Has the family EV finally come of age?
It takes five hours and 48 minutes to drive to Devon. A journey that would normally take just under three. More than a trip, it’s an education. By the time I arrive at Exmoor, I have five new apps on my phone, have battled malfunctioning charge points, know the desk staff at Tiverton leisure centre and have come to the conclusion that to buy an electric car you need a spirit of adventure.
Words: Ollie Marriage
Photography: Mark Riccioni
If you’re planning on driving it a long way, that is. Electric cars make perfect sense as a second car. A 120-mile range is fine if you’re never doing more than 60 a day. Your home charger is your lifeline. But trying to drive a long way is like casting yourself adrift in a life raft – you’re at the mercy of currents. And volts.
I’ll get on to the cars shortly, but here’s what you need to know. The cars are all brilliant. No, seriously, they are. And there’s no such thing as range anxiety. Because battery range comfortably exceeds bladder range. Time anxiety? Absolutely, when you’re running three hours late. Infrastructure anxiety? That’s the key one for me. We can probably plan extra time into a journey, leave earlier, do some work en route while charging is occurring. But the knowledge that the infrastructure might not work as needed? That’s plain stressful.
Unless you drive a Tesla. Welcome to first class recharging. The Supercharger: turn up, plug in, and in 40 minutes you have 80 per cent. The fastest chargers we found for the Audi and Jaguar worked at less than half that speed – 50kW per hour instead of 120. With Tesla (after a free initial period) you pay 24 pence per kWh; with the others we were paying 30–35p. At home it’s around 15p. Building its own charging network in parallel with car sales was, of course, Tesla’s genius. The joy of being a company coming at things fresh and unburdened.
Compare and contrast with the Audi e-tron. It’s built not on a bespoke electric platform (that comes later in a joint project with Porsche), but on a modified Q7 chassis. Inserting a 700kg, 95kWh battery pack has driven weight up to 2,490kg. Even heavier than a Tesla that is 100mm longer, 60mm wider (you really notice it in the west country) and much, much airier inside.
Of course the approach is different. Audi needs to sell the e-tron to customers bred on internal combustion, those that need persuading to make the switch. Tesla had it easy. They soaked up those early adopters, those that wanted to embrace the tech. Now is when we find out what Tesla is really made of. Recently, it massively slashed prices (the Model X 100D by £9,750) – nothing to do with the threat of arriving rivals, says Tesla, but a long-term strategic goal. But also no support for those who have just seen thousands wiped off their car’s value. Well, if you’d bought a car recently, you could get Autopilot for half price. Big deal.
Storm Gareth is sweeping Exmoor with 50mph horizontal rain, which nullified my tardiness. We shelter in the Tesla. It’s a six-seater with captain’s chairs for the middle row. Five seats are standard; this is a £5,900 option. Ouch. I still can’t believe the falcon-wing doors aren’t only a concept. They can open in 11in of space, with sensors to prevent knocks against pillars or squeezing children. They do not, however, like closing in 50mph winds.
The cabin is massive, dominated up front by two screens – the 17-incher in the dash, and the eight-footer that arcs back over your head. I can’t decide whether I like this great slaphead or not. It’s tinted so sun glare isn’t an issue, and the sense of peripheral vision is great, but you also feel exposed underneath this see-through forehead. The dash screen? Well, now everyone seems to be going to touchscreen, this is the biggest and the best. As big as a road atlas, so we scout locations on it.
The others feel very normal in comparison. Two seats up front, three in the back. Head and legroom passable, but not remarkable, the sense of theatre and drama turned right down. Not much for kids to get excited about. Where they both, especially the Audi, give the Tesla a good kicking is fit and finish. The Model X is not nearly so tightly assembled. But both Europeans also feel fussy and overly complex inside – squinting at screens, ploughing through menu systems, figuring out the functionality.
The Tesla is simpler. And more playful. Where the Audi and Jaguar label their driving modes Eco and Efficiency, the Tesla goes for Chill. Can’t see Audi giving its cars a Fart mode any time soon, either. That has my family in stitches for an entire trip. Childish? Absolutely. But do cars need to be so serious? I enjoy spending time in the Tesla more than the others because it’s different. That would wear off, I know, and I’d get frustrated by the unsupportive seats, less cosy driving position and, yep, the way it looks outside.
I nickname it ‘Heffalump’. It’s just a dirty great fat blob. The Audi is an Audi and the Jaguar is gorgeous. It really is. And from just about every angle. It looks light on its wheels, blends tradition and modernity. It’s the one I want to be seen driving the most, the one that’s neither an SUV or a giant hatchback MPV.
But then it’s not so much a family car as a five-seat GT. All things considered, it’s very well packaged and performs the family role perfectly acceptably. The sculpted looks do a good job of concealing how much space there is inside, with packaging aided by the bespoke electric platform. It’s the halfway house here, one for the interested and keen.
The Audi is for electro-sceptics. And, by God, does it do a good job of convincing them they don’t need to be scared of the future. What is there to be worried about outside? The colour? Grey is quite challenging, isn’t it? And inside – well, the gearlever is a bit different, twisting fore and aft under a housing. That takes five seconds to figure out. And the new hollow centre console with its useful layered storage. How will you cope? The only thing that’s going to unsettle you about the e-tron is how quiet and smooth it is.
Not just quiet and smooth. The quietest, smoothest electric car I’ve ever driven. It feels like a few grains of Woolacombe Bay sand might have been blown into the motors of the other two. In isolation, they’re lovely, of course, but the Audi is lovelier still. It’s the softness with which it pulls away, the perfectly calibrated throttle, the supple ride (the e-tron wears 20in wheels wrapped in plump rubber to the 22s of its rivals). It behaves how you want a family car to behave. Or maybe not. What it won’t do is drown out the back-seat arguments.
Until you add small people it is serene, then. And it shows up flaws in the Tesla. Structural stiffness is the first and most obvious. You sense the body twist, feel shudders, hear the trim creak. If there were engine noise maybe it would be less obvious, but there isn’t, so you notice. And the ride is simply too firm. It’s been done to keep roll and heave in check, but the Model X thumps and bangs across Exmoor. On coarse surfaces, there’s tyre noise, and it reflects back from the giant windscreen, making the Model X that bit more hectic.
The Tesla feels ponderous where the Audi manages to disguise its weight. Barring steering that’s not quite as accurate as the Jaguar’s, the Audi is very composed if you pile on a bit of speed. Against the stopwatch it’s the slowest here, but it’s still swift. It just doesn’t do the mind-bending this-shouldn’t-be-possible acceleration of the fastest Teslas. The 100D isn’t the super-quick one (that’s the P100D Ludicrous), but it’s still plenty fast enough at getting itself between corners that then pose it… issues. It’s a bit scrappy, really – you don’t get any sense of what the steering is up to, but a great deal of awareness of how much weight you’ve just tried to make change direction. And with no separation between load bay and seating area, stuff comes crashing through. A flask tumbles irritatingly around the flat floor of the rear cabin as we head along the B3223.
If you want to enjoy driving your electric car, have the Jaguar. It’s the crispest, the most accurate and rewarding. It even growls when you accelerate hard – Jag attempting to inject some roar into electricity, there. One-pedalling it cross-country is good fun, and you get the warm feeling engendered by motor retardation replenishing the batteries. It does in all of them, although in the Audi it’s not automatic – you pull a paddle like you’re downshifting, which actually gives you more control. In the others, you choose from two selectable levels deep in the menus. The Tesla and Jag provide enough retardation to slow even when the Exmoor gradients tip beyond 20 per cent.
The I-Pace is lighter, which helps give it athleticism, and Jags have famously good suspension control and damping. This one’s no exception. It scythes through corners, never stumbles, shrugs off bumps, traction never in doubt – even if you use all the performance that the twin motors (one on each axle, same as the opposition) can deliver. There’s not much in it for sprinting between this and the Model X. The Audi is slightly more sluggish, but still fleet enough.
The Audi is the quietest, smoothest electric car I’ve ever driven
But speed and handling aren’t why you’re interested in making the switch to electric. Smoothness and silence and, maybe too, the promise of self-driving. Tesla’s tech is little different from anyone else’s – it’s the tolerances that make the difference. It’ll wait longer before telling you to put your hands back on the wheel, make earlier, more positive corrections and so on. The Jaguar seems short-sighted, like it’s walking with its head down, so obstacle avoidance and white line ricochets are more abrupt. But none of these systems drive well. They don’t see more than one car ahead, get spooked by cars in the next lane and panic brake. People will think your dog is driving.
Now, economy and running costs, the crux of the matter. Audi reckons the e-tron will do 241 miles at 2.57 miles per kilowatt hour (mpkWh). The I-Pace claims 263 miles and 2.92mpkWh, while Tesla hasn’t yet switched to the new WLTP regs so reckons you’re good for 351 miles between stops. It won’t. It’ll do 200 miles. That’s what they’ll all do, in fact.
Between these three, we covered over 1,600 miles, and they all achieved two miles per kWh overall. What does this mean? Well, let’s assume you only charge at home, paying 15p per kWh. That 15p will take you two miles; extrapolated, 10,000 miles a year will cost you £750. Or the equivalent of a regular petrol car doing 73.4mpg. Of course, costs will rise if you’re charging away from home. But it was cold and windy during our tests, and we drove spiritedly, so I reckon you’ll do better, average 2.5 maybe. It cost me £50.63 to drive the I-Pace to Devon and back, some 390 miles, not including being full at home when I left. But still, cheaper than diesel. A bit.
But don’t worry about that. Worry about recharging. A diesel splash and dash takes five minutes and adds 400 miles of range. The kids barely notice. Now imagine you did what I did: arrive pre-dawn at a dank Bristol Park and Ride to discover the 43kW charger is only pushing out 7kW. So you drive on and have to face two hours waiting in a services. And then stop again further on. With kids. Pressure cooker, right? So you’ll need to plan well before you leave. Stop at Tiverton leisure centre for a swim perhaps. There’s something curiously heart-warming about your car charging while you’re otherwise occupied.
And it turns out you don’t need to be daunted by charging. A bit of tech-savviness helps, as you need to set up accounts with providers on your phone, but then it’s simplicity: scan QR code or touch pay, and off you go. In two days, we learn so much about the UK’s charging infrastructure. And what we mainly learn is you don’t need to be too scared of it.
The cars, then. If you’re intent on buying a premium electric car now, it has to be the Tesla. Is it the best car? No. But right now you can’t separate car from infrastructure, and between Superchargers and Destination chargers, Tesla has the best combination. The kids will certainly think it’s the coolest and most exciting, too. Going to be solo more of the time? The I-Pace. For a ground-up, first-time effort, it’s brilliant, handsome and good to drive. And then there’s the e-tron: super-smooth, silent, beautifully built. If you’re nervous about the switch to electric, driving an e-tron will put you right. But as I said at the start, they’re all great cars, as technically proficient and more efficient than their oil-burning equivalents. Getting home from Devon? Four hours and 18 minutes. That’s progress.
Tesla Model X 100D
Engine: twin e-motors, 100kWh battery, 417bhp, 487lb ft
Transmission: 1spd, 4WD
Performance: 0–62mph in 4.9secs, 155mph
Range: n/a mpkWh, 351 miles (NEDC)
Our range: 1.99mpkWh, 189 miles
Audi e-tron 55 quattro
Engine: twin e-motors, 95kWh battery, 402bhp, 490lb ft
Transmission: 1spd, 4WD
Performance: 0–62mph in 5.7secs, 124mph
Range: 2.57mpkWh, 241 miles (WLTP)
Our range: 2.04mpkWh, 184 miles
Jaguar I-Pace EV400 SE
Engine: twin e-motors, 90kWh battery, 394bhp, 513lb ft
Transmission: 1spd, 4WD
Performance: 0–62mph in 4.5secs, 124mph
Range: 2.92mpkWh, 263 miles (WLTP)
Our range: 2.15mpkWh, 183 miles