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It's a sorry state of the world when every new entry into the premium EV segment is inevitably and near-exclusively compared with models from a single manufacturer. And you know which manufacturer I'm referring to. Tesla created that segment and deserves a lot of credit for doing so, but now that there are some legitimate emissions-free options out there, it's time to stop looking for "Tesla killers" and start appreciating each new model in its own right.
In that spirit, today I'd like to celebrate the $74,800 Audi E-Tron, a car I've been appreciating for nearly two months now. Audi's first production electric car takes a subtly different but distinctive path to all-electric glory. There's nothing ludicrous about this EV SUV and, frankly, I couldn't care less what its Nurburgring lap time is. What I do know is that this is among the most comfortable, most soothing cars I've ever had the privilege of driving, and that makes it something special.
I love EVs for the way they effortlessly zip away from traffic lights. Put an electric motor into even basic rides like the Kia Soul and you get a machine far more fun to drive than before. The Audi E-Tron has that spirit as well. With 402 horsepower and a 0-to-60-mph time of 5.5 seconds, the E-Tron is properly quick for a big (193 inches long), heavy (over 5,800 pounds) rig.
Still, it's no sports car. The Audi's adaptive air suspension hunkers down when put into Dynamic mode, and the sharper responses are indeed noticeable, but it's not a tool for attacking the corners. Push the E-Tron hard and you quickly realize you're doing it wrong. A more relaxed pace is advised.
Instead, dial the car into Comfort mode and take advantage of its supple suspension tuning. You'll still have all the torque and throttle response you'll ever need, but jetting away from every light is just going to kill your range. Take it easy, enjoy the plush, massaging seats and the cocoonlike cockpit, and you'll start to see what this car is all about.
No, you can't really buy an EV these days without studying its effective range, but in my book the Audi E-Tron's 204-mile EPA rating just barely crosses the threshold where most drivers won't have to worry about range anxiety. In my time with the car I didn't feel the need to obsessively charge it every night. In fact, your average American commuter would only need to charge it once a week.
Impressively, that range holds steady even under highway use. I've driven many an EV over the years and I tend to subtract 30% from the rated range when I know I have a long high-speed stretch ahead of me -- just to be safe. On those stretches the E-Tron was still able to manage over 180 miles.
The efficiency comes down to an awful lot of factors, including battery thermal management, chemistry and just how aggressively the car uses its pack. One thing the E-Tron doesn't rely on is regeneration. At least, not like other EVs do. Lift off the gas in a Nissan Leaf and, if you have the e-pedal mode enabled, it quickly brings itself to a complete stop, converting momentum into charge. By default, the E-Tron just coasts.
Using the shift paddles on the wheel you can request more regen, up to three taps' worth, but even at its maximum setting the E-Tron is still quite happy to coast. There is a lot more regen on offer, but to get to it you'll need to move your foot over to the brake pedal and start pressing. Not a huge inconvenience, but for anyone used to one-pedal driving it's an annoyance. It also results in a very mushy, very long brake pedal that, after more than 3,000 miles of testing, I still struggle to apply cleanly.
The worst part? Whenever you engage the E-Tron's cruise control it forgets your regen setting, toggling it back to the default coast. That's so annoying I'd go so far as to call it a bug, not a feature.
When you do run out of range it's time to charge, and the E-Tron can hoover up the juice at a rate of up to 150 kilowatts, should you find yourself a suitable DC charger. Thanks to the rapid expansion of Electrify America, that's getting easier to do. In optimal conditions, you can add about 50 miles to a near-empty pack in just 10 minutes. An 80% charge, or about 160 miles, should take about a half hour.
How much will that cost? Rates vary, but I brought a near-empty E-Tron to my local EA charger, hooked it up to the fastest plug and let it go to full. My charge was a whopping $58.95. Again, that's for about 200 miles of range. For comparison's sake, to get that much range in a 20-mpg SUV you'd need 10 gallons of gas, for an average price right now of just over $30 using premium fuel. Yes, half the cost.
Thankfully, most won't be using Electrify America chargers on a daily basis. An overnight charge on a level-two charger at home is a far more frugal $12 based on average home utility rates.
And for now, at least, you'd be wise to charge at home. I had an... unfortunate incident at an Electrify America station that left me stranded there for 2 hours when the car refused to release the cable and the under-hood emergency release also failed. Audi has promised a software fix is coming, but it's worth noting that the E-Tron in general will lock onto any cable you plug into it when you lock the doors. This is problematic if you ever need to share a charger.
As an EV, the E-Tron has to be quiet, and indeed it is. Other than an occasionally creaky hinge on the armrest of the car I tested, there's little to distract from the serenity of the experience in the E-Tron. The massaging seats, while not as comprehensive as those on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or as aggressive as those on the BMW 7 Series, are very appreciated, while the heating and cooling functionality ensures that the car's battery pack isn't the only onboard component kept within its optimal thermal range.
The 705-watt, 16-speaker B&O sound system handles everything from Bach to The Beatles with aplomb, there are two separate signature scents to select from and the interior lighting can tinted to any hue you like -- assuming you can remember where to find the option buried in the touch interface.
That interface is Audi's latest: MMI Touch Response. Ditching the rotary controller, the system has now spread across two touchscreens. The lower is primarily where you'll control the climate functions, while the upper handles the rest of the infotainment duties including media playback, vehicle settings and navigation, still among the most comprehensive on the road thanks to the tight Google Maps integration. If all that isn't enough, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are just a USB cable away.
Behind the wheel rests yet another display, Audi's Virtual Cockpit, one of the first systems to really embrace the power of a reconfigurable gauge cluster and still among the best. Here you can double up on navigation if you like or get more information about your current driving habits and consumption. Annoyingly, though, you can't get a specific percentage of battery charge remaining within Virtual Cockpit. To find that you need to dig a few submenus deep over on the main MMI interface.
Accommodations in back aren't quite so posh but they're still comfortable, with plenty of room and discreetly placed climate controls. The glass roof means sitting back here is an open, airy experience. My 6-foot, short-legged frame wasn't lacking for headroom.
On the safety side, the E-Tron comes with a comprehensive suite of systems that will keep you safe and also handle some of the more menial aspects of driving. The active cruise system does a good job of reading traffic far enough down the road to ensure reasonably gentle stops and, once halted, will resume automatically if traffic starts flowing again within a few seconds. This is very much a hands-on system, but it's a good one and, thanks to the capacitive touch steering wheel, you needn't worry about jiggling the thing every 30 seconds or so to keep the warnings away. You will, however, have to live without steering-wheel heating, which is a big missing piece for an EV.
If you're expecting a lengthy comparison of features versus the Tesla Model S and Model X I'm going to have to disappoint you, as I genuinely struggle to compare the E-Tron with those cars in any meaningful way beyond range. And, frankly, if range is your top priority, buy the Tesla and don't look back. It's a great car and you'll probably love it.
However, if you prioritize things like interior comfort and ride quality, or more nuanced aspects like dealership support and service availability, then we're going to have to look to other, gasoline-powered members of the premium segment.
Within the Audi family, the E-Tron slots in between the Q5 and Q7 SUVs from a purely dimensional standpoint, but it should come as no surprise that it's substantially more expensive than even the Q7, which starts at $53,550 in Premium trim. However, in terms of power and functionality, it's much closer to the Q7 Prestige trim, which starts at $67,850.
On the BMW side, the BMW X5 is more of a proper, upright SUV than the more laid-back-style E-Tron. Plus, BMW doesn't offer an electrified version of the X5 here yet. BMW doesn't sell a 5 Series wagon here in the US, either, but if it did that'd be something to compare. That said, the plug-in 530e xDrive sedan certainly provides much of the premium look and feel plus a taste of electrification for a more affordable $56,200 price. But, the interior lacks many of the E-Tron's niceties, while the 20 miles of electric range will rule it out for anyone who wants to go truly emissions-free.
Finally, I should of course mention the Jaguar I-Pace. That's also a premium, electric, five-passenger SUV, but the Jag is far more sprightly in its execution. That encouragement to go quickly means we've struggled to come close to its 234-mile EPA rated range, often barely getting over the E-Tron's rating. The styling on the Jaguar is certainly more progressive, but we don't mind the understated look of the E-Tron, and you won't find the same level of refinement and creature comforts in the I-Pace. That said, with its starting price of $69,500, it's an alternative worth considering.
The current base configuration for the Audi E-Tron is the $74,800 Premium Plus Quattro level, which doesn't include a $995 destination charge. For that you get a very well-equipped car, including all the MMI goodies, a top-view and 3D camera system, that B&O sound system and all the active safety systems.
An extra $4,300 brings you up to the Prestige Quattro trim, which adds those massaging seats, soft-closing doors, the in-cabin ionizer and a heads-up display. Formerly this package threw in the $2,850 driver assistance package, but since Audi is now including that even on the base E-Tron, it's Premium Plus for me.
$595 is the tax to get any color other than black, while another $900 adds the cold weather package. This includes heated wipers and nozzles, but more importantly includes a higher-capacity heater to help with preconditioning, something that could potentially have range benefits for those of you living somewhere cold. I'd be ticking that box.
Configured this way, at $77,290 including destination, this is not a cheap car. But it offers luxury appointments on par with similarly priced premium machines, plus the added benefits of that smooth, quiet, maintenance-free EV lifestyle.
As you can probably tell, I'm quite fond of the E-Tron. I'm generally the sort of driver who attacks a roundabout and I'll gladly take a detour from the quickest route if it means adding some twists and turns to the drive.
In the E-Tron, those uncouth urges never troubled my commute. After a long, stressful day of travel I genuinely looked forward to slipping behind the wheel of my warm, preconditioned EV and wafting my way home. This thing should come with an integrated blood pressure monitor so that owners can visualize the health benefits.
I appreciate that this is not what everyone desires in a car. Likewise, many folks will not consider an EV without a lot more range. However, for anyone whose range needs are limited and who desires less adrenaline and more relaxation, this is a wonderful option and one hell of a first EV from Audi.