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While there is a sense that Audi finally launching its globally successful electric vehicle, the e-tron, in Australia is a move of staggering optimism, it's quite clear that the company's local arm feels it has no choice.
Yes, Australia has its head stuck so far into the sand when it comes to alternative energy, carbon emissions and climate change that it still elects leaders who hold aloft coal with glee, but the fact is the rest of the world is changing.
By 2025, a whopping 40 per cent of all Audis sold globally will be electrified - either full Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) or plug-in hybrid PHEVs - and while it is hugely unlikely we'll be near that number, the fact is we will, over time, be faced with a world in which there is more choice of EVs than ICE vehicles.
Which means Audi Australia will need us to be switched on to electric vehicles, or it's going to run out of things to sell. Consider that in Norway, 92 per cent of all Audis sold are the e-tron (it went on sale there more than a year ago) and that it is now the number-one selling car in that country. Not just the top EV, the top vehicle of any kind, period.
This would suggest that, in the world of EVs, the e-tron must be something pretty special, so we went along to the launch in Canberra to find out, and were struck by just how seriously Audi is treating it. Like six years of free servicing, six years of free recharging on the Chargefox network and a free Jet Charge wall box fitted at your home or business, before your car is even delivered serious.
They really expect to sell some of these things, even at a starting price of $137,100.
|Audi E-Tron 2021: 55 Quattro|
Well, we need to start from the point of acknowledging that EVs in this country are generally expensive and the government is providing no financial incentives at all to help you reach an e-tron price range that starts at $137,100 (for the entry-level 50, which comes with a smaller battery and thus less range, power and torque) and tops out at $169,350 for the e-tron 55 First Edition (the cheapest version of the 55 is $146,100).
Audi, however, is offering incentives, and keep in mind that these are folded into those prices. Perhaps the cleverest is that Audi will install a Jet Charge wall box, so you can charge at home, or at your business address, for free (a saving of at least $1000, realistically), before your e-tron arrives, so you're ready to go.
You'll also get six years of "free" (you've effectively paid for it, but still) membership of the the Chargefox network, Australia's largest, which means you won't have to pay to top up on volts when you're on a road trip, and you can use the fastest DC chargers currently available.
Audi is also offering six years of servicing and six years of roadside assistance, also gratis.
If you are keen, be sure to grab the $169,350 First Edition e-tron 55 quattro variant, which comes in either of the two body styles (the e-tron, which is more SUV-like, or the Sportback, which is more wagon-low) and includes the tricky virtual mirrors (which replace traditional, clunky glass ones with cameras and screens), 21-inch alloys, e-tron orange brake calipers, Matrix LED headlights, black exterior styling, head-up display, a 705-watt Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system, S Sport front seats and privacy glass.
If you go for the entry-level e-tron 50 you get quite a lot of safety gear included (see the Safety section below), as well as rain-sensing wipers, convenience key, electric rear tailgate with gesture control, LED headlights, leather-appointed upholstery (includes man-made materials) and Milano leather seats, which are heated. And... floor mats, front and rear.
There are, of course, option packs on which you can spend more money, including a $9,700 Premium plus package for the e-tron, which only costs $6700 on the Sportback, or the Premium interior package for $2950.
Overall, it's tough to give a mark for value, because it seems an expensive car, but a lot of what you're paying for is the battery. Yet Audi is certainly throwing the freebies at buyers here to help win them over.
Well, it's hard to go past the virtual mirrors, isn't it? These eye-catching little cameras on stalks certainly change the look of the e-tron in a pretty profound way and it's hard not to stare at them. At first it's a "hey, something's missing here" kind of feeling, followed by an "aren't those things only on concept cars at motor shows"?
If you happen to show the car to your mum, as I did, she's likely to ask you what the point is, aside from looking pretty future cool, and the answer is that it's all about aero. Wing mirrors are a bit of a previously unavoidable nightmare when it comes to drag coefficient and the virtual mirrors make a "big" saving in that area (the car's drag coefficient is 0.28 without the virtual mirrors or 0.27 with them).
Other than that, Audi's designers have done a great job of making the e-tron look familiarly Germanic and yet just different enough, from the automatically adjusting louvres in the grille - which open and shut for aerodynamic and cooling reasons in different conditions - to the very sexy light bar across the curvaceous rear.
You can have the more typically SUV version, if you must, but for me it's the swoopier, sleeker Sportback, which falls perfectly between the jacked-up look of the common soft roader and a station wagon, and is simply much prettier. And, being lower, it should surely shave some coefficient points off as well. And every bit counts when you're trying to get maximum range out of your EV.
Oh, and the bright golden/orange/yellow e-tron badging is pretty fetching, too.
It's probably best to start in the back seat here, because there's an immediate advantage to discuss. The lack of any transmission tunnel means the middle passenger in the rear is genuinely going to be a lot more comfortable, particularly in terms of leg room.
In terms of overall space, things are very much like your typical mid-to-large Audi SUV inside, with the company claiming you get Q7 levels of storage, despite the fact that e-tron falls between a Q5 and a Q7.
Boot space is 660 litres in the rear - or 1725 litres with the seats dropped - and you also get a bonus 60-litre storage tray under the bonnet, which is ideal for your charging cables.
There's also a huge storage cubby between the seats, that gapes open in a kind of weird fashion, but certainly offers plenty of space. There are four cup holders, plus a bottle holder in each door.
In terms of practicality, it's also worth mentioning what a clever idea it was by Audi to put charging points on both sides of the car - an AC and DC port on the driver's side and just an AC one on the passenger side, meaning you can park your vehicle in your garage, or your driveway, in either direction and be able to plug it in either way to your home AC power.
The e-tron engine? Well, not so much, but it does have two electric motors, one on each axle, which helps it to provide Quattro-branded on-demand all-wheel drive (most of the time, of course, it drives just two wheels, to save on power).
The power output is 300kW while the torque from the lithium-ion 95kWh battery in the e-tron 55 is 561Nm, which jumps to 664Nm with Boost mode (the smaller, cheaper e-tron 50 gets a 71kWh battery, 230kW and 540Nm).
Then there's the transmission, which is a two-stage planetary unit with just one gear, which means you get seamless acceleration, and no doubt save quite a bit on maintenance as well.
Once again, it's very hard to give a mark for this, because in car terms, a theoretical range of up to 436km (that's for the bigger batteried 55, the 50 is just 336km) would be laughable, and yet, for an EV of this size, it's quite good.
And, to be fair, for someone doing the average commute every week and just the odd longer trip here and there, it would work.
There are, of course, some variables to consider. Audi claims its e-tron offers revolutionary and world-beating levels of regeneration, where every time you get off the throttle or hit the brakes, the car regenerates power back into its batteries. Indeed, it says this system can add as much as 30 per cent to your range.
Obviously, however, if you're cruising down a freeway and not touching the brakes at all, you're not going to get the same amount of regeneration, and thus you'll get less range.
You can also adjust the amount of regen - or how fiercely the car stops as as soon as you step off the throttle - through two stages, using paddles on the steering wheel. This can allow you to drive with one pedal alone, in some situations, which is strange.
Practically, what happens is that when you get in the e-tron 55 you'll be shown a range of around 300km, but while you're driving that range will extend, which is to say it will not drop as quickly as you'd expect.
So, after 100km of driving on the launch in the 55, my range had only dropped to 240km from an indicated 297km.
After our charging stop, I swapped to a 50, which was suggesting I had 227km of range from full. I then drove just over 220km and when I arrived I still had a suggested range of 95km left.
So, in this admittedly carefully curated by Audi test drive, the system seemed to provide the range that it promised.
What was perhaps more impressive was the charging experience, at Chargefox's DC fast chargers in Goulburn. My 55, which had done 130km, was back to 80 per cent in just 15 minutes and fully charged in 25. (An EV expert also pointed out that he'd advise never charging your electric car beyond 80 per cent, unless you have to, because it's better for the batteries.)
The key is that the e-tron is, according to Audi, the fastest-charging EV on the Australian market, meaning it can take a full 150kW from the DC charger for a "longer and more sustainable time", thanks to the fact that both the Audi's charger, and its battery, are liquid cooled, for optimum rapid charging. It's all about the thermal efficiency, you see.
The first thing a lot of people will ask is, can I get electrocuted by the battery, and the answer is no. In the event of a "catastrophic accident", the battery is automatically disconnected, and other than that, you'd have to be trying pretty hard, and grabbing cables covered in bright orange warning plastic, so it's pretty safe.
As is the fact that he e-tron has been awarded a five-star ANCAP safety rating. It comes with eight airbags, and features Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) with pedestrian and cyclist detection, 360-degree cameras, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic assist, intersection assist, collision-avoidance assist, turn assist, exit warning and tyre-pressure monitoring.
3 years / unlimited km warranty
ANCAP Safety Rating
As mentioned, Audi is sweetening the e-tron deal with six years of free servicing and roadside assistance.
The EV wary will also be glad to hear that the battery, in particular, comes with an eight-year/160,000km warranty. And that Audi's new design means that each module in the battery is individually repairable, which is potentially a big saving.
Other than that, the car is covered by a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, and Audi also points out that "any Audi dealer can carry out scheduled servicing on an e-tron vehicle."
Journalists have been making the same lazy mistake for some time when describing EVs, falling into the temptation of commenting on how "car-like" they are to drive, but they're hardly going to be duck-like, or even truck-like, are they?
What's noticeable here is how Audi-like the whole experience is. Everything is familiar, right down to the slightly dull but always light and easy to use steering feel.
There might be little weight to the steering system, but there's certainly a sense of weight on the road, and not just the Germanic-quality kind.
The e-tron is nudging 2.5 tonnes, which is a lot, but you have to consider that some 700kg of that is just the battery, which measures 2m by 1.5m and is 30cm high. All that weight sits below you, fortunately, in the floor of the car, so while it's heavy, at least it's not top heavy.
Normally a low centre of gravity guarantees good handling but in this case there's awful lot of gravity sitting very low down, if you see what i mean, and if you're driving down a steep mountain pass and changing directions a lot it can feel cumbersome. It's not top heavy, so it does sit nice and flat through fast sweepers, it's just heavy in general.
The 55 feels particularly lumpy in that way - not awful, just noticeably heavy - while the 50, with its slightly smaller battery, saving it around 120kg, feels slightly more sprightly. The difference is noticeable but not so important that I would actually choose the variant with 100km less range, because that just seems like a pain in the butt.
The fun part, of course, comes when you hit the throttle, because, in typical EV style, this thing can really warp-speed your face into a crazed grin. While the 55, in full boost mode, with 300kW and 664Nm of instantaneous torque at your disposal, can hit 100km/h in 5.7 seconds, it's the rolling acceleration that you'll really love.
Mostly, then, you're in a solid feeling, nicely planted premium SUV/Sportback that is, er, car-like, or at least familiar to drive, until we start to talk about regen.
All EVs use regeneration to put power back into their vital batteries, and it's very clever - indeed, Audi claims its use adds a whopping 30 per cent to the e iron's range.
The first electric vehicles felt very weird when you got off the throttle, with a kind of violent engine braking taking place that was hard to get used to.
The e-tron is much smoother in the way it does this, at least in its Automatic regen setting, but you also have the option of using the paddles on the steering wheel (the ones that would have been used to shift gears, except that you only have one), to adjust between two levels of regeneration feel.
In practice, this means you can practice what Audi calls "one-pedal driving", using the paddles to slow you down without touching the brakes at all. This is particularly entertaining on a winding bit of country road, but you're probably less likely to use it around town, and some people won't use it at all - just like normal shift paddles.
Over all, the Audi e-tron is a very successful attempt to make EV driving feel normal, Audi-like, practical and cool. But the fact that you can't just get in and drive 1000km without a fuel stop is still going to put some people off, far more than the way it drives.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the new Audi e-tron is that the local arm of the company really expects people to buy them. Lots of them. In a car market where EVs currently make up three-fifths of stuff all, it's a bold move, particularly at a six-figure starting price.
I had thought the whole thing was more of a green-branding exercise, but Audi does seem serious, so its research must show there are buyers out there who don't love Elon Musk.
Fortunately, the e-tron is a very capable family sized EV that looks good, is fun to drive, charges quickly and has a range you could live with.
This could, in fact, be what Audi's future looks like.
|50 Quattro||—, Electric, 1 SP||$148,700||2021 Audi E-Tron 2021 50 Quattro Pricing and Specs|
|55 Quattro||—, Electric, 1 SP||$157,700||2021 Audi E-Tron 2021 55 Quattro Pricing and Specs|
|55 Quattro First Edition||—, Electric, 1 SP||$169,950||2021 Audi E-Tron 2021 55 Quattro First Edition Pricing and Specs|
|50 Quattro||—, Electric, 1 SP||$137,700||2021 Audi E-Tron 2021 50 Quattro Pricing and Specs|
|Price and features||7|
|Engine & trans||8|