Audi’s first electric vehicle, the 2019 Audi e-Tron, has finally hit the road, heating up a fledgling market for premium, battery-powered SUVs.
If the Tesla Model X and just-launched Jaguar I-Pace pioneered the all-electric luxury crossover segment, the e-Tron – on sale this spring starting at $74,800 – portends a surge in consumer demand. Together, the trio challenge skeptics by showing that an EV can travel hundreds of miles on battery power, provide the space and security of an SUV and still perform like a sports car.
During our test drive in Abu Dhabi early this month at Audi’s invitation, the e-Tron performed as robustly as its gasoline-powered rivals, handling a variety of terrain while whetting the appetite of the luxury crossover customer. Propelled by a 95 kilowatt-hour battery and a pair of electric motors, the SUV comes standard with the brand’s quattro all-wheel-drive system and a 4,000-pound towing capacity.
Audi has not announced range estimates for the new model, but its performance is likely in line with the I-Pace, which delivers an estimated 240 miles on a fully charged battery. (Depending upon the battery size, the Model X achieves roughly 235 to 295 miles of electric range.)
Nearly a Q5 clone
Despite its cutting-edge chops, the five-passenger e-Tron looks like any other luxury German crossover and could be mistaken for another midsize crossover – the Q5 – were it not for the discreet charge port tucked under driver’s side front fender.
That’s by design, according to Audi’s head of design, Marc Lichte. Radical change, especially for first-generation models, can alienate shoppers on the showroom floor. “We are a brand with millions of customers, and they have to follow us,” Lichte said during a media roundtable at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show.
Slightly smaller than Audi’s Q8 full-size SUV and slightly shorter than the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz GLE, the e-Tron provides enough head and legroom to satisfy taller adults and 57 cubic feet of space when the second row is folded flat.
During a day of driving Abu Dhabi’s highways, sand dunes and rocky outcroppings, the e-Tron proved smooth, powerful and eerily quiet inside and out. Assisted by a low center of gravity, 50:50 weight distribution and instant torque, the car uses paddle shifter-controlled regenerative braking to prolong its range.
On pavement, the crossover is capable of 400 horsepower, a top speed of 124 mph and 0-to-60 acceleration in 5.5 seconds. Off road, its traction-control system determines which speed individual wheels should turn, with sensors calculating 10,000 times per second. The e-Tron’s “Off-road” mode lifted the chassis 1.4 inches to crawl over obstacles, whether in the dunes or on rockier terrain.
The exterior showcases Audi’s hallmark single-frame grille and sleek, muscular profile. Instead of side-view mirrors, the e-Tron uses cameras that feed real-time video to high-definition screens embedded in the front doors. Once confined to far-out concept cars, the digital displays feel unfamiliar at first but ultimately prove helpful, eliminating blind spots and shaving a few inches of width from the SUV.
Comfortable day of driving
The cabin feels expansive and comfortable, even for a full day of driving Abu Dhabi’s roads and bumpy trails. Inductive phone charging, four-zone automatic air conditioning and optional massaging seats contribute to the comfort. The dual-screen infotainment system runs the latest version of Audi Connect, which includes a feature for locating and connecting to available charging stations and the brand’s all-new MMI touch response with handwriting recognition and natural language recognition.
Though the $74,800 Premium Plus base model comes generously equipped, the e-Tron’s upper trims provide additional luxuries. Starting at $81,800, the Prestige trim adds a head-up display, massaging seats, Audi’s full suite of driver-assistance features and dual-pane windows for an even quieter cabin. The top-of-the-line First Edition trim, which begins at $86,700, includes 21-inch wheels and night vision.
Analysts expect the e-Tron, along with the forthcoming Mercedes-Benz EQ C and BMW iNext, to help spark demand for midsize luxury electric crossovers.
Sales of electric vehicles in the U.S. are projected to make up 6 percent of the new-vehicle market by 2025, up from 1 percent today, according to analytics firm IHS Markit. More than half of those will be SUVs.
“In some cases, the electric SUV can become the primary vehicle in certain households, because it can accommodate more passengers and feature more utility space,” said Devin Lindsay, an analyst with IHS Markit.
Automakers are investing billions in the ramp-up. Audi pledged to deliver a dozen fully electric models within the next seven years, while parent Volkswagen Group is investing $48 billion to build more than two dozen electrified models by 2023. Audi’s sister brand Porsche has $7.4 billion earmarked to electrify half of its portfolio by 2025.
BMW plans to offer 25 hybrid and electric vehicles by 2025.
Early signs are promising: Audi sold all 999 of its limited-build First Edition models for the U.S. market within hours of the e-Tron’s public launch in September.
To eliminate range anxiety, Audi is partnering with Electrify America, a Reston, Va.-based EV charging network slated to include 300 highway locations and 650 metro locations by the end of 2019. The network will offer DC fast-charging capability of 150 and 350 kW. The high-speed public charging stations can charge up to 80 percent of the e-Tron’s battery in a half hour.
Audi said the highway chargers will be located an average of 70 miles apart, with no stations more than 120 miles apart. Electrify America’s app provides real-time charging information to show which stations are available.
The partnership also provides e-Tron customers with 1,000 kilowatt-hours of charging over four years, equivalent to about 2,000 miles of driving, and around-the-clock customer support.
Amazon, another partner, will provide e-Tron buyers upfront pricing to install 240-volt home-charging setups in their garages. Customers also can charge their vehicle’s batteries using a standard 120-volt household outlet.
“We believe we have a very good formula that checks all the boxes,” said Audi spokesman Mark Dahncke.