Don't let the Audi E-Tron's silence on the road fool you — it's far from tame
With instantaneous acceleration and a luxurious cabin, Audi's first fully-electric SUV is impressive, writes Brenwin Naidu
More than a few of the outlandish and fanciful projections of the future, made in the past, have seen fruition in the present. Fair enough, flying cars, time travel and subservient humanoid robots in our homes are still fodder for science fiction rather than reality.
But life in 2019 would undoubtedly impress a chap like old Herbert George Wells, the famed author who predicted the World Wide Web, among other inventions. Imagine his merriment (and scepticism) in conversation with Siri or Alexa. A stint in a semi-autonomous vehicle ought to get his moustache twitching with excitement and fear at relegating control to artificial intelligence.
By now, electric mobility has been accepted into the automotive lexicon as a certainty and not a prospect far down the horizon. Then again, battery power and the horseless carriage first saw marriage as far back as 1828.
Only in the past decade and a half has the push really intensified. Tesla came on the scene in 2008 with its Roadster. You've heard of Tesla, right? Brainchild of the eccentric, joint-smoking, Mars-fetishist and South African expatriate Elon Musk.
In 2010 Nissan brought the Leaf to market. German carmaker BMW followed suit with the i3 in 2013.
Maybe it is worth mentioning casualties like the Fisker Automotive brand, with the short-lived Karma. Right on our doorstep we had the Joule, a project that short-circuited before the switch was even turned on.
Anyway, the manufacturers that matter in the bigger scheme of things are plugged in and ready to pursue this greener, alternative method of propulsion. The practices associated with mining the core ingredients for batteries as well as the fossil fuel required for electricity production are stories for another issue.
In the case of the Volkswagen Group, electric vehicles have long been on the agenda. But the process towards the shift was expedited in the wake of a certain scandal that spawned a stinging portmanteau: Dieselgate, anyone?
Premium brand Audi has been tasked with leading the charge, being the first from the conglomerate to release a fully-electric vehicle. Enter the E-Tron. The custodians of the naming convention at Audi will remind you it should be lower case (much like their presentation of Quattro); but let them argue with whoever made the rule about proper nouns.
Semantics aside, this is a big deal. The United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi was chosen as the launch stage for the newcomer. A curious and cheeky juxtaposition, you will agree, against the backdrop of lengthy, straight freeways, cheap petroleum and conspicuous consumption.
If the mandate is to gradually wean consumers off internal combustion, the
E-Tron makes a fine proposal at first glance. Because it bears a strong resemblance to the regular Audi Q5. That is merely a translation of familial DNA, of course, because the bodywork of the E-Tron is entirely bespoke save for pull-handles perhaps.
Then you hop inside … and a similar conventionality defines proceedings. The latest generation of the Audi Multi Media Interface (MMI) boasts a touchscreen with haptic feedback. Easy to use, with large icons and a simple arrangement of menus.
The boot will accommodate 660l of stuff, or 1,725l if you fold the seats down. And the omission of an engine in the nose frees up space for a 60l storage compartment, though this only serves to contain charging cables and a tool kit.
With its accompanying hand-rest, the gear-selector looks a tad Starship Enterprise. And so, are the so-called virtual side mirrors, which are optional. This is arguably the most daring aspect of the E-Tron and it will take some getting used to.
A bar with a camera mounted on the edge transmits a live feed to a screen in the corner of the driver and passenger door panels. Sounds cool. But at the helm I was filled with mistrust and frustration looking out the window and realising, milliseconds later, that I should be looking to the corner of the cabin instead. All to the amusement of fellow motoring writer, Ashley Oldfield.
Audi cites aerodynamic benefits as one reason for the trick side mirrors - with a drag coefficient of 0.27 versus 0.28. Forego the extra 0.1 improvement in favour of the truth afforded by actual mirrors, your psyche will thank you.
While we all enjoy the spine-tingling howl of a TTRS, with its cylindrical quintet, or the fury of a V10 R8, the soothing silence offered by the E-Tron proved novel. A slight exaggeration, admittedly, because the gentle whine of the powertrain intones, as well as the obvious sounds expected from rubber touching tarmac and wind hitting the body.
Your aural senses may not be stimulated, but the satisfaction of instantaneous acceleration will impress. The maximum combined output of the electric motors at the front and rear is 300kW and 664Nm. Good for a sprint time of 5.7 seconds.
In its meeker setting, the figures read 265kW, 561Nm and 0-100km/h in 6.6 seconds. Audi purports that in ideal conditions, a range of over 400km can be expected from its 95kWh battery.
The E-Tron is a hefty thing, tipping the scales at 2,490kg. Pneumatic suspension seemed like an imperative, while Audi claims the mass of the E-Tron is spread evenly between the axles.
Our test route included a session on the Jebel Hafeet mountain road. Hustling to the summit, the sizable Audi demonstrated assuring composure.
A strange feeling, moving through a sinuous layout at a decent rate of knots with no acoustics but the occasional yelp of the tyres and the sound of your elevated heartbeat.
These were my musings as we sneakily overtook former colleague Mark Smyth, now living in the UK, possibly knocking his toupée slightly askew. In truth, however, the E-Tron was much happier cruising the desert highways than being heavy-handedly tossed up and down a challenging pass. Which is not a criticism. This is a family-oriented SUV and fulfills its intended objectives as one.
Remember that the E-Tron family will grow in the fullness of time, as hinted to by a sporting GT concept that was shown in Los Angeles last year.
For now, South African consumers can expect the first fully-electric Audi towards the second half of 2019, with an indicative price upwards of R1.4m.