FIRST DRIVE: The Audi e-tron is an EV for Beginners

Interesting, Test Drives | June 15th, 2019 by 24
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We’re a bit late to the e-tron party, we must admit. There have been quite a few test drives of the Audi e-tron — the brand’s first-ever electric car — across the globe already. However, we did finally get the change to give it a go just recently in some of the most beautiful areas of California.

The trip started out in San Francisco, where my plane landed. I was then put into the back of an e-tron and then shuttled up to Yountville, in the beautiful Napa Valley. It’s a decent drive from San Francisco to Yountville, which gave me the chance to review the car from the back seat; how quiet, comfortable and relaxing it is or isn’t.

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And I must say, the Audi e-tron is a good car to spend a lot of time in. It’s near silent inside, surprisingly comfortable and, because of that, very relaxing. I could spend hours in the back seat of the e-tron, no problem. The comfortable seats, touch-sensitive climate controls and superb material quality don’t hurt, either.

What you really want to know is how it drives. I’ll get to that in a moment. Before we had the chance to drive it, Audi wanted to show us what it’s like to actually own and live with the car. So we had dinner that night at a stunningly beautiful home, seemingly smack dab in the middle of a vineyard, with possibly the prettiest view from any home I’ve ever seen. There, Audi stuck an e-tron in the garage and showed us what it’s like to charge it and live with it. We also had a little demonstration of its Alexa capabilities, as an Audi representative started a Roomba with just a voice command from inside the car. Cool stuff.

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The following morning is when we had the chance to actually drive the Audi e-tron, as we left Yountville toward Lake Tahoe. Other journalists had driven it before but this was our first time. Not exactly a crappy first drive, is it? As we headed out of Yountville, we drove through some very pretty scenery and decently twisty back roads. On these roads, the Audi e-tron proved to be more fun to drive than I expected but it’s still not a driver’s car.

Steering in the Audi e-tron is accurate enough and front-end grip is surprisingly good. Though, the weighting is a bit too light for my tastes and steering feel is virtually non-existent. The latter is to be expected in an electric SUV, though, so I won’t really fault it for that.

Body motion are kept largely in check, shockingly so, and it will actually hang onto a corner quite well. So it doesn’t fall apart if you push it hard. However, it’s not exactly fun to push hard, either, and it often feels as if it’d rather be driving a bit slower. That’s mostly attributed to its weight.

The Audi e-tron weighs around 5,700 lbs, which is simply massive. There are elephants that don’t weigh 5,700 lbs. Most of that weight is down low though, in the belly of the car, as that’s where the battery lives. Just that battery pack alone weighs 1,500 lbs, which is about as much as a track-ready NA Miata. So it does have a low center of gravity for an SUV, which helps it through corners, but there’s still no hiding its massive curb weight.

Admittedly, its weight is unnoticeable while driving normally. In fact, while just cruising around, its light steering and punchy electric torque actually make it feel quite spry. It’s only when you start trying to drive it hard that its heft becomes noticeable. Which is a bit disappointing because there’s potential here for a sportier feeling car if it wasn’t so heavy.

That weight makes itself known while accelerating, too. The Audi e-tron is actually quite powerful when it wants to be. Thanks to its dual electric motors, it makes 355 hp and 414 lb-ft of torque under normal driving. When you mash the accelerator though, you get a temporary Boost Mode, which packs 402 hp and 490 lb-ft. That Boost Mode is available for eight seconds, which is more than enough to get the e-tron to 60 mph, as it does that spring in 5.6 seconds.

There are a lot of enthusiasts that shrug that figure off, as it’s nowhere near the neck-snapping acceleration of a Tesla Model 3 Performance. And that’s true. Its acceleration is about hot hatch-quick, which is fast enough. However, it lacks that sort of shocking performance we’ve come to expect from EVs and it’s not for lack of power. With 490 lb-ft of torque, you’d expect the Audi e-tron to be quite fast. Yet all of that weight prevents it from being very quick.

Still, it’s not exactly slow and its “in-gear” punch while moving is surprisingly good. So during some spirited driving, it can punch its way out of corners better than you might expect.

After our fun on some of Napa Valley’s twistier back roads, we headed to Sacramento for some lunch and a charge. Admittedly, we didn’t actually need to charge, as all of our e-trons had more than 60-percent battery left, a shocking figure considering how hard us journalists wanted to drive. We also likely had enough battery to make it to our destination in Lake Tahoe.

We stopped off to charge so Audi could show us the fast-charging capabilities of the e-tron and that was the real purpose of our trip. Audi wanted to prove that the e-tron can be used for long trips right now and it will only get better as fast-charging infrastructure gets better.

The Audi e-tron sports a 95 kWh battery pack and is capable of charging at 150 kW. More importantly, it’s capable of sustaining that charge speed for almost its entire charge cycle. From about 10-percent to almost 80-percent, the e-tron can charge at 150 kW. That gives it the broadest band of fast charging of any EV on the market. That’s more important than a lot of critics might claim.

Most other EVs can charge at their peak charging speed for only a small percentage of their battery. For instance, the Tesla Model 3 starts to drops off of 150 kW at around 45-percent. In fact, that’s around where all other EVs start to lose their charging speed and most of them never reach 150 kW at all. But the e-tron stays at 150 kW until 75-percent and then slowing drops off until its fully charged.

Some prototype Tesla Model 3s can charge at 250 kW but only from about 5-10 percent battery. After that, they drop off significantly until they’re at that 45-percent mark and drop beneathe 150 kW. Plus, they’re only prototypes and only a handful of prototype Superchargers can actually charge them at higher speeds. So, as it stands now, the e-tron is the fastest charging production EV on the market.

The reason why that’s important is it means you can pull up to a charging station at almost any percentage and get 150 kW of charging. You don’t have to be low on battery, which makes finding a fast-charging station easier and planning your route becomes more flexible. Which is why when we stopped off in Sacramento with about 60-percent battery left, we were still able to charge up at 150 kW. We wouldn’t have been able to in any other EV.

Admittedly, e-tron owners will need to find a fast-charger capable of that speed. There aren’t a ton of them at the moment but Audi’s charging partner, Electrify America, is working on adding a ton by the end of the year. Thankfully, an Electrify America port was in Sacramento.  So we were able to actually test these chargers out and see just how fast the e-tron could charge.

While charging at 150 kW, the e-tron can recoup 50 miles of range in ten minutes. Considering we only used about 60 or 70 miles of range on the way to Sacramento, we barely needed more than that to “fill up”. Still, we had some lunch and let it charge to full.

After lunch, we headed back onto the road but this time it was mostly highway duty on the way to Lake Tahoe. On the highway, the Audi e-tron is surprisingly easy to drive. It’s easy to hold at speed and its intelligent regenerative braking system keeps the regen low at speed on the highway. There are multiple regen modes but there’s one that automatically adapts to your driving, navigation route and elevation changes to always keep it in an optimal setting. It works well, as it held the regen braking back on the highway, making it easy to drive at high speed.

After our highway stint, we headed into the stunning Sierra Nevada Mountains. There, the intelligent regen braking helped recoup some of the miles we used on the highway and worked quite well. More importantly, though, the Audi e-tron felt more in its element than at any other point during the day. I was actually riding shotgun at this point, as my driving partner was at the helm in the Sierras. However, I was still seriously impressed with how well it handled the fast, sweeping turns and elevation changes.

On long, high-speed sweepers, the e-tron really comes into its own. Its ample power helps it build speed quickly and its all-wheel drive grip — thanks to something Audi calls “Electric Quattro” — helps it cling to the road. There were a few points where both my co-driver and I were nodding our heads in surprising approval, as the e-tron dug its four claws into the road and flung us out of some high-speed turns.

When we finally arrived at our hotel on Lake Tahoe, we’d already done a few hours of driving, yet there was no fatigue. I tend to get a bit antsy over long journeys and can’t wait to get out and stretch my legs. Not in the e-tron, though. Its front chairs are supremely comfortable, its ride is smooth and supple and its cabin is quiet and serene.

The purpose for this trip was that Audi wanted to prove its e-tron could work as a long-distance cruiser, especially once 150 kW charging becomes more and more common. But it’s not just its battery tech and charging speed that make the e-tron a good long-distance companion. It’s actually just a really nice car to drive for extended periods of time. It’s an easy car to drive long stints because it feels normal, like another Audi SUV.

That’s either a compliment or an insult, depending on who you ask. The e-tron’s detractors will say that it’s boring because of its normalcy. Anyone in favor of it, though, will point out that normalcy was the objective all along.

Audi intended for the e-tron to be the car that brought traditional Audi customers over to electric mobility. After spending some time with it, I think Audi nailed its intended objective, for better or worse. If you’re looking for something funky and weird, something with a whoopee cushion mode in its main touchscreen, the e-tron is probably not for you.

The Audi e-tron feels like a normal luxury SUV, just one that never needs to stop at a gas station. It’s an electric SUV for beginners.

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