Abu Dhabi, the UAE – We have plenty of time to contemplate Audi’s first all-electric series production SUV, the e-tron, amidst the shifting sand dunes and under the relentless mid-afternoon sun... and I’m largely to blame for it.
At the gated entrance to this leg of the test-drive, we’d been told to avoid a driver change, keep moving, and if we really had to stop, to avoid the 20 per cent soft sand that made up the path.
Just five minutes prior to getting stuck in the muck, I was having a ball of a time flicking the e-tron left and right down the largely straight but satisfyingly slippy gravel trail, and thinking I should be sharing the fun with my co-driver, just so he wouldn’t feel he had gotten the short-end of the stick.
I instinctively pull over and stop on what I imagine to be the solid 80 per cent of the path, open the door, and promptly sink past the shins into soft sand...
(Rescue vehicle is well-equipped, in true German fashion!)
Naturally, we didn’t take-down the contact number of the sagely chap at the entrance, some nine kilometres away and could only hope our ‘handler’ managed to get hold of someone to retrieve us before darkness fell, especially since a slow, lazy drift of vultures seemed to have materialised less than a klick away from our location.
Right about now, you’re probably wondering if Abu Dhabi is the best place to launch an all-electric car, because the United Arab Emirates that it is part of accounts for a large percentage of global oil production.
However, Abu Dhabi takes sustainability and alternative energy seriously, and the planned city project of Masdar (where we take over the test-cars) is fully supported by sustainable/renewable energy sources, and demonstrates Abu Dhabi’s commitment to Cleantech.
If the oil-rich state is keeping its eye on a sustainable future, perhaps everybody else should be doing so too.
There's a brave new world of electric vehicles beyond Tesla, and it's high time the established car brands started getting in on the game, although it is arguable Tesla’s offerings disrupted things enough to precipitate return fire from the big brands.
In this case, Audi's 'e-tron' label doesn't only refer to the brand's fully-electric range, but also specifically to its all-electric SUV, which will soon be joined by an e-tron GT and e-tron Sportback.
Audi probably hopes for the ‘e-tron’ moniker to mirror the ubiquity of its legendary ‘quattro’ tag, which can trace its lineage back to the original Audi Quattro Turbo Coupe, but in case you didn't notice, the ‘e-tron’ model names at present reflect body-styles.
Of course, back in the 1980s when the racing homologation Quattro ruled roads and rally stages, product life-cycles were considerably longer than today, and there were far fewer niche-within-niche variants to contend with, which might see a future rationalisation of the ‘e-tron’ nomenclature as more BEV models start coming online from Audi.
(Oooh yes, we love ze'Quattro... click HERE to read about our time in the original Sport Quattro during the Audi Alpen Tour a few years ago)
In some ways, the all-electric all-wheel drivetrain of the e-tron can be regarded as the next evolution of ‘quattro’, and it can regulate the perfect distribution of drive torque between the front and rear axles.
(Click HERE to read about Singapore's road-registered Ur-quattro... in the company of a modern 5cyl 'descendant')
Forget the futuristic, avantgarde designs that you might expect from BMW’s cool and controversial ‘i’ think-tank, because the ‘e-tron’ can pass-off for any other upper-tier SUV in Audi’s current line-up.
We’ve realised there are two types of electric vehicle enthusiasts: the fashion-forward, pioneering, ahead-of-the-curve sort that isn't afraid of outré aesthetics to go with a futuristic powertrain, and the other variety, which jumps on the bandwagon and wants to dabble, even though their roots could still be deeply entrenched in ICE vehicles.
The latter needs easing into EV ownership, because in many cases, the alternative powertrain is about all the shock they can cope with! After all, if you think about it, EVs are not bound by the same design restrictions as conventional ICE vehicles, so there's no real reason for them to take a familiar form, except to create a palatable package with which to appeal to the masses, and this is exactly where we are with the e-tron SUV.
For the moment, you'll need to put thoughts of cheap e-mobility out of your mind because initial membership to the EV Club isn't easy on the wallet vis-a-vis the ICE counterparts, even though you could be looking at potentially lower running costs in the long run. At time of writing, Audi tells us the e-tron 'SUV' will be in the S$400k vicinity.
Naturally it wears the e-tron specific design cues, as well as the aesthetics that distinguish it as an Audi SUV with pride, such as the distinctive octagonal ‘Singleframe’ grille.
(Note driver's side side display is below the natural line of sight – not the most intuitive when driving or executing fast, split-second manoeuvres, because you'll need to look left and downwards)
Keener-eyed readers would have picked out the appendages where wing mirrors are usually found – each stalk terminates in a wide-angle camera.
Our test e-tron has the cost-optional Virtual Wing Mirrors, which project what you'd typically see with physical mirrors onto a pair of 7.5-inch OLED screens positioned on each of the two front doors.
You’d better hope an errant cyclist doesn’t take a pot-shot at these in a bout of road-rage fury, because it’ll be a couple of grand to replace.
It's a cool party trick that even sees Cd drop from 0.28 (with physical wing mirrors) to 0.27, as well as reduces the vehicle width by 15cm.
However, the OLEDs are positioned below one's usual driving line of sight, so you'll need to look left (or right) and downwards to check it – fine in slow traffic, but less intuitive to use when executing high speed overtaking manoeuvres.
Furthermore, the field of vision projected adjusts according to driving conditions. For instance, at highway speeds, approaching cars appear larger and the field of vision is reduced so the driver can better judge speeds and if the indicator is engaged, the display extends the field of vision on the relevant side to minimise blind-spots.
The interior is familiar enough Audi territory, and apart from a few new functions (that come with the electric powertrain), should not dumbfound you beyond the first four or five drives.
Like on the hybrid petrol-electric vehicles, there's info a-plenty displaying the workings of the all-electric powertrain via the optional Audi Virtual Cockpit.
(This haptic touchscreen MMI system is already found in the current A8)
The e-tron features a suitably ‘futuristic’ cabin, with ‘floating’ hand-rest and a pair of MMI touch response displays for the driver to play with, just like the latest A8 and Q8.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to fiddle with the touchscreen to adjust basic things like the angle of air-flow for the air-con vents, as Audi retained physical controls.
I particularly liked the look of Audi’s modern interpretation of a traditional four-spoke steering wheel, since it suits the car’s character to a T.
(Efficient hardware packaging means there's decent cabin accommodation for five occupants and a 600-litre boot capacity, which can be expanded to 1725-litres with the rear seats folded flat)
The battery system alone accounts for 700kg of the e-tron’s 2.5+-tonne kerbweight, but is mounted below the cabin and bolted to the body structure at 35 points, so it manages to increase torsional rigidity by 27 per cent.
Like the other EVs, instant torque to the tune of 561Nm from the 95kWh battery is just a foot flex away – in the ‘Boost’ mode that can be sustained for a burst of up to eight seconds, that’s 664Nm.
Audi quotes a range of more than 400km in the WLTP cycle and fast DC charging at up to 150kW will see it recover up to 80 per cent power (from flat) in just half an hour.
(We spent fifteen minutes taking a bunch of e-trons through gravel trails, as well as soft sand and ruts – it's fine if you don't stop!)
Like all electric cars, progress in the e-tron is eerily quiet and power delivery is lightning-quick in that way electricity manages to be – the 2.5+-tonne SUV will accelerate to 100km/h in under 6secs in ‘Boost’.
(The app shows brake regen, and when it's the either the physical brakes and/or electric motor braking)
Under normal braking conditions at up to 0.3g, you’d be surprised to learn that it’s the electric motors doing the work by regenerating the kinetic energy into electric power; the physical brake rotors don’t come into play except under hard, dynamic braking or emergency braking situations.
However, you’d be hard-pressed to notice this because of how natural the brake force and pedal feel, as the system lends itself well to accurate modulation, which is a big surprise.
On the highway, the system also works to regenerate power through coasting, when you take your foot off the gas pedal.
(Some of the winding roads we got to enjoy in the afternoon as we worked our way up and down the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road... 11.7km and SIXTY corners!)
It’s not the first time we’re driving an electric vehicle, and one of the most addictive thrills of driving one comes from its instantaneous power delivery – of course it’s best enjoyed in rear- or all-wheel drive configurations, because a front-driver struggles to contain such a big hit of torque.
(We jump into a white car... because some say white cars are faster on winding roads!)
The e-tron is surprisingly chuckable, not so much I’d enjoy hammering it around a track, but great for winding mountain roads since the car intelligently modulates the amount of power fed to each wheel (through individual wheel braking, as opposed to a complicated torque vectoring system – it achieves a similar result though).
This means you can easily adjust its cornering angle of attack progressively and predictably without alarming heart-in-mouth, white knuckle moments… most importantly, it is fun and feelsome enough without feeling too safe.
As EVs continue to evolve, it’s great to see dynamic handling traits trickling into more mainstream models like the e-tron as well.
After all, it’s high time they’re seen as more than mere eco-friendly beasts of burden, but also all-rounders capable of offering engaging handling for the occasions you decide to take the longer, windier route home.
PHOTOS Audi / David Khoo
VIDEOS David Khoo
Electric Motor: 355hp (402hp boost), 561Nm (664Nm boost)
Battery: Lithium-ion, 95kWh
Charge Time / Type: 30mins to 80% / 150kW DC charge
Electric Range (WLTP): 417km
0-100km/h: 6.6secs (5.7secs boost)
Top Speed: 200km/h (electronically limited)
Power Consumption: 26.2-22.5 kWh/100km (WLTP)