The Chinese zodiac may call this the year of the dog, but car lovers and auto industry observers will remember 2018 as the year of the luxury electric SUV. Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar Land Rover, and BMW have all launched models or shared plans to take their part of a market that Tesla created with the 2015 launch of the Model X and has since monopolized. Tonight, the engineers in Ingolstadt threw themselves into the competition, with the launch of the Audi E-tron, an all-electric SUV with more than 200 miles of range, plus the tech and design touches buyers expect when choosing the four rings.
Though the Mercedes EQC and Jaguar I-Pace edge out the new Audi in metrics like power and quickness, the E-tron brings its own innovation as well as some additional bragging rights. But more importantly, it’s not just a statement or kowtow to government regulations. It’s engineered to win drivers over to the all-electric camp by meeting them precisely where they are—in the wildly popular SUV segment—without giving short shrift to luxury or utility. It’s a real vehicle that happens to be electric, and it’s here to carry Audi’s standard onto the industry’s newest battlefield. It hits US dealers early next year, starting at $74,800.
Let’s start with the numbers. The E-tron has a 95-kWh battery against the EQC’s 80 and the Jaguar I-Pace’s 90. It’ll reach 60 mph in less than six seconds, where the Merc and Jag both do it in under five. It clocks 248 miles of range on the New European Driving Cycle, though American drivers will likely see a lower number after the EPA runs its less-generous test. (The Jag’s EPA range is 220 miles, compared to 300 on the Euro system.) The E-tron’s dual asynchronous motors produce a Euro-spec 355 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque, with the final US measurements still pending.
Potential buyers, though, will be interested in more than the raw figures. They’ll want to know what else sets this new SUV apart. So it’s too bad American drivers won’t get to enjoy some of the E-tron’s best bits. Slow-to-change US regulations don’t allow “virtual" wing mirrors that replace bulky side-view mirrors with cameras mounted on slender arms—the first among high-volume production cars. Same for Audi’s laser-powered Matrix headlights that offer precision aiming and selective dimming of the beam. And for networked car services that use “swarm intelligence” from other Audis on the road to forecast parking availability and alert drivers to fog or black ice.
Audi has paid considerable attention to infrastructure, one of those boring things that will make a major difference when it comes to owner ease-of-use. The E-tron will be the first electric car on the market that can support 150-kW DC fast-charging, a capability that will roll out as the Volkswagen-funded Electrify America group installs charging stations around the country. (VW is Audi’s parent company, and part of its settlement terms from the Dieselgate scandal include funding zero-emission infrastructure.) With that, charging should take less than 30 minutes to reach an 80 percent charge. At home, owners will be able to charge with either the standard 11-kW charger in 8.5 hours from empty or 4.5 hours if they have the optional 22-kW onboard charger. The whole thing will be manageable via an app and onboard tool that can optimize for off-peak charging and also factor where you can find a plug along your route. “We’ll calculate the most efficient route possible based not just on the presence of charging along the way but on the traffic and the route profile,” says Audi’s Carter Balkcom, the E-tron’s marketing lead.
The powertrain is tuned for electric cruising but also has the kind of power and performance that EVs can offer. The 125-kW motor powers the front wheels; a 140-kW motor covers the back. Under most driving conditions, the E-tron will function as a rear-drive vehicle, until the front motor is needed for acceleration or traction. When the car is in Sport mode, drivers can boost both motors to a combined output of 400 horsepower for up to 10 seconds at a time—while passing, for instance—by pushing the accelerator past its usual stopping point.
Regenerative braking comes courtesy of both electric motors, contributing about 30 percent of the total range. Regardless of whether the driver presses the brake pedal or merely lifts off the accelerator, the first 0.3 g’s of braking energy come from that regenerative process, in which the motors function as alternators and slow the car by providing resistance, producing electricity that heads into the battery. Drivers can also adjust the amount of regenerative braking by paddles behind the steering wheel, dialing more or less resistance to suit their preferences. At the highest level, the car allows for single-pedal driving.
The final major contributor to efficiency: aerodynamics. The E-tron has a drag coefficient of 0.28, which it claims is the best in the SUV segment. (Factoid from Audi: Every 0.01 of drag coefficient represents about 3 miles of extra range per charge in average driving. Bummer from Audi: Without those sleek side-view cameras, the US-spec E-tron’s number balloons to 0.30). It also automatically lowers ride height by about an inch, opens and closes front cooling vents, and employs aerodynamically efficient 19-inch wheels. Other moves are harder to spot. “The screws that hold the aluminum plate on the bottom of the battery are recessed in small dimples,” Balkcom says. “Those dimples create small points of turbulence, little eddies, which can actually improve the efficiency of the air moving across the surface.”
Again, most consumers will pay more attention to how the E-tron scores as an SUV, not as an electric, and Audi’s designers and engineers know it. The vehicle seats five, offers 23 cubic feet of storage, and can tow up to 4,000 pounds, enough to meet the demands of the fastest-growing automotive segment. All the interior bits are controlled by the latest version of Audi’s MMI infotainment software, a field where the company usually excels.
Opinions with regard to the car’s looks will vary, of course, but the E-tron should be distinctive enough to come across as something special—assorted “electric” motifs and color hints abound—without scaring off buyers who don’t want to draw too much attention to the green creds. It also doesn’t have quite the swoopy, low-slung styling of the Jaguar I-Pace, but nor does it have the freighted mass of the Mercedes EQC, which looks imposing and heavy by comparison. We’ll know once we drive the E-tron whether it moves with any conviction and spirit, but early signs are promising. What’s more promising: It finally paves the way for a strong EV presence within Volkswagen, even if the company had to stumble—hard—on the way there.