Casablanca, The Seventh Seal, Rebecca and Dr. Strangelove; I’d been saving my black-and-white films for this test of the e-tron Sportback, the second vehicle in Audi’s all-electric series.
Why? Well, as promised at last autumn’s Los Angeles auto show, Audi’s extraordinary LED matrix headlights can tilt their one million micro mirrors up to 5,000 times a second to project a monochrome movie against your garage doors; your own drive-in, how absolutely right-on topical.
Then I discovered that our test car wasn’t fitted with these £3,175 headlights (standard on equipment on the top-model Vorsprung specification, optional elsewhere in the range) and while in theory they could project a movie, they won’t do so in this form.
So, while our Catalunya Red e-tron was vividly scarlet enough to enrage a field full of bulls, of the LED matrix lights which can, more usefully, also track the road, mask other vehicles and highlight road signs and road markings, there was no sign.
So I suppose this road test review will have to make do without new-fangled gimmicks, then.
Except that it won’t, as our £79,185 Sportback did have the latest in automotive gadgets, rear-view cameras on the doors instead of conventional mirrors. These are yours for a mere £1,250, which seems a bit of bargain compared with the £1,050 for the super sports diamond-stitched seats (super and sporty!), the £750 paintwork or the £1,475 panoramic sunroof.
To save someone boring you senseless about these things around a Farrow and Ball-daubed kitchen island, these are cameras which project a rear image on to a screen mounted on each door lining.
The images take some getting used to, aren’t as intuitive as a mirror and the driver’s side one has a very strange perspective. Oh, and they save a bit on the aerodynamics and wind noise, the coefficient of drag (Cd) figure is an impressive 0.25 – and, even by the high standards set by electric vehicles, this Audi is supremely quiet and refined.
Under the skin
Like the larger e-tron SUV that preceded it, this Sportback version is based on Audi’s MLB Evo chassis platform and is built in Brussels, Belgium. Under the floor and between the wheels lies a 95kWh gross (86kWh net) lithium-ion battery using SDI Bosch/Samsung cells.
There are two asynchronous alternating current motors at each end. The front one produces 181bhp and 182lb ft; the rear one delivers 221bhp and 232lb ft. With a peak output of 355bhp and 414lb ft, the 4x4 e-tron Sportback can despatch 0-62mph in 5.7sec and has an electronically limited top speed of 124mph.
To achieve that amount of acceleration, there’s an eight-second over-boost facility, providing a total of 402bhp and 490lb ft which is deployed by moving the gear selector into the S setting.
Each motor has its own step-down gearing and power controller networked together, with the facility to decouple the front and rear axles, so the car can drive from the rear in low demand situations, which increases the range by seven miles over the standard e-tron SUV.
The next wave of Audi EVs
Next year Audi plans to offer an e-tron 50 Sportback, with a smaller 71kWh battery, slightly less performance and a range of 215 miles. Also, on the way is an e-tron Q4, a smaller battery-electric SUV, which will be the company's first all-electric car under £50,000. Then there will be the e-tron GT, a large saloon about the same size as the Porsche Taycan.
Eventually Audi will gain access to its parent Volkswagen’s MEB all-electric platform, when it is envisaged that Audi-badged cars will occupy about a third of the total of 75 all-electric models promised by the VW Group in the near future.
Recharging takes 13 hours and 30 minutes on a 7.4kW household wall box and Audi is claiming a first with 150kW recharger capability, which will give an 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes. These chargers come from the Ionity group owned and are funded by VW Group brands, plus Ford, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. You’ll want to have an account with them, though, as their pay-as-you-go rate is as high as 69 pence per kW.
It’s a bit big, of course, at 4.9 metres long, 1.61m high and, with those camera stalks, 2.19m wide – that’s 85mm shorter, 60mm narrower and 89mm lower than the conventionally powered Audi Q8 SUV.
But these German coupé SUVs are all gargantuan pieces of reverse packaging. Luther, my colleague Alex’s fit young Labrador cross, gave the massively high load lip an ears-back look and the heavily sloped rear screen means dog head room is heavily restricted. Even the seats-folded load bed isn’t flat, since the seats fold on to the bases.
The seats split 40/20/40 per cent but the folding mechanism for the middle seat is a baffling as a magician’s box and it’s only just big enough for a leprechaun. For those keen on the figures, the load space is 615 litres with the seats up, 1,665 litres with them down. Equivalents for the Jaguar i-Pace is 577/1,453 litres, Mercedes-Benz’s EQC is 500/1,060 litres and Tesla’s Model X is 1,090 litres in five-seat configuration and 2,487 litres.
The Audi’s rear passenger seating is resplendent in soft and slippery leather and despite the narrow central perch there’s still enough space for three adults, with only just enough head room but plenty of leg room to spare. The front seats, oh yes, we’ve already dealt with them; super and sporty, remember?
There’s a fair bit of storage space around the driver, although the centre console is a thing of wonder and mystery, defying anything I own to sit snugly inside it.
Touchscreen heaven – or hell
Three screens dominate the facia and while Audi is better at this stuff than most, the expunging of most mechanical buttons isn’t as successful as the mix of touchscreens and real buttons in the very latest A3 hatchback, which is an exemplar. The trouble with all these systems is they don’t always recognise a finger’s touch (particularly those desiccated by repeated hand sanitiser use) so you end up repeatedly stroking the dash as if calming an over-active Furby.
At least Audi has a separate lower touchscreen for the heater controls and there’s a single button to turn off the lane-keeping assist, a system that’s fast becoming the most annoying thing on any new car.
Audi’s virtual dashboard is standard and it’s relatively simple to swap appearance, though on long journeys having the map behind the instruments is much the best option.
Obviously the Sportback has the acme of Audi’s driver assistance systems and level two self-driving capability. It all works and, more importantly on this acquaintance, it doesn’t seem to shy at things it doesn’t recognise.
On the road
In normal mode the control response (particularly the accelerator) is soft, so you need a boot full of everything to get it moving and stopped. This feels a bit clodhopping and makes manoeuvring on heavy slopes, particularly in reverse, a lurching/rushing scary process as the safety systems start a war with the major driving controls.
Dial in S and the controls feel more intuitive, but only in part. Despite what you might have read elsewhere, the brake pedal feels wooden and spongy as the systems are greedy for regeneration current at the expense of deploying the friction linings, but at 2.5 tonnes, you need to have the confidence that this runaway train is going to stop. There is also a three-stage kinetic energy recovery system, but it isn’t intuitive to use and you would probably still wish for a bit more positivity to the braking.
Performance is crushing, of course. Even in normal mode the Audi charges almost silently for the horizon giving passengers a slightly giggly nervousness. The steering doesn’t have a lot of feedback, but it gives you enough info to control the corner entry with some peace of mind.
While the weight distribution is 50/50 per cent front to rear, the sheer size and mass of the Sportback means it is initially reluctant to change direction and to drive it fast requires the same kind of blind faith in grip that you require with pretty much all these big, heavy battery SUVs.
The ride quality is really good (for a battery/electric car) once you get moving briskly; soft but well controlled, with a lovely breathing sensation over the larger bumps. At lower speeds, however, even the air suspension isn’t able to entirely overcome mass, and 21-inch Continental tyres flap and sproing into every pothole and over bumps giving a shuddering, busy ride quality – smaller diameter wheels might be recommended.
While dynamically the Audi is no rival for the Jaguar i-Pace , it is in refinement and luxurious appointment – and even if it won’t play old movies. It’s expensive, but this is a lovely relaxing car in which to do long distances, although you’ll need to drink a lot of coffee while waiting for it to charge.
No one should be fooled that this is the ultimate in environmental motoring, however. Indeed we calculate that using the latest electricity generating figures for the UK the Sportback will produce 51.7g/km of CO2 and its efficiency of 2.8 miles per kWh isn’t exactly fantastic.
For all that, however, the e-tron Sportback is where it’s at as far as luxurious battery peregrination is concerned. And for that reason it’s hard not to admire it, if not entirely love.
Audi e-tron Sportback 55 quattro
TESTED 700kg lithium-ion battery, four-wheel drive via two motors: 181bhp/182lb ft at the front and 221bhp/ 232lb ft at the rear, each with a step-down gearing
PRICE/ON SALE from £69,100, as tested £79,185 (not including £3,000 PiCG grant)/now
POWER/TORQUE peak output 402bhp at 13,300rpm, 490lb ft for eight seconds
BATTERY ENERGY 95kWh gross/86kWh net
TOP SPEED 124mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 5.7sec (Boost mode)
RANGE 241miles (WLTP)
RECHARGING TIME 13.5 hours on a 7.4kW household wall box; 30 minutes for an 80 per cent charge using a 150kW DC fast charger
CO2 EMISSIONS 51.7g/km well-to-wheels
EFFICIENCY 2.8 miles per kWh
VED Zero rated
TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars out of five
VERDICT Good looking and very refined, Audi’s big SUV coupé sets new standards for luxurious battery motoring, though it doesn’t ride and handle as well as Jaguar’s cheaper i-Pace. Expensive – and, as with all such cars, not entirely an environmental free lunch.
Tesla Model X, from £82,980
Gimmicky upward-opening doors and so-so build quality, but the performance is undeniable and there are more seating options than rivals. A pioneer, but it’s starting to look a little dated, though the availability of Tesla’s fast charging network gives it a practicality boost.
Jaguar i-Pace, from £62,645
Brilliant debut for this 4.68m long, 2.13-tonne SUV, which won last year’s Car of the Year award. It's 90kWh lithium-ion battery pack gives this 394bhp/513lb ft machine a top speed of 124mph and a 0-62mph of 4.8sec. Good looking, comfortable and fine handling, the i-Pace is a credit to its maker.
Mercedes-Benz EQC, from £65,720
Based on the GLC SUV and built on the same production line in Bremen, this 4.76m long, 2.42-tonne uses a similar twin-motor, 4x4 drivetrain which musters a total 402bhp and 564lb ft. Its 80kWh, 650kg lithium-ion battery gives a range of about 250 miles, a top speed of 112mph and 0-62mph in 5.1sec. Recharging times are similar to that of the e-tron.
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