a lot of weight, but sit inside and shut the door of the E-Tron and you'll discover a feeling of substance that's lacking in Tesla's SUV. Doors close with a confidence-inspiring "thunk" and every surface of the interior reinforces that impression. This, then, is very much an Audi, and for those who might feel uncomfortable making a major investment into some EV startup or another, that's a factor that cannot be overlooked.
I'll just get this out there early: the E-Tron is not a particularly engaging car to drive. While it never gets flustered by aggressive cornering nor highway runs, it's hardly a corner carver. Yes, it will tackle tight turns comprehensively, but it doesn't really seem to enjoy the job, and if you're inside you won't necessarily either.
The brake pedal feel is likewise a bit wooden, something that again doesn't reward aggression. That said, the car brakes cleanly and offers consistent feel through the entire pedal range. This is an area where many EVs struggle, but with E-Tron there's no perceivable transition you need to step through as you shift from regeneration to engagement of the physical brakes. That said, I wish the car offered more regen without having to step on that second pedal. By using the paddles mounted on the steering wheel you can increase or decrease regen, but even on max, the regen is fairly middling until you step on the brake pedal. No one-pedal driving here, then.
Step on the other pedal, that one over on the right, and you'll be rewarded with a healthy dose of acceleration. E-Tron is quick by standard SUV standards, accelerating from zero to 60 in 5.5 seconds. That's 0.2 second quicker than a Q7 with the 3.0-liter motor, but if I had to hazard a guess, you're probably thinking more about the acceleration figures delivered by a certain other electric SUV.
Yes, a top-shelf Tesla Model X P100D can get to 60 in just 2.9 seconds, but before you start quoting Tesla performance figures in an effort to put Audi's new rig down, keep in mind that E-Tron's starting price of $74,800 makes it $10,000 cheaper than even the Model X 75D, which motors up to 60 in a rather more comparable 4.9 seconds. If you want the performance of the P100D you'll be looking at a starting price of approximately $140,000 -- nearly twice that of the Audi.
All that's not to say that the E-Tron doesn't have its own performance attributes. Audi has repeatedly told me of the efforts made to ensure the cooling on the motors of its new EV SUV far exceeds that of modern Teslas, so while its outright performance may seem somewhat tame, its sustained performance should shine. Sustained speed is an important thing when you're talking about a car designed in Germany, the land of the high-speed, derestricted Autobahn.
Alas, my E-Tron experience was not in Germany but rather Abu Dhabi, a land that not only has speed limits but speed cameras located roughly every 100 meters on highways. Just 1 kilometer-per-hour over the limit is enough to trigger an eye-watering fine.
My testing, then, didn't threaten the E-Tron's 124 miles-per-hour top speed, but at extended sessions near Abu Dhabi's maximum legal speed of 140 kmph (87 mph) on the highway, this SUV proved itself to be serene and stable. All modern EVs are quiet, but this one especially so. That, combined with the cosseting ride of the adaptive air suspension, creates a comfortable tourer par excellence.
But if you're thinking about touring in an EV, one question will surely be at the top of your mind...
I wish I could tell you what the E-Tron will be officially rated for when it comes to the US, but it's still undergoing official testing. We won't have an EPA rating until closer to the car hitting dealerships in the summer of 2019. However, we have enough information to give a ballpark.
In Europe, E-Tron is rated on the WLTP cycle at 400 kilometers, or 248 miles. WLTP is substantially easier than the EPA test, meaning the car almost certainly won't come near that figure in the US. What will it do? Sadly there's not a lot to compare it to, but in Europe, the Jaguar I-Pace is rated at 292 miles on WLTP. In the US EPA cycle, it carries a 234 mile rating. That's a whopping 20 percent drop.
If I had to make an educated guess, and again that's all this is, I'd say that E-Tron will probably come to the States with an EPA rating bang on 200 miles. Disappointing? Well, that's certainly a lot lower than the 237 miles a 75 kWh Model X can achieve, but remember that rig costs nearly $10,000 more. That 234 mile Jaguar I-Pace, meanwhile, starts at $69,500.
Audi says it has been more conservative in tuning how the car uses its assets, treating its cells more conservatively to preserve the overall life of the battery pack. In exchange, E-Tron buyers will receive an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty. That's twice the duration and distance provided by Tesla. And then there's the high-speed Electrify America network that's growing by leaps and bounds, chargers that will give the E-Tron an 80 percent charge in about a half-hour.
In my experience, 200 miles is the point where you start to forget about range and start to just enjoy the car. It should be plenty enough to quench range anxiety for all but the most extreme of commuters, but with the current state of the US charging network, E-Tron road-trippers will still need to do some pretty extensive research before heading out.
While the new E-Tron isn't Audi's most tech-riddled car on the road, that crown is still reserved for the new A8 and all its multi-sensory glory, this new EV is no slouch. Inside the car it's rolling with Audi's latest generation of MMI, ditching the traditional rotary controller in exchange for a dual-touchscreen layout. The bottom screen is primarily used for HVAC duties, tapping and swiping to set your perfect temperature and toggle the seat heaters, while the upper screen primarily handles navigation and the rest of the infotainment duties.
I confess I miss the speed, simplicity and tactility of the rotary controller, but this new MMI is still very good to use, among the most powerful yet responsive systems in a modern car. It's miles and miles ahead of the stutter-step system found in the Jaguar I-Pace and far more comprehensive than what Tesla's still putting in the Model X, and not just because it supports both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
But there's a third screen worth mentioning, and that's the gauge cluster. The latest rendition of Audi's vaunted virtual cockpit is here, a big, bright and dazzling interface with enough resolution to obviate the need to display the Google Maps-enhanced navigation data in the central MMI screen, leaving that free for media browsing or whatever else you like. If that isn't enough, there's a head-up display, too.
The tech of this car goes far deeper, though, and that integrated nav system has been augmented to automatically suggest chargers along the way, even signaling which are in-use. E-Tron includes Audi's comprehensive suite of active safety systems, including adaptive cruise control that will bring the car to a complete stop and then automatically resume when you're stuck in traffic, as indeed we spent a fair bit of time in Abu Dhabi.
Audi wanted at least one new trick for E-Tron, and it came in the side-view mirrors of all places. The humble mirror hasn't really changed much since the dawn of time, but with this car Audi wanted to really whittle back the car's aerodynamic drag. By replacing the outboard mirrors with cameras, E-Tron gains an estimated 1.5 miles of range. Instead of mirrors you get a set of angular displays, one inset into each door just a little below where you'd typically look to gaze into a typical mirror.
But, before you get too excited about all this, I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that the US versions of E-Tron won't receive these mirrors. They don't satisfy the arcane laws hand-written in parchment and stored in a dusty, cobwebed NHTSA chamber somewhere.
So what's the good news? Actually, that's also the good news, because while they're immensely cool in theory, in practice these digital mirrors are a definite step backward from a humble piece of glass or two.
First, there's the position, which is about 6 inches lower than a standard mirror. This is disconcerting at first, but even when you get used to looking lower it poses a problem. When you turn your head to check your blind spot you're naturally looking out the window, so a traditional mirror is directly in your line of sight. These aren't, meaning you have to look down and then back.
The bigger problem, though, is that the field of view is quite narrow, leaving me with a sort of claustrophobic feel. This is quite similar to the first generation digital rear-view mirrors General Motors rolled out a few years ago. In the latest version of that tech, as found on the new GMC Sierra, the field of view is much wider. I hated the old version but actually like the new one. A similar adjustment by Audi would be welcome here.
Finally, there's a simple issue of display clarity. Even on their brightest setting, the triangular panels are noticeably dimmer than the car's other interior displays, a problem made worse with polarized sunglasses. The resolution also feels adequate compared to a traditional mirror. At one point, my co-driver Jim Resnick pointed out a Camaro headed in the opposite direction (a novelty in this part of the world). I'd missed it, so looked in the wing mirror to catch it. All I could make out was a white, car-shaped object. Were I looking in a traditional mirror I'm confident I'd have had no problem telling whether it was an SS or a base V6.
That's a pretty sizable suite of negatives, but there are a few positives beyond just the aero advantage. These mirrors are quick and easy to adjust, just drag your finger around until the camera's pointed in the right direction. And, once set, they'll never need to move again, even if you physically move yourself in the car. This is useful if you, like me, start to slouch after a few hours worth of droning down the highway.
The 2019 Audi E-Tron starts at $74,800 for the Premium Plus trim, which may be the base model but is hardly lacking in goodies, including niceties like a B&O sound system, heated and cooled 12-way seats and Audi's active-matrix headlights. The full suite of driver assists adds $2,850 and our readers from the north will want the $900 cold weather package. $81,800 moves you up to the Prestige trim, which includes all the ADAS toys plus the head-up display, massaging seats and other treats like an ionizing air filter and power-closing doors.
Those prices are before the $7,500 federal rebate and any other local incentives. Get 'em while they last...
So, it's not a cheap SUV, but it is in the same ballpark as I-Pace and considerably more affordable than the cheapest Model X. Worth it? We'll need more time in the saddle to know for sure, but the combination of practicality and comfort with capability make E-Tron a compelling option for those looking to enter this new era of premium electric cars. Sure, it may not ringer when it comes to outright performance when compared to the Tesla, but for anyone cross-shopping there, those four rings on the E-Tron's nose might just be the biggest selling point of all.
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