Quietly Confident

Behind all the electric vehicle hoopla, Audi has rather quietly gotten on with building the first mainstream off-road capable premium EV. Which is rather handy for exploring the great Kiwi outdoors.

Depending on who you talk to about EVs, people are generally either completely for them or completely against them.

It speaks as much to how manufacturers have positioned the EV to date as it does the human psyche. Electric cars are different and that just doesn’t sit well for many, does it?

Audi E-Tron in Queenstown

That’s why Audi’s approach is a game changer, They’re normalising vehicle electrification.

The brand’s first ground-up EV example - the e-tron SUV – is a good steer on how EV’s can, and will, go mainstream over the next few years. Even compared with Audi’s already tech-crammed SUV line up, the e-tron is, if you’ll indulge the pun, a powerhouse.

Naturally you have the full suite of active safety features for the family, including mild lane keeping autonomy, adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance. But there’s also a stunning interior layout with a 8.6” lower touchscreen for heater and climate controls and an upper 10.1” infotainment touchscreen and the intuitive Audi user interface we love in their other SUVs.

The range-topping e-tron 55 quattro Advanced ($157,000 plus ORCs) we sampled features a 95kWh battery pack and two motors delivering a peak possible torque of 664Nm and speeds this full-size SUV to 100km/h in under six seconds. It also boasts a 1800kg braked tow rating, 150kW (DC) charging capacity and a 417km range under the WLTP test protocol.

And while all that stuff underneath bears no resemblance to any Audi before it, above deck the e-tron refreshingly isn’t trying to shout about its EV-ness with kooky styling. Inside and out, it looks most like a Q8.

And you can’t complain about that.

 

Okay, so there are a few additions; not least Audi’s first implementation of ‘Virtual Side Mirrors’. These are slender aerodynamic stalks with inbuilt cameras which replace the traditional wing mirrors.

More than just gadgetry, they deliver a lower co-efficient of drag and, give or take, an extra 6km of range.

The rearward view is displayed on high-contrast, OLED touchscreens in the door trim. You can adjust the angle to suit by simply dragging your finger around the screen. At first you may be inclined to live without these, but Audi New Zealand has cleverly packaged them with a comprehensive technology and comfort package that adds ambient lighting, matrix LED headlights, electric steering adjustability, comfort stationary air conditioning, door entrance LED projector lights with the e-tron logo and an additional storage package. All in all, those features combined make it a compelling option to consider. We’d certainly tick that box.

But hang on, the naysayers keenly protest; New Zealand is full of hills and remote off-road locations and icy climates and mud and sleet.

You know; those places people drive their premium SUVs every day. None of which are conducive to electric vehicle battery performance and range. So, how does the Audi e-tron cope with that?

Very well, actually. Driving through the Kawerau Gorge in Central Otago, the quattro drivetrain comfortably gobbled up miles of winding roads. Some recalibration of your brain is needed, for sure; there are paddle shifters on the wheel for instance, but rather than adjust gearing they deliver incrementally more aggressive regenerative braking.

As you become acquainted with the regen system, it does get more intuitive. When used well, you’ll be adding free miles to your journey easily. An adaptive mode also manages this for you of course.

Following the undulating road section, we ventured into the hills on the gnarly Hawksburn Track. The mud and gravel surfaces were an illuminating test for the e-tron’s digital drivetrain.

Here we were presented with an opportunity to flick between drive modes, including off-road mode to raise the ride height. Over a few undulations and ruts it offers more than enough travel and ground clearance for 99 percent of Kiwi drivers.

Impressively, the e-tron also disguises mass associated with its EV set-up very well. The battery pack is slung low, creating the vehicle’s floor.

But this in turn increases chassis rigidity so handling is impressive. To prove elevation and cold conditions don’t stop the e-tron in its tracks, the following day saw us ascend the Crown Range road along with the access road to the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds facility, some 5000 feet above sea level, for some dynamic snow and ice driving.

No, it probably won’t be of any use to 98 percent of Audi e-tron owners, but just for the sake of science, we learnt that drifting is all too easy with the e-tron’s instantaneous torque and ability to apportion front-to-rear and pull the vehicle out of oversteer.

After hundreds of kilometers in chilly temperatures, uphill and down dale, the e-tron is… well, exactly like a really good SUV.

If you’re wanting to amplify your EV ownership to the neighbours with crazy futurist styling, gimmicky doors or ‘ludicrous’ trinkets, sorry you might be disappointed here. But, if you want an SUV that’s well-suited to a Kiwi lifestyle and just happens to be an electric vehicle, the Audi e-tron is perfect.

Words by Steve Vermeulen 

Photos by Dillon Photography

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