First Drive: 2019 Audi e-tron
Audi on the right track with first electric car, the e-tron
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES—Several months ago, in September, to be exact, I started a story about the brand-new 2019 Audi e-tron all-electric luxury SUV with these words: “That I have one of the best jobs in the world, let there be no doubt.”
That was because I was in San Francisco for the official launch of the e-tron, which Audi executives suggested would be the first of a string of electric or electrified vehicles the company plans to build. By 2025, they said, Audi expects to be selling 800,000 electric cars and/or plug-in hybrids — about a third of the automobiles it produces each year.
I heard everything there was to hear about the new e-tron, about how the all-wheel drive, mid-size SUV that seats five can go more than 400 kilometres on a single charge (making range anxiety “a thing of the past,” according to one executive), about how it can go from zero to 100 km/h in 6.6 seconds, has a top speed of 200 km/h and can tow up to 1,800 kilograms.
And so-on. In short, I learned lots about the car. I finished my essay by writing that I hoped to get to drive the e-tron some day.
Well, that day came just before Christmas in — are you ready for this? — Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emerits. (I repeat: Have I got a great job, or what?) The San Francisco unveiling was what the industry calls a “global launch” and the Abu Dhabi road test was called a “global drive.” You are a very fortunate automotive journalist, indeed, to be invited to both.
But the drive is the real prize. Yes, it’s wonderful to be among the first to see a new car but to be among the first to put it through its paces tops every reporter’s wish list.
Now, before I tell you about how the car handles (hint: it’s a pleasure to drive), and about the UAE, and about how we got stuck in a sand dune and all sorts of other interesting stuff, here is some more pertinent information about the e-tron.
It will be in Audi’s Canadian showrooms some time in the second quarter of 2019. Pricing starts at $90,000 Canadian. If, after reading this review, you absolutely must have one, go to audi.ca and it will tell you how to place an order.
When you get to the company’s website, though, you will notice something about the photo of the car that’s there — the rear-view mirrors don’t look like any rear-view mirrors you have seen before. And that’s because you haven’t, because they aren’t rear-view mirrors at all; they are cameras.
Audi is bullish about this particular feature because the almost-flat mountings containing the cameras — which transfer exterior images onto interior screens on the inside of the front doors — cut down on wind resistance and drag and can add more than two kilometres to the car’s range.
However, they are, at present, illegal in Canada and most U.S states. Audi is lobbying to have the law changed but I would suggest they not spend a lot of time trying because this is one e-tron feature I flat-out didn’t like. I had to ask Michael Bettencourt, my co-driver, to move his hands once so I could check the right-side view and when I did see the monitor unimpeded, the glare from the sun coming into the car made it useless. The driver’s side monitor was too close for me to really see what it was showing. Give me two outside mirrors any time. And two-plus kilometres in range doesn’t impress me much.
Here are some other specifics:
The battery system, which is liquid-cooled to ensure best performance, can store up to 95 kW/h of energy and is flat between the two axels underneath the passenger department. A sheet of aluminum across the bottom protects the battery if stones should get kicked up while driving or you get stuck in a snowbank (or, as happened to us out in the desert, a sand dune).
The car is driven by two electric motors (one on each axle) and has 300 kW and 664 Nm (489.7 lb.-ft.) of torque in boost mode.
If you have an electrical plug in your garage, either a 120v or 240v, the e-tron will take 10 hours to charge but you will be good to go for — the company says — about 400 kilometres. Under normal driving conditions, that means you won’t have to worry about stopping during the day to get a boost.
If you want to spend about $1,000 to have a fast charger installed in your garage, it will only take between four and five hours for the car to fully charge. If you want to drive to New York City for a vacation, though, you will have to stop at charging stations along the way and it will take about a half-hour every time to reach 80 per cent of capacity after you plug in.
Speaking of taking a vacation, the e-tron has 660 litres of cargo space. The SUV itself is 4,901 millimetres long, 1,935 mms wide and 1,616 mms high.
Inside, the driver has two interactive touch screens available, one for infotainment and the other for driver assists and other technology. I particularly liked the three-button shifter on the centre console with park, reverse and drive right under your thumb.
The interior is attractive and functional, as you would expect in a $90,000 vehicle. I’m a big guy and bopped my head once getting into the passenger side. But once bitten, twice shy and that didn’t happen again. Inside, the e-tron feels really roomy and although Bettencourt and I didn’t get into the back seat together, we would not have been in each other’s way if we had.
Now, about the drive.
We landed at the Abu Dhabi airport after dark (it’s the capital of the Emirates on the shore of the Arabian Gulf). As we were shuttled to the hotel, the tour guide pointed out the red roof on the Ferrari World theme park off in the distance but I was more interested in the huge Ikea store we drove past, and the Popeye’s chicken and Burger King signs. It seems you can’t go anywhere in the world any more without being exposed to Big Business.
Of course, there weren’t any Esso, Sunoco or Shell signs at the gasoline stations. The Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. (ADNOC) is king in the Emirates and Abu Dhabi itself sits on 97.8 billion barrels of oil that represent the world’s seventh-largest proven reserves of the black gold. (Which means it was kind of a gutsy move on Audi`s part to launch an all-electric car here …)
Interestingly, although there were lots of service stations, most had lineups at the pumps. I don’t know the percentage of households that own cars but it’s safe to say that just about everybody has one. There is public transit (a bus system; no subways — for obvious reasons) but the car is top dog in this part of the world.
It is a Muslim country but there is no doubt the welcome mat is out for all cultures — tourists as well as expatriates, who make up more than 80 per cent of the people working in Abu Dhabi. Our second hotel (we had rooms in two) had a huge Christmas tree and other decorations in the lobby and signs announcing that the “best Christmas brunch in the Ermirates” would be served on Dec. 25 for US$24.95.
Our first stop on Drive Day (as I called it) was a place called Masdar City, which is not far from Yas Marina and the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix circuit. It is a public/private project in which experimentation to make sustainability a way of life is being conducted. Research and development into solar and wind energy, the use of seawater for agriculture and the feasibility of city cooling powered by geothermal energy are among the experiments currently being conducted.
What better place, then, to start the all-electric vehicle drive, which took us on superhighways, side roads, off-roads and through city streets? Other than the irritation of trying to see behind the Audi via the rear-view cameras (I think I used the normal-position rear-view mirror more than I have in years), I found the e-tron a delight to drive — particularly out in the boonies where the speed limit on the superhighway was 160 km/h.
Now, although Mr. Bettencourt, my co-driver, says he didn’t notice this when he was behind the wheel, I found that the e-tron seemed to strain a bit — a wee bit, but a bit nonetheless — going from 150 up to 160 km/h. Going from zero to 140-150 was no problem and, in fact, was an effortless dream, but then I detected a slight reluctance to go faster.
Which is no big deal in any event. I do not drive on highways where there is such a high speed limit. In fact, in Ontario, where I live, the maximum on the 400-series highways (expressways) is 100 km/h. More than 120 is pushing it in the eyes of the law so the fact that the Audi, in my opinion, was not as snappy above 150 should be of no concern.
One other thing I noticed. At one point, I thought I heard a siren off in the distance. I have acute hearing and can often hear a siren in the city before others in my car become aware. So I said to Bettencourt, “I wonder what that siren’s for?” And he said, “What siren?” And we both got a laugh when we figured out that when you are pulling away from a stop sign, or out of a rest area, or wherever from a standing start, and you haven’t floored it but are accelerating up at a reasonable pace, that the sound of an e-tron electric motor, which is not silent but almost, can sound a bit like a weak siren.
Over the course of the day, we took that SUV up hill and down dale. We went to the top of Jebel Hafeet, the highest point in Abu Dhabi, and down again. Bettencourt was driving when we went up and he’s a very experienced test driver and so was not — shall we say — slow on the ascent. The car performed flawlessly throughout the twisty, steep climb.
I drove going down (which was great for him, because the best views are when you descend) and the vehicle added kilometres to our range because the e-tron’s recuperation system kicked in.
We were told that up to 30 per cent of the distance travelled can be recovered and that was not far off. Energy is recovered and put back into the battery either by me, the driver, lifting my foot off the throttle and coasting, or by hitting the brakes, at which point the motors on the axels become generators and convert the kinetic energy back into electrical energy.
It’s really neat to watch the range indicator increase, rather than the other way around. And that’s not the only time recycling is featured in the e-tron. For instance, excess heat from the electronics is sent back to the climate-control system, where it contributes to the heating or cooling of the vehicle.
The organizers had loaded the route into the navigation system for us, so as long as we didn’t wander, we would have enough juice to get us through the day and to our second hotel, from where we would leave for the airport and the flights home.
In normal conditions, such as driving in the GTA, you can key into the navigation system where you want to go and the e-tron will take you there via the nearest charging station(s). The route planner calculates not only how much electricity is in your battery but the density of traffic so that when it estimates how long it will take you to go from A to B, it takes just about everything into consideration.
These weren’t normal conditions. It turned out that although everything we had heard about the e-tron being able to go about, even more than, 400 kilometres on a single charge, we had, in fact, only about 375 km of range when we started our drive in the desert where the temperature was above 20C. (It makes you wonder, then, how the e-tron will be affected by the January-February Canadian cold, when electric vehicles lose range naturally.) In any event, we finished with about 27 km of range remaining and might have had more except for an unplanned off-road excursion.
Bettencourt and I were following directions — we thought — when we found ourselves slightly disoriented. We had gone off a superhighway and had driven through a camel gate (yes, camels wander around Abu Dhabi much like cattle in Alberta) and found ourselves staring straight at a sand dune. There were fresh tire tracks up and over the dune and so we figured, well — that looks to be the route.
In fact, a fellow in a red pickup truck was supposed to have been there to tell us to jog left and around the dune but he was nowhere to be seen. We later learned he’d fallen ill and had to leave.
In any event, my friend Michael Bettencourt took a deep breath and hit the throttle and we went about five feet through the sand before the car sank down to its axels. Pretty much like a stone. So there we were, a couple of Canadians, out in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, in Abu Dhabi, and we were stuck.
This could prove to be embarrassing.
But just like Canada in the winter time, when people go off the road and get stuck in a snow bank, people stop to help. And before we knew it, five Arab men had pulled up and pushed us out of that sand. Only one could speak a little English and wanted to know where we were from. “Canada,” we said. “Ah, Canada,” he said, breaking into a smile.
It warms the cockles of your heart to see a smile like that when all you do is say the name of your country.
And then they were gone and we were on our way. It was only later, when I was looking at my notes of a briefing we’d been given the evening before when we’d first arrived, that I saw something that I’d written down and underlined. It said:
“Do not drive into deep sand. Always stay on solid ground.”
Now we’ll know they mean business the next time we’re told something like that.
One last thing. Right now, at this very minute, there are no quick chargers at charging stations in Canada capable of powering up an Audi e-tron to 80 per cent capacity in 30 minutes. The good news is that by the time the company starts to sell the cars in Canada, in the second quarter of 2019, there should be some along Highway 401 between Windsor and Quebec. They will be installed by Volkswagen Group Canada, which has created a company called Electrify Canada.
By the end of 2019, Audi says, a total of 32 charging-station sites, with between six and eight charging stations at each site, will be operational in Ontario-Quebec and Vancouver-to-nearly-Calgary.
It will be a good start to servicing a great car, with more like it coming from Audi.
2019 Audi e-tron All-electric Luxury SUV
Engine: Fully electric drive system with one electric motor on the front axle and one on the rear axle including motor boost and efficient cooling system
Battery capacity: 95 kW/h
Transmission: Planetary gear set (1-speed)
System output: 265 kW (360 hp); 300 kW (408 hp) in boost mode
Maximum torque: 561 Nm (413.8 lb.-ft.); 664 Nm (489.7 lb.-ft.)
Top speed: 200 km/h
Acceleration: 6.6 seconds — 0 to 100 km/h
Weight: 2,490 kg
Range: 400 kilometres
Website: Audi e-tron
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