Our first drive in Audi's electric SUV reveals real promise, the e-tron has the Jaguar I-Pace in its sights
It’s been in the news for more than two years now, but finally Audi has handed us the keys to its new, all-electric e-ton SUV. But even now the e-tron is not quite the finished article – we’re getting behind the wheel of a prototype in the Namibian desert to see how it’s shaping up.
On first inspection, everything looks pretty familiar. Once you enter the e-tron the cockpit is heavily inspired by the latest Audi Q8 – the same digital instruments and the same two, big touchscreens dominate the cabin. The only new elements are a gear lever that looks plucked from a spaceship, the big storage compartment behind it and two small screens in the doors that display the images captured by two ultra-slim video cameras replacing the rear view mirrors.
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Cast an eye around the rest of the Audi e-tron and you’ll find a wealth of other nifty features; the “frunk”, that versatile storage compartment under the bonnet, is perfect for the charging cable and adds another 60 litres to the 600-litre rear boot. And even when you run out of juice you’ll never tire of recharging via the charging port that elegantly and electrically slides open behind the front wheel.
But as familiar as the e-tron looks, once you’re on the move it feels totally different. Silent and smooth but with an impressive punch, the electric crossover takes off in a way that belies its near 2.5 tonne kerb weight. It also performs pretty well in the corners – its low centre of gravity helping keep body roll in check. Although the dusty and broken surface we’re driving on doesn’t paint an accurate picture of its true handling characteristics. That’ll come in November when we get behind the wheel of a production model without the psychedelic body wrap.
Propelling the e-tron, and giving it that nimble feeling, is a 95kWh battery, which feeds two electric motors delivering 402bhp and 664Nm of torque via an all-wheel drive system. More than any other competitor Audi is focussing on driving pleasure with its flagship electric car and has programmed no less than seven different drive profiles to choose from.
The throttle response, steering and air suspension can all be tailored – the e-tron can raise itself by five centimetres to gain more ground clearance or lower itself by three centimetres to reduce drag and improve body control. The traction control and ESC vary from safe and secure to an extremely relaxed setup meaning that on our dusty trail route, endless slides can be proved thanks to the bundles of torque on offer. On the road, however, that’s unlikely to be of any use to anyone.
On first impressions the e-tron does appear to have a broader range of abilities than the Tesla Model X – more agile in the dynamic mode and more comfortable when you’re taking it easy. However, the energy recuperation system when you lift off the throttle doesn’t appear to be as well executed as you‘ll find in the Jaguar I-Pace. It means driving with just one pedal is not the strongest skill of the e-tron.
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