First Drive – Audi e-tron offers city chauffeurs Tesla alternative

With other major UK cities looking to follow Central London with low emissions zones, there is a political movement building to support the idea of electric cars.

However, while it is one thing for politicians to pay lip service to the environment in this way, overcoming the practical issues of large scale implementation of electric cars is quite another.

Ian Kuah takes to the roads of Abu Dhabi to discover the latest electric vehicle to hit the road, The Audi e-tron for TheChauffeur.com.

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With real estate premium priced in urban areas, the overheads are very high and with utility companies driven by the bottom line they will certainly not be investing large sums of their shareholder’s money in electric car charging infrastructure.

Interestingly, in Germany the car manufacturers seem to be doing most of the heavy lifting here, with Daimler and partners also rolling out hydrogen filling stations to support their F-Cell initiative.

Meanwhile, people buying electric cars at this time have their own challenges in the form of higher purchase price, much steeper depreciation and more expensive insurance costs. In short, unless you can offset these additional loadings against your business operating costs, or they work out less than the London Congestion Charge, going electric at this time may not make financial sense.

If you are in the VIP Chauffeur business a premium vehicle with visual presence and all the luxury features your clients are used to and indeed expect, is a must. On that score the list of possible electric vehicles (EV) that fit the bill is a very short one – Audi e-tron, Jaguar I-Pace, and Tesla Model X.

Of these three, Audi and Jaguar have the advantage of a nationwide dealer network for backup. Both the Audi e-tron and Jaguar I-Pace are SUV’s but when it comes to cabin space and sheer comfort the e-tron is in a class of its own.

To prove that, their first ever production full electric car has the right stuff and enough real world range. Audi took us to Abu Dhabi where we drove the e-tron on urban and suburban roads, highways, a twisty mountain road and even a desert off-road course.

With an overall length of 4,901mm, on a 2,928mm wheelbase the e-tron sits between the Q5 and Q7 in size. That means it is larger than the Jaguar in both exterior and interior dimensions.

Comfortable, well designed and beautifully crafted, the cabin offers plenty of room in the back, along with a decent sized 600-litre boot, supplemented by a 60-litre storage area under the bonnet. Fold the rear seats down and total load space extends to a large estate car rivalling 1,725 litres.

The cabin architecture is a product of the same school of thought we have seen with the new Q3, and uses stepped horizontal layers to define different functions such as the telematics and ventilation system. This accentuates the apparent width of the car while at the same time creating a 3D effect that usefully diminishes the visual mass of the dashboard.

The Audi Virtual Cockpit instrument pack will be familiar to drivers of current Audi models, with only the bespoke readouts pertaining to the cars electric drive as new features. Meanwhile the big touch activated MMI widescreen in the centre console will also be a familiar element to owners of the current generation A1, A6, A7, A8 and Q3.

With a rear compartment that offers plenty of leg and headroom for passengers. Along with its premium look and feel this is a good reason the e-tron could potentially be popular with VIP chauffeur companies operating in emissions conscious urban areas like Central London.

Relative silence is a big part of any luxury car experience and here Audi’s engineers pushed the boat out to reduce road and wind induced noise to an absolute minimum to match the whisper quiet electric drivetrain.

As an electric car has no internal combustion engine noise, every other sound is no longer masked. This means road and wind noise suddenly become more prominent to occupants.

The engineers thus launched a two-pronged attack on road and wind noise, with both axles and motors receiving a blanket of sound deadening material to prevent road noise reaching the cabin.

This is a fairly straightforward process with the front axle since it is further away from the cabin and occupant’s ears. However, the rear electric motor transmission unit is positioned in the centre of the multi-link rear axle right under the rear of the cabin and so requires more sound deadening as well as elastic mounts to reduce mechanical vibrations. In addition the sub-frame is decoupled from the bodyshell by bespoke rubber bushes.

The double-glazing option was fitted to our test cars, along with the optional virtual rear mirror system whose slim aft facing cameras have a fraction of the physical size of conventional mirrors.

While these mirrors help to reduce both aerodynamic drag and wind noise we were not keen on the placement of the rear view image screens on the doors, which is both lower and some 80-degrees off the plane where you expect to find them.

The larger (20 and 21-inch) wheels available on the e-tron feature tyres with a special foam band on the inside. This technology arrived with the Mercedes-Maybach in 2015, and achieves a reduction of between 6-9dB in rolling noise reduction depending on the road surface.

The e-tron is powered by two asynchronous electric motors, the rear one being more powerful to achieve the desired rear-biased handling balance. The two motors jointly produce 95kWh, which is the equivalent of 402hp and 490 lb ft (664 Nm) of torque.

To maximise efficiency the rear motor does the driving under light load conditions, and when the car is ‘gliding’ on level ground the motors operate free of magnetic drag torque.

However, the e-tron tips the scales at a hefty 5,500 lb (2,500kg), which takes its toll on outright performance. Thus the 5.7 sec 0-62mph time and 124mph top speed are rapid but far from mind blowing.

Range is the biggest issue with electric cars, and the quoted 248 mile range is more realistically around 210 miles in real world conditions with a lot of highway driving where throttle off and brake recuperative charging hardly come into play. In town where they do the range will be boosted as high as 330 miles, with recuperation accounting for up to 30% of total range.

While the e-tron can eke out 330 miles in urban driving in mild temperatures, equivalent to 111mpg in a normal car, this plummets dramatically to just 230 miles in very cold (sub-zero) weather, with a similar level of range degradation seen in highway driving.

Thus, the combined average urban and highway range of 260 miles in mild temperature conditions drops to around 200 miles in cold weather. In addition, terrain, driving style, and heating and air-conditioning usage all affect power consumption and hence range.

Another (current) downside of EVs is long charging times, but by developing its own fast charging system Audi has won a leg up over the Jaguar I-Pace, Mercedes EQC400 4matic and Tesla Model X 75D.

If you charge the e-tron from the 11kW AC mains charger provided with the car it will take all of nine hours to top up the battery. But Audi’s wall mounted 150kW three-phase DC fast charger can deliver enough juice in half an hour to take you 184 miles. In comparative terms this is 38%, 21% and 22% faster respectively than the e-tron’s above mentioned marketplace rivals.

Audi’s first all-electric production car does exactly what it says on its elegant and faultlessly crafted tin, providing an admirably seamless and serene driving experience.

The standard Adaptive Air Suspension hardware is shared with the Q7 so its effectiveness in providing good ride comfort is a given with Comfort, Normal and Sport settings on tap. The system has an operating height adjustment range of 76mm, and in Off-road mode the ride height is raised by 35mm. Meanwhile the four position ESC (Electronic Stabilization Control) has Sport and Offroad settings, and can also be de-activated completely.

The power steering is a variable ratio system that becomes a bit more responsive when you are in Sport mode, and has quite natural feel and feedback. Sheer weight means the e-tron is not a sporty machine but as a comfortable town and highway cruiser par excellence it cossets its occupants with a level of refinement and comfort worthy of high praise indeed.

Our drive in and around Abu Dhabi encompassing urban, highway, and off-road driving highlighted in no uncertain terms that the e-tron is a well conceived, well engineered, and comfortable vehicle that performs as advertised.

To verify that the e-tron is no one trick pony we rated the multitude of objective qualities mentioned above during our test drive. On top of that we also scored the cars subjective feel good factor, which had been an open question before we got behind the wheel.

In this regard the e-tron felt so well sorted it even managed to convince this sceptic just how well rounded and mature an EV can be even at this relatively early stage of the electro-mobility game.

The Audi e-tron goes on sale in the UK in early 2019 with a basic price of £70,805.
 
Report and images by Ian Kuah.

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