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First Drive: 2019 Audi e-tron

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 2018-10-11 Brian Harper
a car driving down a dirt road: 2019 Audi e-tron© Brian Harper, Driving 2019 Audi e-tron

Parked under palm trees providing meagre protection from the scorching sun is a line of vehicles clad in an op-art film that could, if viewed for too long, induce a migraine. There is distorted lettering across the flanks of what is clearly a crossover shape, and the four rings on the front of the grille identify it as some sort of Audi. Size-wise, it could, at first glance, be a new version of the Q5, the German auto manufacturer’s best-selling model in North America. Except, the second-generation Q5 has only been out for a year. It’s far too soon for a facelift or makeover.

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Another look at the vehicle’s flanks, a squinting of the eyes to better bring the lettering into focus: e, hyphen, t, r, o, n. E-tron. And now it all starts to make sense.

This is the e-tron prototype I’ll be driving, a few details shy of being a production model but otherwise a fully representative rendering of Audi’s first all-electric model. The op-art exterior disguises a sporty premium crossover — a somewhat obvious choice for the German automaker, considering the public’s appetite for such vehicles — with room for five along with plenty of decent cargo capacity. Until production actually starts, this is one of 250 development vehicles completing testing under various conditions worldwide.

The e-tron is just the first salvo. By 2020, Audi says it will have two other all-electric vehicles in addition to the production e-tron — a four-door Gran Turismo and a smaller Q3-sized compact crossover. Five years further down the road and the company says it will have 20 electric cars and plug-in hybrids. And why Namibia? Audi is completing testing in multiple geographic zones; Scandinavia for the cold, Africa for the heat and dust, Asia for its mountains, China for its cities’ stop-and-go traffic, the U.S. for its interstates and the north loop of the Nürburgring for — well, that’s obvious. These e-tron prototypes are in the process of covering more than five million kilometres of practical testing, as well as intensive analysis of the vehicle’s charging technology.

The sound, or more accurately, the lack of it, as the e-tron sends up huge plumes of dust on the dried-up salt lake is disorienting at first to one used to the mechanical pulsations of an internal-combustion engine. Though I’ve driven a few plug-in hybrids in the last two years, my experience with pure electric vehicles is limited; a Chevrolet Bolt last year, a prototype version of an electrified Mini Cooper a few years prior.

I know I should be impressed with the e-tron’s potential full-charge range of 400 kilometres, but that’s not what commands my attention. I’m on the salt lake to give the e-tron’s electric Quattro all-wheel-drive system a workout; its porous, hard surface with fine-grained gravel offers a low coefficient of friction similar to that of snow. And the course laid out includes a high-speed straight, a couple of driftable corners, a slalom section and several variable radius turns.

Laps with the e-tron in automatic and sport modes with the electronic stability control on, and then in dynamic mode with the ESC off, showcase a crossover that is extremely easy to control whether driving with the utmost caution or letting it all hang out in your best rally driver impersonation. Without getting overly technical, the ESC optimizes the traction and brake control and increases the effect of the electronic differential lock for optimum power transfer between the two motors (one each on the front and rear axles). Audi says it takes just 30 milliseconds or so from the system detecting the driving situation and the torque from the electric motors kicking in — much faster than with conventional Quattro technology.

The next morning is an hour-long drive through the scrub desert to provide some semblance of the Audi’s off-road capabilities. Though the sugary red sand effectively muffled any sort of road noise filtering into the cabin, the occasional rocky stretch is almost discordant by comparison. Since there isn’t any engine or exhaust noise to mask the road, the question then becomes how much cabin noise will be acceptable to vehicle owners.

For a decidedly weighty vehicle (2,490 kilograms), the e-tron can hustle — zero to 100 km/h arrives in 6.6 seconds. Its range and its speed are courtesy of a 95-kWh lithium-ion battery pack comprised of 432 cells arranged in 12-cell modules located under the floor. (According to Driving’s Andrew McCredie, who was at a technical reveal of the e-tron last month, the 95-kWh battery pack compares favourably with the Tesla Model X’sand the upcoming Jaguar I-Pace’s 90-kWh pack.)

The e-tron’s front-mounted motor puts out 125 kW with another 10 kW under maximum boost; the rear motor is rated at 140 kW with a 25 kW boost. Combined power output is 355 horsepower (265 kW), or 402 (300 kW) at full boost. When maximum juice is called for, the e-tron will drop its zero-to-100 km/h run to 5.7 seconds. Torque is a stout 414 lb.-ft. of orquecharging units will be the norm for most electric vehicle owners, Audi says the e-tron offers superior recuperative technology while driving; during more than 90 per cent of all decelerations, the crossover will apparently recover energy solely via its electric motors. It taps its maximum recuperation potential in combination with the integrated electro-hydraulic brake control system. The company claims it’s the world’s first automaker to use such a system in an electrically powered production vehicle.

2019 Audi e-tron quattro

Inside, the prototype’s cabin hints of a couple of features not quite ready for primetime. However, the main controls and displays — primarily two large MMI screens in the centre console — handle everything from navigation to climate while offering cool readouts and graphics.

Time spent driving the e-tron was too brief for a full analysis. However, from initial impressions, the electric Audi shows much promise, not just for what it is but for what the company believes it will represent — nothing less than “the dawn of a new era for the company as it transforms from a traditional automaker to a systems supplier for mobility offering its customers tailored solutions for charging, whether at home or on the move.” That’s a huge leap, but one more than a few automakers seem willing to make.

Audi Canada has not released e-tron pricing yet, though U.S. pricing will start at US$74,800. First deliveries of the crossover are expected in the second quarter of 2019.

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