Luxury automaker Audi will introduce its very first pure-electric vehicle (EV) this spring, beating competitors BMW and Mercedes-Benz to a segment recently expanded by the Jaguar I-Pace and dominated by the Tesla Model X.
But the bigger significance is not just that the new 2019 Audi E-tron won’t have a conventional engine that requires filling it up with gasoline or diesel fuel. Rather, the German carmaker hopes the electric SUV will show how easily an EV fits into your everyday life, combining useful driving range on one full charge of the vehicle’s battery, plus the practicality of an all-wheel-drive SUV.
And, of course, the special, opulent feeling and features that come from a luxury brand. Can’t forget about that.
Don’t Judge This Book by its Cover
To test the new E-tron SUV, Audi invited me to the far-off desert of Abu Dhabi to drive it both on- and off-road, in traffic, and over a mountain range.
On the outside, the E-tron looks very much akin to other Audi SUVs like the Q7 and Q5. By the same token, it is 5 inches shorter than Tesla’s Model X and about 9 inches longer than Jaguar’s I-Pace. The E-tron also pairs up with the upcoming Mercedes-Benz EQC electric SUV, which arrives for the 2020 model year.
On the inside, the E-tron gets the latest interior design cues and updates from the recently introduced Audi A6 and A8 sedans. Like most SUVs, the seating position is rather high, giving a great view forward and around. From the rear seat, things are a bit more secluded, which is normal for most vehicles.
Room for Five Adults, Plus a Ton of Tech
If its great gee-whiz features for the driver that you seek, the E-tron delivers, including Audi’s widescreen virtual instrumentation, which shows a fast-responding navigation screen with Google maps embedded right in the instrument cluster. Audi’s latest infotainment system is next-level, too, and operates much like a touchscreen smartphone.
Compared to the Tesla Model X, the E-tron’s interior is far and away a better design. Immediately, I found the Audi to be welcoming and familiar. This is not a curiosity car that wears its electric nature on its sleeve.
From a driving perspective, the E-tron’s controls are all entirely conventional, though the instruments ahead of the driver can show the car’s range and range-related information down to an outright nerdy level of specificity.
Twin Electric Motors Supply Speedy Acceleration
The E-tron uses two electric motors at either end of the vehicle to deliver a maximum of 402 horsepower and 490 lb.-ft. of torque, rocketing you to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds in Boost mode. Because it’s electric and makes only a fraction of the sound of a conventional internal combustion car, the sheer absence of noise heightens the sensation of acceleration.
The E-tron’s response to your throttle foot starts off a bit timid, which is certainly reasonable for a car that plays on our sensitivity to alternative power. As an EV, however, all of the torque from both motors is available more or less instantly with a fully prodded right foot.
On the road, the E-tron performs like a good sports sedan, but one with a giant damp towel over its mouth because of its silence. Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive is standard, providing excellent traction in all weather and driving conditions.
Looks Great, Less Filling: Fast Charging in 30 Minutes
Though some other pure electrics can offer slightly better driving range, the Audi E-tron’s range will still prove usable, expected to measure between 211 and 223 miles on one full charge. (Official numbers were not yet available as this review was published).
Audi claims the new E-tron will be the first car capable of Level 3 fast-charging on DC power at 150 kW. This means that from a near-zero battery charge to an 80%-charge will take just a half-hour, according to Audi officials. Certain electric vehicle charging stations around the country have this capability, with more on the way.
Closer to home, though, Amazon Home Services can install a Level 2 (240-volt) charger. Audi has also included 1,000 kWh of free public charging access with the purchase of each E-tron, via Electrify America’s network of 950 public charging stations (by the end of 2019).
Navigating Trails Less Traveled
Though no one will mistake the E-tron for a massive monster truck, it can also venture confidently off-road, as I learned in the desert of the United Arab Emirates. Rocky terrain and mild off-roading are no problem as the E-tron can raise its body 2 inches from normal ride height in dedicated off-road settings.
The E-tron also uses an energy recovery system like that found in a hybrid car, but it differs slightly. When you’re driving and apply very light braking, the E-tron’s brakes are not actually engaged. That light braking effect is actually caused by the electric motors creating resistance and therefore generating charging power back to the battery. This is called energy recuperation.
Being a techie type myself, it seems that the least compelling part of the Audi E-tron equation is the car’s prodigious weight. It tips the scales at 5,490 pounds, which is knocking on full-size pickup truck poundage.
That’s due largely to the 1,500-pound battery pack tucked under the passenger cabin. But the battery has its own cooling circuit and crash-resistance characteristics that secure any kind of battery leakage in a hard impact so I can forgive the weight since it has its very own safety strategy.
Enough Cargo Room for Road Tripping
Cargo capacity is slightly down compared to some other SUVs, like Audi’s own Q5. Where the Q5 offers a max of 60 cu.-ft., the E-tron provides 57, largely because the floor of the cargo area is higher due to the space needed for various electric drive components. However, the E-tron’s cargo floor space measures longer from the tailgate opening to either of the rear seatbacks and to the front seatbacks with the rear seats folded.
Like all of Audi’s latest conventional models, the E-tron comes with a raft of active safety equipment, from detection of vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists passing in front and by the rear of the car in parking lots, to lane-departure warning. Additional active safety systems are standard on the higher Prestige trim such as adaptive cruise control, which you can set to follow highway traffic at a specific distance.
Audi will offer the E-tron in Premium Plus trim for $75,795, and a top Prestige trim level with more standard equipment for $82,795. Consider this, though: if you factor in the $7,500 federal tax credit from the government for electric cars, plus other state-based incentives, the E-tron doesn’t figure to cost much more than Audi’s larger gasoline SUVs like the Q7 and Q8.
It’s remarkable how little the new E-tron makes of its own unique electric self. It certainly does not scream: “I’m electric!” It wears a modest “E-tron” badge here and there, has two small doors on either side that mimic fuel cap doors for charging, and a wheel design not seen on other Audis. That’s it. You’d otherwise mistake it for just another Audi SUV.
And that’s the entire point.