Audi’s new all-electric 2019 e-tron SUV, a five-seat mid-size model with all-wheel drive, feels like a normal, non-electric SUV in ways some electric vehicles don’t, which could be to its benefit in the market — or its detriment. Only time will tell. It also feels very much like an Audi, especially to anyone who has driven a recent model. And to someone like me who has participated in many Cars.com Challenges — our multivehicle comparison tests — it has the hallmarks of Audi models that rank high or win the day by performing well in a wide range of respects … despite eliciting less emotion than competitors. Headlines (which I seldom write, even at Cars.com) about new luxury EVs often try to gin up interest by calling them “Tesla fighters.” If I were to play along, I’d characterize this fighter as a conventional boxer and the Tesla Model X SUV as a mixed martial artist.
Now open for reservations nationwide, the e-tron starts at $75,795 for the Premium Plus (all prices include destination charges) and is eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit. It’s also available on a three-year lease that incorporates the tax incentive for $2,000 down and $942 per month. I tested an e-tron Prestige ($82,795) at an Audi media event that began in Yountville, Calif., and ended in Lake Tahoe, Nev., covering 219 miles and roughly 7,000 miles of elevation. It also included one stop to recharge. (Per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for its own lodging and airfare at such automaker-sponsored events.)
A Real SUV
We don’t usually comment on vehicle styling because our individual preferences are no more meaningful than yours, but I’ve come to recognize that you can’t get a read on a design until you see it in the real world rather than an auto show floor. When an e-tron rolled up to me at the San Francisco airport, it was clear that it’s a real SUV, and a handsome one, but also that it already blends in more than two key competitors, the Jaguar I-Pace and Model X (compare the Model X and I-Pace specs side by side).
There’s a long-standing theory that environmentally friendly vehicles have to stick out because their drivers are trying to make a statement. I never bought this argument. Yes, the legendary Toyota Prius has always been odd looking, but for a decade it was singularly efficient and affordable, and there was no control group to compare it with; conversely, the Nissan Leaf has always been a bit of a weirdo, and its market success has been modest. With the e-tron, Audi is catering to people who don’t want to stick out — or perhaps those who don’t want the sacrifices associated with the dramatically styled I-Pace.
Driving the e-tron
The e-tron has the quick responses we’ve come to expect from an electric vehicle, even if its Audi-estimated zero-to-60-mph time of 5.5 seconds is shy of some competitors. Jaguar claims 4.5 seconds for the I-Pace, Mercedes-Benz claims 4.9 seconds for the EQC (which we haven’t driven) and Tesla rates the Model X at 4.6 seconds for a Standard model and as little as 2.7 seconds for the Performance version with Ludicrous mode.
The e-tron has a Boost Mode, but it doesn’t shave off time like Ludicrous mode; it unlocks the full 402 horsepower and 490 pounds-feet of torque that gets you the claimed 5.5 seconds. Most of the time, the e-tron limits output to 355 hp and 414 pounds-feet for efficiency’s sake. Boost Mode occurs only if you move the shifter into the Sport mode, or the Drive Select mode to Dynamic, and then floor the accelerator, clicking the same switch that in gas-powered Audis induces a transmission downshift.
The e-tron’s acceleration is best off the line, with or without Boost Mode. It can throw you back into your seat as all four wheels dig in. Like most electrics, highway passing power isn’t as impressive, but even as I climbed steeper inclines through the Eldorado National Forest, the power never felt lacking. The e-tron has a drive motor on each axle, resulting in the all-wheel-drive pioneer’s first electric Quattro. The rear motor is more powerful, rated 224 hp and 262 pounds-feet of torque, to give a rear-drive feel. The front is rated 184 hp and 228 pounds-feet. The default torque split is 80 percent rear, 20 percent front, but the split varies with conditions and includes 100 percent rear during highway cruising. Torque can be shifted left and right as well, the conventional way, using brake-based traction control. Unfortunately, the snowfall we encountered when approaching Lake Tahoe was enough to be irritating but not to gauge the AWD’s performance in accumulated snow.
The e-tron feels nicely balanced thanks to the Quattro tuning and the battery pack’s location between the axles. The center of gravity feels low, as only a vehicle with a battery pack weighing roughly 1,540 pounds in its floor can. The e-tron’s body doesn’t lean too much into turns, but the SUV’s size and overall weight are too great for it to feel sporty. It handles competently but doesn’t feel nimble. (The curb weight was undisclosed as of publication, but I suspect the e-tron is pushing three tons.) The ride quality is good but firmer than I expected; it was fine on the lovely roads of California and Nevada, but I might object back in the Midwest. Though air springs are standard, the e-tron doesn’t have adaptive shock absorbers, so selecting the Comfort mode is as effective as an elevator’s Close Door button. Note that my car’s Prestige trim level included 21-inch wheels rather than the Premium Plus trim level’s standard 20s; 19-inch wheels are optional with summer tires, but Audi disclaims that they “may ride less comfortably, make more noise and wear more quickly than other choices.”
The e-tron’s brake pedal feels numb and isn’t as easy to modulate as a good conventional braking system, but this is typical for vehicles with regenerative braking that use the drive motors as generators to recharge the battery rather than press brake pads against discs — the latter of which represented less than 1 percent of our braking according to a supplemental real-time readout Audi provided on an iPad. Partly to avoid wonky EV brake pedal feel, I prefer to drive with more aggressive deceleration when I lift off the accelerator, which the e-tron allows if you pull and release the left steering-wheel paddle — once for 0.03 G of braking and a second time for 0.1 G. If you want it to stay at the selected level, you have to choose Manual under Recuperation in the touchscreen’s Efficiency assist menu.
Roomy, Utilitarian, Familiar
The e-tron is just 3.3 inches shorter in length than the new Audi Q8 SUV, a five-seater, and 6.6 inches shorter than the Audi Q7, which seats seven. It’s almost 9 inches longer than the I-Pace, so between its size advantage and its conventional SUV shape, the e-tron is much roomier than the Jaguar, which we’ve criticized for being too cramped and hard to see out of. The backseat contest is, well, no contest: The e-tron has room to stretch out. Legroom is 39.1 inches versus the I-Pace’s 35.0. Unlike most Audis, the hump in the center of the floor is negligible.
The cargo story is a similar one. The e-tron has 28.5 cubic feet behind its backseat while the Jaguar has 25.3. Fold the seats down and count front storage areas as well, and the Audi has 57 cubic feet while the Jag has 52. For comparison, the Model X has 87.8 cubic feet. There’s a storage compartment under the e-tron’s hood large enough for the charging gear but little else.
As for layout and controls, the dual-touchscreen Multi Media Interface requires some acclimation, but in some ways it’s better than the older knob-based system. We definitely prefer it to the I-Pace’s version of the same and particularly the latter’s touch-sensitive steering-wheel controls. The main thing distinguishing the e-tron’s cabin from other recent Audis is the shifter (for lack of a better term, because you’re not truly shifting a transmission), which comprises a stationary leather-clad palm rest with a brushed-metal slider on the left that you push forward and back with your thumb and forefinger.
Honestly, there were times when I questioned if Audi has taken the no-nonsense approach too far. Yes, MMI has various menus that pertain to electric and charging functions, the navigation map can display the now-familiar ring to indicate your current range in any direction, and the e-tron comes with 10 years’ Audi Connect connectivity to enable remote charging, cabin preconditioning and such by means of a smartphone app. But is that enough to compete with Tesla’s mixed martial artistry?
Range and Reality
The e-tron’s EPA-estimated range on a full charge is 204 miles. For the record, the I-Pace is rated 234 and the base Model X 75D is rated 238 miles; the Model X 100D can go an estimated 295 miles. To anyone who’s disappointed in the e-tron’s range, I say don’t be – at least not on practical grounds. The point to today’s EVs is to charge them at home every night, and once you do this awhile — as Cars.com did with a 72-mile Nissan Leaf through 2011 and half of 2012 — you find you don’t need as much range as you think.
I’ll defend the e-tron’s modest range, but I have a harder time accepting one of the reasons why. I hammered the I-Pace for its relative inefficiency of 76 mpg-equivalent combined. (MPG-E isn’t very useful for comparisons against gas-powered cars, but it does the job between battery-electrics.) The considerably larger Model X 75D is rated 93 mpg-e. What this greater efficiency means is that the Tesla goes an estimated 4 miles farther with a 75-kilowatt-hour battery than the I-Pace does with a 90-kwh one, and the same period charging at the same power level equals more miles of range added for the Tesla.
The Audi e-tron is rated even lower than the I-Pace by 2 mpg combined and 6 mpg city, though it’s 1 mpg-e higher on the highway: 74/73/74 mpg city/highway/combined. As a larger, taller vehicle than the I-Pace, this difference is understandable. But it doesn’t take the sting out of the gulf between these two and the Tesla. Even the least-efficient Model X, the P100D, is rated 85 mpg-e and can go an estimated 289 miles with a pack just 5 kwh larger than the e-tron’s 95 kwh.
Aerodynamics seem to play a part, as the e-tron’s drag coefficient is 0.30, the I-Pace’s is 0.29 and the admittedly awkwardly shaped Model X’s is 0.24 (lower numbers are more slippery), but this alone can’t explain Tesla’s superiority.
An A+ Charging Strategy
The best thing I can say about the e-tron is Audi’s charging strategy. It gives the buyer a leg up and helps compensate for the vehicle’s inefficiency — something the I-Pace fails to do.
First, the e-tron’s built-in electronics have a home-charging capacity of 9.6 kilowatts, which means a depleted battery can be recharged within about nine hours using 240-volt charging, a healthy 22 miles of range for every hour of charging, on average. The I-Pace is limited to 7 kW, so it takes about 12 hours despite having a smaller battery (major gaffe). The 9.6 kW also ensures plenty of power for preheating or -cooling the cabin quickly while still plugged in without tapping into the battery and thus the driving range.
Second, Audi includes a multipurpose home charging system with the vehicle — a compact unit capable of 120-volt or 240-volt charging, the latter at the maximum 9.6 kW. For a vehicle of this price that relies on high current, including the hardware is a wise move. Audi partnered with Amazon Home Services to address the other half of the bill that Audi doesn’t foot, installation, the price of which could be hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the location. The unit requires 240 volts and 40 amps on a circuit with a 50-amp breaker.
Third — and I’m calling this a distant third because the fixation on public charging is misguided — all e-trons are capable of some of the fastest DC fast charging available today. DC charging bypasses the vehicle’s AC home charging limitations and goes directly to the battery, so the e-tron can accept as much as 150 kW at charging stations capable of this level (not all are). The I-Pace is limited to 50 kW in the same scenario. Tesla’s proprietary Superchargers vary in their capacity, from 72 to 250 kW, and the Model X itself is currently limited to 150 kW.
What does this mean in real time and range? We stopped at an Electrify America station in Sacramento and brought the battery from 59 percent to 99 percent in about 26 minutes, adding 77 miles of projected range. At its peak, the car was accepting 150 kW, and at one point the instrument panel indicated the car was adding range at a rate of 373 miles per hour, more than 6 miles per minute — though because the charging slows as the battery nears capacity, the average rate ended up being about half that, 3 miles per minute. All batteries charge faster when empty and then slow down as they fill. However, thanks to robust cooling, the e-tron accepts fast-charging rates at high states of battery charge. Our e-tron took more than 144 kW to about 80 percent capacity, dropped below 100 kW at about 84 percent and remained above the I-Pace’s 50-kW ceiling all the way to 96 percent of its capacity.
E-tron buyers receive credits for 1,000 kwh of charging at Electrify America fast-charging stations within the first four years of ownership — which might or might not work out for you depending on where you live. Remember, the objective is to charge at home. I counsel against buying an EV expecting to rely on public charging, which brings no end of availability and cost variability.
More From Cars.com:
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- Tesla Model X: 8 Things We Like (a Lot) and 8 We Don’t
- We Reviewed the Tesla Model X and Didn’t Say That Guy’s Name Once: Video
- Charged Up Over the I-Pace: Jaguar EV Is Controversial
Audi e-tron as Tesla Fighter
The e-tron and Model X are very different, beyond the size, seat count and price (the base Model X is $7,405 pricier than the e-tron to start, and Tesla’s federal tax credit is phasing out, now halved to $3,750). As mentioned above, Tesla is beating everyone else in terms of efficiency, but I suspect that won’t hurt the e-tron’s chances because it charges fast enough and exceeds the magic 200-mile range mark. I suspect people who buy an e-tron won’t be poring over their electric bills and calculating their cost per mile. (I’ve met plenty of numbskulls who equate a vehicle’s efficiency with how often they fill the tank. These are the people who buy inefficient vehicles with giant gas tanks and feel good about it.)
Another hallmark of Teslas that has little to do with their EV nature is their ability to evolve, improve and add features via wireless updates — an advantage that remains broadly underestimated. The e-tron doesn’t have this capability.
In the real world, the e-tron’s zero-to-60 mph in 5.5 seconds is overkill — yet the Model X is quicker.
The e-tron has little in the way of special screens, and none of the surprise-and-delight features and Easter eggs of Teslas that probably shouldn’t matter but to some consumers definitely do. Ditto for styling. The Model X is awkward from some angles, but it’s distinctive and its Falcon Wing doors are known to stop traffic. If anything, the I-Pace is the one that’s dared to challenge the Model X on its own turf with distinctive styling and quicker acceleration.
All told, the e-tron is downright conservative, making it a good choice for shoppers who are the same, who are uncomfortable with the arguable volatility of Tesla and its mercurial leader. But I can see how this could work against the e-tron, as well. I’ve described my experience with Teslas as a roller coaster of joy and frustration, of brilliance and madness. There’s more emotion tied to the cars and their company than to any others I can think of, for better or worse. The e-tron is the opposite; where the Model X averages out to something reasonable, Audi runs straight up the middle — no drama, less joy. This Golden Gloves fighter hits hard, but it’s less entertaining.
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