• Audi’s first all-electric vehicle arrives spring 2019
  • 5-passenger crossover sized between Q5 and Q7
  • European range equates to 248 miles; U.S. figures still TBA
  • Price starts at $74,800, plus destination

 

The 2019 Audi e-tron is more than just another new luxury SUV. As its first pure EV, e-tron is a harbinger for Audi’s electric efforts. Audi has used the “e-tron” name before, starting roughly a decade ago with a series of concept cars, and most recently in the just-discontinued A3 Sportback. But that latter model, the only production Audi with the e-tron name thus far, was a plug-in hybrid rather than a full electric. The 2019 Audi e-tron is all-electric with a multi-faceted mission.

Arrives next spring

The 2019 Audi e-tron has been available for pre-order since September and is set to arrive next spring. It is still early to the nascent segment of electric SUVs, but it’s not the first. Rivals such as the Jaguar I-Pace and Tesla Model X are for sale right now. More vehicles, like the Mercedes-Benz EQC, are expected later.

Then there’s the e-tron’s responsibility of setting the stage for future range of Audi EVs. Audi has already announced an e-tron sportback variant with a sleek and practical yet bold shape something like a higher-riding A7, and the brand just unveiled the Audi e-tron GT sports car in Los Angeles last week.

Audi’s electrification is part of its VW Group parent’s larger efforts to put its diesel emissions scandal in the past and march toward a greener, zero-emissions future.

That’s the back story. If you’re simply in the market for or considering a luxury electric car, you just want to know if the new e-tron is a smart choice compared to the competition. After being among the first in the world to test-drive Audi’s debut electric vehicle, we can safely say it is. The new Audi e-tron nails almost every note with aplomb, and even hits a few others that are unexpected but welcome.

Driving Audi’s electric SUV

For its introductory drive to the world’s automotive media, Audi presented the e-tron in Abu Dhabi. Like Audi, this emirate in the UAE sees a bright future beyond oil in electrification, and is touting heavy investments in renewable energy such as solar.

Our daylong drive took us from Masdar City to the outskirts of the desert and back to Abu Dhabi’s bustling central island. We covered hundreds of miles over all manner of roads, with a recharge in between, and even trekked across sandy desert landscapes complete with camels watching our silent vehicles streak by. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

As we started our journey out of the city and onto the highway, the e-tron immediately proved to be fleet, smooth and compliant. As with many Audis, the e-tron is all-wheel drive (“quattro”). In this application, though, it uses two electric motors that make up to 490 lb-ft of torque in boost mode (horsepower ratings are still to be finalized, but a 400 figure was touted in a technical presentation). It doesn’t have the neck-snapping acceleration times of the I-pace or Tesla Model X, but the Audi e-tron’s 0-60 mph time of 5.5 seconds is still quick. As is the case with electric cars, power delivery is instantaneous. Pegging the accelerator pedal is like hitting a light switch.

Multiple drive modes

And like other Audis, the e-tron boasts a drive select system with multiple modes, ranging from comfort to dynamic and even off-road. In the default “auto” drive mode, the e-tron is quick and smooth. In the sport setting, acceleration is even brisker, with an extra jolt of power felt immediately when you press the accelerator pedal.

Once at speed, the e-tron effortlessly maintains its smooth, quiet and compliant ways. Passing power is good, but again isn’t the gamma ray bursts of the I-Pace or Model X. The standard air suspension is adept at soaking up bumps and undulations. In default mode, we found it to be on the stiffer, sportier, end of the spectrum. Our test models were equipped with Audi’s suite of driver-assistance systems, including lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control. Both worked just as intended.

We found the e-tron’s steering far better than expected. It is precise, quick and linear. There was no latency or even much play. Turn the wheel even a bit and the wheels took immediate action. In this respect it felt more like a sports car from Audi’s cousin Porsche.

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Adjustable regen braking

On the stopping side of things, the e-tron is equally well-mannered. The brakes are strong without being grabby, as can be the case in some electrified vehicles. Regenerative braking, which has the dual function of scrubbing speed while recharging the battery — essentially the opposite path of how the electrons provide momentum — can be adjusted to different levels by the driver.

The quickest way is with a pull on the left steering wheel-mounted paddle. In a traditional gasoline car with an automatic transmission, this action would manually lower gears. Here, it increases levels of brake regen, while the right paddle does the opposite. Unlike other EVs, though, in default mode this is only a momentary thing. Once you step on the accelerator pedal, the regen level reverts to its original level. This system can be changed using a manual mode, where it will maintain your desired level of regen. But in most cases, it’s best to treat the paddle as a downshift to lower speed and complement braking with the pedal.

Our biggest takeaway with the e-tron is just how normal it is to drive, operate and use. Yes, it has one of the most sophisticated powertrains Audi has ever made, but much of its genius is also its simplicity. Even if you’ve never driven an EV before, you can quickly grasp driving this innovative Audi. Get in, press start, pull the gear selector into drive and go. After spending a few hours behind the wheel, you may just forget you’re driving an extraordinary tech-forward EV and think you’re in an Audi Q5 or Q7. Like those crossover siblings, the e-tron has a roomy 3-passenger second row and impressive rear cargo space of 57 cubic feet with rear seats folded - 4 more than an Audi Q5.

Off-roading and towing

Audi has made more than just an electric vehicle for its debut EV. The e-tron is an SUV, and it has the capabilities to back up that designation. It is among the few EVs to come with a tow rating. In this case, 4,000 pounds, which is in line with a traditional vehicle of this size. We didn’t get to test that aspect but did spend significant time doing other SUV stuff in the e-tron: off-roading.

Here again, aside from the Jaguar I-Pace, you won’t see many EVs touting their ability to get down and dirty, and we doubt many EV buyers even would, but e-tron owners can take satisfaction in knowing theirs can go off the beaten path.

Using the off road program in the drive select, the e-tron optimizes itself for adventure. It raises itself about an inch via its air suspension and programs its Quattro all wheel drive for the road ahead, even when that road is one you’ll be making in the dirt. Our test models had no problem climbing rocks and even lifting a wheel. Later, we relished blasting over sand at over 60 mph.

Range and price

Electric vehicles are inherently linked to range, or how many miles they will go on a charge. At this moment, the Audi e-tron’s is still fuzzy. The ones we tested were European models and using EU standards, the range is over 400 kilometers, which translates to an impressive 248 miles. The caveat is that the testing used to determine that figure from the European agency and the United States’ EPA is different, and the EPA traditionally has lower outcomes. Official range for U.S. spec models will be released closer to the spring launch.

As for recharging, the Audi’s battery has been robustly engineered for a long service life (it’s guaranteed to maintain at least 70 percent capacity even after 8 years). On a 240-volt Level 2 line, the e-tron is estimated to be recharged in less than 9 hours. But on a public Level 3 system, it can reach 80 percent in just 30 minutes. As for a standard 120-volt line, well, at 80 hours it literally takes days.

Price wise, the e-tron’s $74,800 starting cost isn’t cheap, but it also isn’t outrageous. It’s a few thousand above the Jaguar I-Pace, and several thousand below that of the larger Tesla Model X. Also, this figure is before incentives, such as the $7,500 federal credit which brings the cost down to around $67,000. A Q7 can easily reach that. Even at $81,800 for a top-line Prestige model with amenities like massaging seats and power closing doors, the Audi e-tron maintains it appeal.

Also: Get your first look at the new and redesigned cars of 2019

A rousing first impression

Like that old yarn about first impressions , automakers only get one shot at their first EV. In the case of the e-tron, Audi has delivered one that exceeds expectations.

It has managed to at once be a cutting edge luxury EV that is easy to drive and quickly become familiar with, and yet be a practical SUV that can do real SUV things, including towing and off-roading. Most of all, it’s an Audi, and one that shines a bright light on the brand’s electrified road ahead.

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