• Base Price: Est. $65,000
  • Drivetrain: Dual asynchronous motors with 335 hp and 413 lb-ft of torque
  • Zero-to-60: Less than 6 seconds
  • Range: 248 miles
  • Similar: BMW iX3, Jaguar i-Pace, Mercedes-Benz EQ C, Porsche Mission E Cross Tourismo

 

After more than two decades of failed attempts the electric car appears ready to enter the mainstream. Over the next 2 years we’ll see a wave of EVs from at least 10 automakers enter the consumer market. All of them will be capable of traveling more than 200 miles on a charge while offering acceleration, handling, feature content and style equal or superior to similarly priced gasoline and hybrid cars. Audi is among the automakers riding this electric vehicle wave with its impending e-tron SUV. The e-tron won’t go on sale for another year, but Audi begins taking e-tron orders on September 17, the same day the production model makes its world debut in San Francisco.

Audi hasn’t let journalists drive the e-tron yet, but last week it did let a small group of reporters ride in e-tron prototypes as they made their way from the top of Pikes Peak to the Garden of the Gods, just outside Colorado Springs, Colorado. That’s an elevation drop of approximately 8,000 feet in 20 miles, providing downhill activity perfectly suited to showing off the e-tron’s advanced energy capture capabilities (or “recuperation”, as Audi’s engineers call it).

Audi needed that 20-mile stretch of public road closed during our ride in the e-tron, which meant arriving at the peak before sunrise. Even in July the temperature at Pikes Peak’s 14,500-foot summit is a brisk 30 degrees. After a chilly-but-scenic sunrise with photo ops we hopped in the e-tron prototype for a long, downhill trek. Our driver, Audi engineer Victor Underberg, narrated the e-tron’s inner workings as we tracked them on an iPad app tied into the car’s drivetrain sensors. Imagine a larger, more in-depth version of the energy distribution screens available in today’s modern hybrid cars.

The e-tron uses a 95 kWh battery to store energy captured from, among other options, a 150 kW DC high-speed charger. Audi says the battery can be charged 80 percent in about 30 minutes using that charger. Motivation comes from two asynchronous motors, one for the front axle and one for the rear, with a peak output of 355 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque. That’s good for a zero-to-60 time of less than 6 seconds, a time we find believable, if not conservative, after experiencing a few aggressive launches during our ride (“Thank you Victor!”).

But the real point of this outing was to experience the efficiency with which the e-tron recaptures energy when coasting or braking. Audi claims it’s got the most innovative recapture system among competitors, contributing up to 30 percent of the e-tron’s range. Like most EVs it uses a “brake-by-wire” system to disconnect the hydraulic brakes, turning the electric motors into generators and charging the battery whenever driving conditions allow.

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Where the e-tron’s system proves unique is its ability to recapture energy in multiple ways. Beyond using the brake pedal the e-tron has two levels of regeneration controlled through its steering wheel paddles. The first level, called “balance” creates light brake force while the second level, “strong”, creates high brake force (and captures additional energy). There’s also a zero brake setting, called “sailing” by the Germans and coasting by most U.S. residents. Between balanced, strong and coasting there’s rarely a need to apply the brake pedal except when rapid deceleration is needed or at very low speeds (none of the recuperation modes work below 10 mph).

If dealing with all these settings sounds cumbersome don’t worry, the e-tron also has an automatic mode where it uses predictive logic (based on radar sensors, terrain and information coming from the front camera) to adjust its recapture settings. The e-tron is even hooked into the budding automotive infrastructure communication system, known as “car-to-X”, to track traffic levels, signal lights, speed limits and other information. This allows the e-tron to constantly modulate its regenerative efforts for maximum efficiency at all times.

As we descended Pikes Peak Victor kept the e-tron in manual mode, switching between coasting, balanced braking, strong braking and using the pedal. He only used the latter when the road was too steep or the curves to tight for regenerative braking to adequately slow us, and he noted that even when using the brake pedal the e-tron continues to capture maximum energy through its dual motors as part of brake pedal application.

Our drive down Pikes Peak started with the battery at 52.050 kWh and ended with it at 59.100 kWh. We actually recaptured 10.591 kWh but we spent some energy on the flat or uphill sections of the route down Pikes Peak. Of the the 10.591 kWh we recaptured 2.740 came during brake pedal application and 7.851 came from the motors’ regenerative efforts, proving Audi’s system can effectively recharge the battery while removing the need to manually brake in many situations. Victor was also quick to assure us the transition from regenerative to hydraulic braking was undetectable through the pedal. We’re looking forward to driving the e-tron and confirming this first hand.

Beyond its high-tech regenerative capabilities we should note the e-tron’s other desirable traits. In typical Audi fashion the interior is a combination of high-quality materials and advanced technology. The “virtual cockpit” digital gauge cluster offers a wealth of data through beautiful, high-resolution imagery. Even more impressive were the e-tron’s digital rearview monitors in the front doors, replacing the exterior mirrors. The crystal clear images these transmitted instantly made traditional mirrors look obsolete. Audi is still confirming which countries will allow this new mirror technology, and we’re hoping the U.S. is one of them.

So the new Audi e-tron SUV is fast, comfortable, beautiful, stuffed with advanced tech and can travel 250 miles on a full charge. Yup, the modern-day electric vehicle has finally arrived.

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