What is it like to drive?
As electric cars gain momentum, they’re becoming more straightforward to drive. So no strange drive modes in the Audi, nothing we’re unfamiliar with from its regular internal combustion models. The most complex thing about the e-tron is its new gearlever, which pivots from under its central housing, swinging over a small arc back into Drive or forward into Reverse. You operate it with your thumb and get used to it in seconds.
And the rest of the e-tron. It’s a car, just quieter and smoother. There are selectable driving modes from Off-road to Efficient to Dynamic, and the only pointers are these: in battery-saving Efficient the throttle response pulling out of junctions is way too sluggish, leaving you vulnerable to approaching traffic, in Dynamic the ride is perhaps a fraction more vivid than you want and in off-road the air suspension rises by 35mm for useful extra clearance.
But you leave it in default Auto for 90 per cent of the time, maybe using one of the others via the buttons on the centre console if you’re in a field/on a B-road/feeling worthy.
Because the e-tron’s based on an adapted platform, it’s a heavy car. Very heavy. The 50 weighs 2,370kg, and the 55 a whopping 2,490kg. That’s over 300kg more than an I-Pace, and 150kg up on the MASSIVE Tesla Model X. We tested the e-tron S in early 2021 and were astounded to see its claimed kerbweight is a titanic 2,620. For a five-seater car that's no roomier than a Skoda Octavia, that's quite frankly obscene.
The e-tron S is an interesting case. Sure, it's quick: with triple motor drive, it'll launch from 0-62mph in 4.5sec, which is a second quicker than the regular e-tron. That's both impressive and underwhelming, as there are plenty of EVs that go quicker if you want that one-trick pony bragging rights box ticked.
Problem is, if you use the performance regularly, you're going to average 1.8 miles per kWh. and that means a real-world range of about 150 miles. Is that enough in a £87,000 luxury sports SUV? To us, no, it's not good enough. The S asks too much compromise. Who's it for? The venn diagram of people who buy £90k super-SUVS and people happy to wear a coat in their car instead of using the heater to save battery power is very small indeed.
The I-Pace is much zestier to drive, the Model X speedier. Not that the e-tron feels heavy. Even without the clever 48-volt electronics that underpin the Audi SQ7 and Bentley Bentayga, it doesn’t roll much or heave around corners. The benefits of a low centre of gravity. It controls its weight well, grips and changes direction more tenaciously than expected. More tenaciously than most regular SUVs. The rear motor is more powerful, torque split roughly 40:60. In the S, the single rear motor is swapped for twin units that allow torque-vectoring cleverness. Apparently, it can powerslide, but you'll need a corner wider than your average IKEA car park to find out.
The ride is smooth, aided by tyres that aren’t too aggressively low-profile – 255/50 R20s. 22s are available and they look great, but knacker range. An e-tron 55 ‘Vorsprung’, with its 22s, claims 19 miles less range than an e-tron 55 ‘Sport’ on 20s.
The electric motors are sprightly enough to mask the weight. Both the 50 and 55 feel alert off the line and have a reasonable snap of acceleration even at motorway speeds. But they’re not fast. Not by electric standards. Audi claims 0-62mph in 5.7secs for the 55 and 6.8secs for the 50.
Top speed is limited to 124mph in the 55. 118mph for the 50. The S will just about do 130mph, which is about the same as a diesel Golf. We asked the autobahn-obsessed Germans whether this was an issue. Not when they realised how much a higher top speed would reduce the range by apparently. They went on to mention that the shift to electric might move the conversation away from high top speeds. Interesting.
So the e-tron grips well and is comfortable, the controls have (with the exception of step-off in Efficient mode) been calibrated very well indeed so input matches response. But it’s not a communicator. Nothing through the steering, nothing through the brakes, except a realisation that such weight takes an extra ounce or two of pedal pressure when you’re coming to a stop.
Below 0.3g of retardation (it’s more than you think) the braking is done electrically through the motors, the recuperated energy fed back into the battery. Only beyond that point are the hydraulic discs pressed into service. You don’t notice the handover.
Paddles behind the steering wheel allow you to increase the recuperation through three levels, but activate the auto mode and the system is clever enough to see cars ahead of you, or know a roundabout is approaching, and gently start the slowing for you. It works but feels a bit odd in practice – we kept it in manual mode, that way you know exactly how much the car is going to slow when you take your foot off the throttle.
The refinement is uncanny. Especially if you go for the camera door mirrors, which reduce overall width by 150mm and almost totally eliminate wind noise. You notice a trace from the base of the windscreen and A and B-pillars, but not for long.