SAN FRANCISCO—That I have one of the best jobs in the world, let there be no doubt.
Here I am, last Monday night, aboard the San Francisco Belle, a three-stories-tall showboat of the kind that once toured the Mississippi, paddle-wheeling across San Francisco Bay to an old Ford factory to attend the unveiling of the latest all-electric luxury car being manufactured by a major international automaker, the 2019 Audi e-tron.
I’m one of several thousand people on this vessel and, like all of the others, I’m tucking into the shrimp cocktail and clam chowder and bellying up to one of the many bars (although, in my case, the libation of choice is sarsaparilla instead of scotch) and thinking of the many wonders of the e-tron I’m soon to behold.
I say the “many wonders” because, although I have yet to actually see the vehicle, I’d just spent much of the day leading up to this cruise attending a series of workshops in which Audi executives told me just about everything I would ever want to know about the car and the company’s plans for electrification in the next five or six years.
For instance, Dr. Peter Mertens, who’s in charge of technical development for Audi AG, told a seminar entitled “The e-tron is the beginning” that by 2025, the company plans to be selling 800,000 electric cars and plug-in hybrids each year — about a third of its output.
I also learned — or came to realize — that the market driving this push to electrification is China’s, with more than one presenter making reference to the smog-choked cities in that country and the need to do something before everybody living there dies of asthma. It is now apparent, to me, at least, that while consumers in North America and Europe are important to the people who make cars, the place that really counts is China, where 1.3 billion people — about 20 per cent of the world’s population — live, work and buy things.
I have an open mind and am ready to accept pretty much everything that people tell me, but one of the other things I heard during the day on Monday was that by 2025 (my notes say that; the presenter might very well have said “by halfway through the next decade”), 30 per cent of all new cars sold will be EVs.
I find that to be, shall we say, optimistic, considering that EVs right now, today, only make up about 1 per cent of car sales worldwide (including, interestingly enough, China).
Having said that, Audi — as befits any forward-thinking company — wants the best of all-possible worlds and emphasized that the remainder of its lineup in 2025 will be made up of plug-in hybrids, conventional gasoline- and diesel-powered combustion engines and — yes — even hydrogen-powered cars.
In any event, excitement was running high as our Mississippi showboat approached the shore and seemed to explode when the first of several surprises was trotted out.
Once upon a time, fireworks were a big deal. In some quarters, they still are. But Audi is known for its four rings and so organizers, rather than having a series of Diadems and Crysanthemums set off by a pyrotechnician named something like Jason “Three Fingers” McGuinty, turned loose about 300 drones that, once lit up and in position, traced the outline of those four rings in the twilight sky. Think of a bunch of fireflies and the four-ring Audi nameplate hovering in the air and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
[caption id="attachment_125619" align="alignnone" width="3508"] The Charge world premiere of the Audi e-tron[/caption]
Inside that old factory, things got really interesting because the car itself was finally unveiled. It’s an attractive, five-seater, all-wheel-drive, mid-size SUV loaded with all the latest technology that can go — they say — more than 400 kilometres on a full charge. Said interim CEO Abraham Schot, “Range anxiety is a thing of the past.”
This, it was explained, is because of the e-tron’s recuperation system that makes up about 30 per cent of the distance travelled. Energy is recovered and put back into the battery either by the driver taking his or her foot off the accelerator and coasting or by using the brakes. In both cases, the motors become generators and convert the kinetic energy back into electric energy.
Now that you know the car has range, you should also know that it’s quick like a thoroughbred — it can go from zero to 100 km/h in 6.6 seconds and has a top speed of 200 km/h — and is as tough as a Clydesdale, with the ability to tow up to 1,800 kilograms (4,000 pounds).
The car won’t be in Canadian showrooms till early in 2019 and pricing is not yet available (the U.S. price announced last Monday night will see the e-tron start at $74,800). Having said that, if you’re keen to get one, you can go to the audi.ca website right now and put in an order.
OK, here is more of what I know about this car. A drive will come later — hopefully.
The car is 4,901 millimetres long, 1,935 mms wide and 1,616 mms high and has cargo space of 660 litres. The car is propelled by two electric motors (one on each axle) and boasts 300 kW and 664 Nm (489.7 lb.-ft.) of torque. The front-axle motor puts out 125 kW while the one in the rear puts out 140 kW.
The battery system, which can store up to 95 kWh of energy, is underneath the passenger department and is flat between the two axles. A sheet of aluminum across the bottom of the car protects the battery from the elements.
That battery system, by the way, is liquid-cooled. In order to get the best performance out of an EV, it’s imperative to keep the batteries and motors at the right temperature. In keeping with its focus on recycling, excess heat from the electronics is sent back to the climate-control system.
Audi makes a big deal out of the ability of owners to charge the car at home, suggesting that the capacity of the battery makes having to stop during the day for a boost unnecessary under normal driving conditions.
Translation: if you have a 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 those 400 kms. If you have a fast charger (about a $1,000 investment), it will only take between four and five hours. If you go on vacation, though, and have to stop to charge up at a charging station, you can get to 80 per cent capacity in about a half hour, they say.
Inside the cabin, the driver has two interactive touchscreens available for just about any function and the driver assists, infotainment system and other elements (voice commands) are becoming pretty standard on just about any modern car.
The e-tron route planner was interesting, though, in that you can key in where you want to go and it takes you there via the nearest charging station(s). The planner calculates not only how much juice 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.
One thing that stood out on Monday — really stood out — was the description and explanation of a virtual exterior mirror that cuts down on drag and increases range. Instead of a mirror attached to each front door — and we all know how big those mirrors can be — the almost-flat mountings contain two tiny cameras that transfer the exterior images onto an interior screen.
Unfortunately, North American regulations — at the moment — don’t allow reflectors other than traditional mirrors but Audi is currently lobbying to have this particular rule changed.
That was an example, by the way, of some things that were problematic about last Monday. Much of what was discussed — charging networks, for instance — was about Europe. Or the United States. All day, I heard one reference to Canada and it was in the context of “the United States and southern Canada.”
Having said that, it was enlightening to see how committed automakers in general, and Audi in particular, are to electrification. It is a changing world and electrification seems to have unleashed imagination and creativity in an industry that had been drifting along and not really doing a lot of anything the last little while.
The Audi e-tron combines the space and comfort of a typical luxury class automobile with a range suitable for everyday use. From 0 to 100 km/h in 6.6 seconds, a range of over 400 kilometres and zero emissions — the SUV is powerful, efficient, sporty and practical.
Exterior: distinctive SUV design with wrap-around shoulder line, flat roof, brawny D-pillars and underbody protection.
Aerodynamics: drag coefficient of 0.28 with standard exterior mirrors (subject to regulation change), 0.27 with the optional virtual exterior mirrors — a top value in the SUV segment. Very low wind and intrusive noise.
Drive system: electric all-wheel drive with lightning fast off-the-line performance on a par with a sports car.
The future: Audi e-tron Sportback to follow in 2019; Audi electric-powered compact in 2020; Audi e-tron GT in 2020-21.
Norris McDonald is the Editor of Toronto Star Wheels. His columns, blogs and feature stories, particularly about motorsport, are industry-leading. He has received awards and citations for his newspaper work and frequently appears on radio and television. In 2014, he became the first journalist to be inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame.