Audi e-tron first drive: Quick, comfortable and familiar

The e-tron has a shorter range, but quicker recharging than a Tesla Model X

Even after a few minutes behind the wheel, it’s easy to forget the Audi e-tron is electric. The SUV is not outrageous or radical, but rather pedestrian and effortless. Audi didn’t invent something new with the e-tron. The German car company stuck a competent electric powertrain in an SUV, and, in the process, created a fantastic vehicle that should resonate with shoppers.

The Audi e-tron is the new benchmark in electric cars. Some EVs are larger, faster and have a longer range, while some are smaller and more limited. The e-tron sits in the middle. Priced at $74,800, the e-tron is a great size, has a moderate range and features faster charging than a Tesla Model X, Jaguar I-Pace or Chevy Bolt.

I spent a day in an Audi e-tron and drove it hundreds of miles over Abu Dhabi’s perfect tarmac, around winding mountain roads and through sand-covered desert passes. The e-tron performs precisely how a buyer expects a mid-size Audi SUV to perform. On the road, the e-tron is eager and quiet, while off the road, over rocks and through deep sand, it was sturdy and surefooted.

Just like the 1980 Audi Quattro normalized all-wheel drive, it’s clear the German car company hopes the e-tron does the same to electric power.

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Driving the e-tron

The car zipped down an Abu Dhabi highway. On this quiet morning, the traffic was light. Abu Dhabi’s police recently installed speed cameras at regular intervals, so with the cruise set at 140kmh, and Masdar City fading in the background, the mountains on the Oman border grew larger. The drive was uneventful; it was a regular commute. The e-tron’s electric motors served up power in an effortless fashion.

This is likely how many Audi e-trons will spend their life. While the vehicle has capable off-road abilities, most will probably never hit anything more than a parking lot flowerbed. Like most SUVs, these electric vehicles will likely be used as people movers, ferrying people to and from work and school. In this task, it’s comfortable and familiar, but there’s so much more to Audi’s first EV.

Drop the e-tron’s pedal to the floor and the mid-size SUV jumps to life. The new Audi electric AWD system provides the traction needed to launch the vehicle forward. There are 400 horses available, and the torque is instantaneous and plentiful, even at highway speeds. Audi says the 0-60 time is 5.7 seconds — and that’s quick enough for most buyers.

The e-tron’s capability was put on display racing up a mountain road. The jaunt took about 20 minutes, but that was more than enough time for the e-tron to show off. As it whipped around narrow roads, the e-tron held tight to the pavement and handled the winding road with decisiveness. To be clear, the e-tron is not a Pike’s Peak racer. The body roll was on par with other SUVs; it wasn’t offensive, but noticeable. At speed, steering is tight but lacked informative feedback — a theme I discovered continued with the all-wheel drive system.

The e-tron is heavy. At 5,489 lbs it’s 661 lbs heavier than the smaller Jaguar I-Pace and has 68 lbs on the larger Tesla Model X 75D. This isn’t noticeable while driving, but is worth noting. The battery and electric motors are situated at the bottom of the vehicle, which likely contributes to the sturdy feeling.

Audi built a complex battery regeneration system into the e-tron, and it seems to work as advertised. At the start of my road trip in Abu Dhabi, the vehicle said it had an available range of more than 210 miles while driving with the AC blasting at full strength. During highway cruising, the range decreased precisely as advertised. During city driving, the regeneration mode recuperated more range than I expected, slightly extending the range. On the lively 20-minute decent around mountain roads, the system gained more than 10 percent of its range thanks to the system recovering power from the breaking and rolling resistance.

The U.S.’s EPA has yet to release official numbers for the e-tron, and I didn’t spend enough time with the vehicle to declare an average range. What’s clear, however, is the e-tron can easily surpass 200 miles on a charge, and under certain driving conditions can go much farther. And thanks to the fastest recharging system in its class, the e-tron batteries can be recharged quicker than others — 80 percent in 30 minutes.

The e-tron accepts a charge up to 150kw. This allows the batteries to be refilled to 80 percent in 30 minutes. But Audi doesn’t have a network of chargers like Tesla. Instead, the car company partnered with Electrify America and e-tron owners are granted 1,000 kWh of power.

Compared to competitors, the e-tron can recharge at a quicker rate than others. But only at specific chargers. Interestingly, the e-tron has recharge ports on both sides of the vehicle.

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The battery regeneration serves another purpose central to Audi’s brand: all-wheel drive. The sophisticated system that extends the range of the vehicle also assists the vehicle in providing the appropriate power to each wheel. Like traditional AWD platforms, this lets the vehicle remain surefooted across rain, snow and sand. And in the desert, there was plenty of sand to test the system.

I took the e-tron through sand drifts and over blind rocky dunes. The electric AWD system never disappointed. Compared to traditional AWD, this platform seemed to respond quicker in a much more subtle fashion. When climbing a dune where logic stated the tires were spinning, I couldn’t feel the tires spinning, yet the vehicle continued to climb. When racing over two-foot sand drifts covering gravel, the vehicle would drift in a squirrelly fashion, yet the tire spin wasn’t felt through the pedals. This disconnect is a side-effect of the move to electric and is something drivers will have to get used to.

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Creature comforts

The e-tron’s cabin is nicely adorned with familiar materials and Audi’s latest technology package. A large digital cluster sits in front of the driver while, two screens reside in the center stack and are used for the infotainment system and climate controls. This is the same system in the new Audi A6 and A7, and I find the layout much easier to use than the giant screens in Tesla and a growing number of other vehicles. Radio on the top, climate on the bottom. It’s a logical layout.

When needed, the bottom screen is used for character input, and there’s a wide wrist-rest placed below the screen to allow the user to steady their hand. This makes a difference. Instead of using a shaky hand hovering over a giant screen, users can rest their wrist on this pad and easily input an address.

There are odd concessions in this luxury SUV. The sun visors do not slide on their mounting pole to extend their reach, and this feature was noticeably missing during my drive through the desert. The steering column doesn’t have power adjustment. A sunroof isn’t an option. For a vehicle with a starting price of $74,800, these features are oddly absent.

I spent the day in a European variant of the e-tron, and it was equipped with digital side-mirrors. U.S. buyers will not get this option, and that’s fine with me. I never got used to them. Instead of employing a piece of glass for side mirrors, there are cameras mounted on small, futuristic-looking stalks. Inside the cabin, there are small LCD screens mounted under the window. This virtual mirror isn’t worth it. The screens are too small and have too low of a resolution. The driver cannot move their head to gain a new perspective like what’s possible with traditional mirrors. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my mirrors to be made out of mirrors.

This e-tron SUV is essentially the self-titled album for Audi’s line of electric vehicles. Audi’s roadmap is clear, and it’s full of future models with the e-tron nameplate.

Next year Audi plans to release two more EV vehicles: the e-tron Sportback, a sporty SUV, and e-tron GT, a sports sedan developed with the help of Porsche. Audi is teasing a smaller e-tron vehicle for 2020.

Audi is building the e-tron brand around key innovations in recharging the battery both through regeneration and direct charging. As of right now, this is where the e-tron stands apart from its peers. It had the most sophisticated regeneration system and the fastest charging time. As batteries improve, these two platforms are primed to take advantage of larger batteries.

Against the competitors

There are only a few EVs on the market making the competition clear for the Audi e-tron. The new Jaguar I-Pace is priced slightly under the e-tron and has a similar range, but is smaller and recharges slower. If buyers are willing to ditch the e-tron off-road chops and luxury badge of Audi, the Chevy Bolt offers similar cargo capacity, technology and range for much less. The Nissan Leaf is another good low-cost option for those looking for nothing but an electric people mover.

Tesla is Audi’s closest competitor in the space. The Tesla Model X offers a bigger SUV and a quicker 0-60 time, though a slower recharge time. The base Model X offers a similar range for $10,000 over the e-tron’s price, and for more money the Tesla can be configured for a longer range.

On a dragstrip, the $84,000 base Model X is much quicker than the Audi e-tron, and the $140,000 Model X variant is as nearly quick to 60 as the fastest Audi super sports car. That doesn’t mean the Tesla is better than the e-tron. During my day with the e-tron, either while passing vehicles or taking off from a stop light, I found the e-tron to have an abundant amount of acceleration — quick enough to thrill though not in a ludicrous, tire-shredding fashion.

The Tesla Model X offers something not found in the Audi e-tron: Recognition. A Model X looks like nothing else on the road, whereas the Audi e-tron looks like another crossover. Compare the two vehicles’ technology packages and Tesla’s self-driving Autopilot feature stands tall. The e-tron only has lane assist and adaptive cruise control, a far cry from Tesla’s system.

Questions about Tesla’s future persist and could be on the minds of savvy shoppers. Will the automaker be around to service its vehicles through their life? Will Tesla be able to scale its mobile repair crews to be able to match the number of vehicles it’s shipping. The upstart automaker lacks the massive dealer network of Audi and its parent, VW, which for all their faults, at least provide numerous location for owners to service their vehicles.

Audi isn’t trying to define the look of the vehicle by the powertrain. Onlookers would be hard-pressed to tell the e-tron is electric in the same fashion as is evident with a Tesla or Toyota Prius. It’s a different strategy than what’s employed by others, and Audi seems to be banking on it to increase adoption of its electric vehicles.

The verdict

The Audi e-tron is fantastic. For the foreseeable future, this is the electric vehicle that makes the most sense for most people. It’s not radical. The e-tron is familiar. The e-tron is plentiful and comfortable while the cabin is loaded with the standard electronic accoutrements buyers expect from the luxury brand.

The Audi e-tron makes electric cars attractive to more buyers by removing variables. It looks and feels like its gasoline counterparts. Inside and out, it’s normal. That’s the point, and it works.