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An electric car in oil country

By Matt Bubbers

Abu Dhabi — The Globe and Mail

Published December 19, 2018

Abu Dhabi is a sparkling testament to the value of oil, but our tour guide directs attention away from the luxury shopping malls to the nearby Masdar City. The sustainable, eco-friendly suburb is an expensive experiment intended to — depending on how cynical you are about it — either green-wash or future-proof the wealthy emirate.

In that way, Masdar City is a fitting allegory for Audi’s first all-electric car. The German luxury brand built a fine business selling fuel-burning cars. Having dragged its feet since introducing the e-tron concept nearly 10 years ago, the light bulb has switched on. By 2025, the company expects one third of its turnover will come from a new range of 12 purely electric vehicles, the first of which is this e-tron SUV.

The usual trappings of electric vehicles will be familiar by now. My, how quiet it is. Oh, how quick it is. Eek, how expensive it is. The Audi e-tron is all of these things, but it’s also very normal.

From the driver’s perspective, it’s similar to other Audi SUVs. It’s a five-seater sized between the Q5 and Q7, built on a modified version of the same platform.

Audi E-tron front view Audi e-tron back view
Audi e-tron detail shot

The Audi E-tron

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

On an empty road that twists to the top of Jebel Hafeet mountain, the all-wheel drive e-tron tucks into corners as you get on the gas — er, electricity. Eventually though, the sheer mass of the 2,490-kilogram SUV overcomes the grip of the low-rolling-resistance tires and understeer creeps in. It’s not gut-punch quick like the Tesla Model X or Jaguar I-Pace, but it hustles. The e-tron works best when you take corners at a gentler pace and use the 402 horsepower and 490 lb-ft of instant torque to slingshot down the straights.

Under the floor is a 95 kWh lithium battery that weighs 700 kilograms. Estimated driving range is 417 kilometres on the European WLTP test. The company doesn’t have a more realistic EPA-rated range yet. A full charge on a 240-volt household outlet can be done in 8.5 hours, or about half that time with an (optional) second on-board charger.

Over rough roads, the adjustable air suspension does a much better job of keeping occupants from being jostled around than the Tesla Model X, which rides like a slab of granite in comparison.

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Audi e-tron interior shot Audi e-tron interior shot
Audi e-tron interior shot Audi e-tron interior shot

Courtesy Audi

The e-tron wasn’t designed from the ground-up as an electric vehicle. You won’t find any flappy falcon-wing doors here; the I-Pace looks alien next to the Audi.

“The aliens are already here,” said Vladimir Macoun, interior designer of the e-tron. The goal wasn’t to make another alien-looking EV, he explained. “We are not the first to bring out an electric car…. We want to offer a car to a much wider group of customers.”

At $90,000 the e-tron costs slightly more the Jag I-Pace and a whopping $26,000 less than the seven-seat Model X. You pay a hefty premium to drive electric.

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There are two reasons for the high cost of electric vehicles, said Audi spokesperson Christoph Lungwitz. “One part is that we’re in the process of industrializing this technology, so the price is perhaps a little higher than it could be,” he said. “The other part is the battery.” It represents one-third of the entire manufacturing cost of the car.

“No matter if it’s from Audi or another brand, people are really ready for electric cars,” said Andreas Noest, an engineer responsible for battery development at Audi. The Chinese market in particular is waiting for cars like this, he added.

“Some time ago, nobody was really interested in battery technology,” Noest said. “This has really changed in the last year or so. Everybody wants to talk to us now.” He’s busier at work than ever before.

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The e-tron works best when you take corners at a gentler pace.

Courtesy Audi

The production model arrives in dealerships in the spring. It will be followed late next year by the more rakish e-tron Sportback. After that will come a range of electric vehicles from Volkswagen Group, including the Porsche Taycan, Audi e-tron GT, VW ID compact car and ID Buzz van.

The e-tron is both green-washing and future-proofing for Audi. At $90,000 it’s not going to be a best seller. For those who think the Tesla and Jaguar are too weird, the e-tron is an excellent alternative; its normal-ness will be its greatest selling point.

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Audi e-tron front view

Tech Specs

Base Price: $90,000

Engine: Two electric motors, one at each axle

Transmissions: N/A

Range: 417 km (WLTP estimate)

Drive: All-wheel drive

Alternatives: Jaguar I-Pace, Tesla Model X or S; upcoming Mercedes-Benz EQC and BMW iX3.

Audi e-trong front view

Ratings

Looks: It has extra bits of black cladding, movable louvres in the front grille, and charge ports on either side, but the e-tron could easily be mistaken for a conventional SUV.

Interior: The screen-laden cabin is typical Audi, except for the cameras and screens that replace the side mirrors. They reduce aerodynamic drag, but can be hard to see when wearing sunglasses. Since the side cameras are not legal in Canada, our cars get boring old side mirrors.

Performance: You can drive it quickly, but it’s not especially rewarding to do so. The steering is accurate but numb and you’re always aware of the weight at play.

Technology: The brake pedal is an ingenious bit of engineering. It’s fake; you press into squishy rubber. A computer calculates how much deceleration you want, and engages the regenerative brakes and/or hydraulic brakes accordingly, seamlessly blending the two with no jerkiness.

Cargo: The batteries mean the cargo floor is a higher than you’d expect, but the 600-litre trunk is still huge. There’s an extra storage bin in the front hood for charging cables.

The verdict: 8.0 /10: A good luxury SUV that happens to be electric.



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Credits: Writing by Matt Bubbers; Photography by Matt Bubbers and courtesy Audi, Editing by Tom Maloney, Design and development by Stephanie Chan

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