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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 January 2019

Audi’s new all-electric SUV charges ahead

We test the Audi e-tron, the German carmaker's first all-electric model, which launched in Abu Dhabi

The new Audi e-tron in Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
The new Audi e-tron in Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

Tesla has a monopoly on the fledgling premium electric vehicle segment locally, but the US carmaker’s e-party is about to be crashed in the next 12 to 18 months as European brands barge into the market with battery-powered challengers of their own.

The National recently previewed Jaguar’s I-Pace and Mercedes-Benz’s EQC and now Audi has shown its hand via the all-new e-tron – the Teutonic marque’s first crack at a fully electrified production model.

Interestingly enough – considering EVs are hardly the flavour of the month in our region – Audi chose to stage the international launch of the electrified SUV in Abu Dhabi, starting the drive programme at Masdar City, the capital’s sustainable, low-carbon community that’s meant to serve as a “greenprint” for future business and residential developments in the UAE.

The e-tron reflects Masdar’s ­environmentally friendly aspirations through a zero-emission power-train that combines a pair of electric motors – one for each axle – and a 95kWh battery pack that provides a theoretical touring range of 400 kilometres. There is a slight caveat when it comes to emissions, though, because the local electricity grid is predominantly gas-fired, so there is obviously an impact on the environment at the power-­generation stage. That said, plans are in place for the UAE to phase in 75 per cent clean-energy sources in the coming three decades, so there will eventually be an eco pay-off.

Audi says that the e-tron will be on sale here by July or August next year, with pricing expected to cost from about Dh325,000. For that money, you will get a vehicle that falls between the brand’s existing Q5 and Q7 in terms of physical dimensions. There’s ample space inside for five adults and 660 litres of luggage, so the e-tron should theoretically cater to a wide audience in our SUV-loving market.

With its gargantuan 2.5-tonne girth (the sizeable underfloor battery pack contributes 700 kilograms to this), the e-tron isn’t Tesla-quick and hardly bolts from 0-to-100kph, with a split time of 5.7 seconds. It can hit 200kph flat out – we actually clocked up 201kph on the digital speedo and it didn’t take long to get there. Every time you lift off the throttle or press the brake pedal, the drive-train goes into recuperation mode, with kinetic energy converted to charge, extending the range of the battery pack.

The overriding impression during my maiden drive is of how quiet and refined the driving experience is inside the e-tron. Obviously, there’s no racket generated by a combustion engine – just a slight whine from the electric motors – while wind/road noise is also well subdued. Helping in this department are (optional) slimline rear-facing cameras in lieu of wing mirrors, and the images captured from these are visible on screens inset into the left and right door trims. Clever stuff, but not that practical in the real world, because viewing the driver-side screen requires you to crane your neck at an awkward angle. Even then, you don’t get a sense of depth perception via the virtual image.

The other real-world limitation is that recharging is still a time-­consuming affair. Even if you get to one of the few fast-charge points in the UAE, you need to wait 30 minutes for an 80 per cent zap to the battery pack. Using a conventional 3kWh home socket requires more than 30 hours for a full recharge from empty. However, if you live in a villa, you can ask your local electricity provider for an 11kWh socket that would enable full recharges overnight.

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Other than these gripes, the e-tron closely mimics Audi’s petrol-powered models. Unlike Jaguar’s I-Pace, which has distinctively offbeat proportions and design language, the e-tron is barely discernible from its conventional siblings. The only external clue that there’s no living, breathing combustion engine under the bonnet is a grille that’s largely sealed – apart from a small horizontal aperture in the centre. Audi’s stylists haven’t used the opportunity to create a mould-breaking design that capitalises on the very different packaging requirements of an EV. Presumably this is because the Audi brains didn’t want to risk alienating the brand’s existing customer base.

The e-tron’s visual conservatism is reflected by driving dynamics that are pleasant, rather than, well, electrifying. Apart from the satisfying surge of instant acceleration provided by the torque-laden electric motors, the e-tron has a largely unobtrusive demeanour. It’s ultra-quiet and refined, but lacks the engagement and dynamism of the I-Pace.

A charge up Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain provides proof that this is a vehicle that’s built for effortless cruising, rather than carving up mountain roads at warp speeds. Flinging such a weighty SUV at corners reveals a propensity for understeer, prompting the low-rolling-­resistance tyres to howl in protest.

Far better to pedal it with more restraint while enjoying the supple ride, on standard air suspension, and serene ambience of the elegantly laid-out cockpit.

Of the EVs I have driven so far, the e-tron is the most soothing and opulent, but it is a tentative step into the genre, rather than a gamechanger.

Updated: December 13, 2018 05:19 PM

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