RECOGNISABLE: Audi’s E-tron SUV follows on the design cues of its Q siblings with that single frame grille. Picture: SUPPLIED
RECOGNISABLE: Audi’s E-tron SUV follows on the design cues of its Q siblings with that single frame grille. Picture: SUPPLIED

We often say the electric car revolution is coming. We have been saying it since we first experienced the Tesla Roadster more than a decade ago.

We have said it so much that we should probably stop saying it, except that now it really is coming. Governments globally are calling for the death of the internal combustion engine, something that forced Jaguar Land Rover to move this week to a three-day week for its UK production plants as consumers become confused over the future of diesel. Meanwhile, car makers have flipped the switch on electric vehicles (EVs).

Those that got in early such as Tesla, Nissan and even BMW are about to find themselves surrounded by rivals. And this is not some first world thing either, the electric revolution is coming to SA and it’s coming soon.

Early in 2019 Jaguar will launch in SA its fantastic I-Pace, the EV that sets the benchmark for everyone else. And Jaguar is not waiting for the government to wake up, although it is hoping it will.

Last week Jag announced a R30m investment in infrastructure for its I-Pace including 80 public charging points around the country, a number of which will be on the N3 from Johannesburg to Durban and the N1 from Joburg to Cape Town. The company will even subsidise EV charging for I-Pace owners at these sites by 25%.

Cabin appointments are high-tech meets high quality finishes as we have come to expect of the brand. Picture: SUPPLIED
Cabin appointments are high-tech meets high quality finishes as we have come to expect of the brand. Picture: SUPPLIED

That is impressive, considering the government will provide no incentives at all to go electric, in fact it is still disincentivising through higher import taxation on EVs. The government can’t (or won’t) even force the fuel companies to introduce cleaner fuels so it’s no surprise that it appears to be nowhere on EVs.

Mercedes-Benz has revealed its EQC, the first model in its EQ range. It too is coming to SA, although only in early 2020, but it looks likely to get off to a poor start with dated architecture beneath its new EQ family design, high weight and a range that on paper is already less than most of its rivals.

Then this week we joined Audi in San Francisco (Tesla’s home area — cheeky) for the reveal of its E-tron, which we also got a sneak peak at a month ago and that will go on sale in SA in the second half of 2019.

It is the brand’s first full EV and a model that avoids looking too different by featuring a design that will be familiar to anyone who has ever owned an Audi Q-model.

"In car clinics, we often got the feedback that we don’t want a car that screams ‘I am electric!’," E-tron product marketing head Christian Heer says.

"The best concept was not to do a weird car but to make it a real SUV. They just wanted a good-looking car, so this was our way to give them a good-looking car that was an EV."

Those looks bring together Audi design DNA with the technology and engineering requirements of an EV in a familiar-looking package. The single-frame grille for example could have almost disappeared completely, but the designers have retained it.

"Since 2006 Audi has [had] the single-frame grille and we can’t take it away because from 100 metres you have to know it’s an Audi," says Heer.

But there are elements that are very different to reflect the fact that this is a "digital car" as members of the design team called it. There are four main attributes to the design — performance, lightness, intelligence and ceremony. Many of these are immediately apparent, like in the animated lighting front and rear, the horizontal line all the way round and the UFO lines at the rear.

The rear is dominated by the LED lights with that light strip spanning the width of the car. Picture: SUPPLIED
The rear is dominated by the LED lights with that light strip spanning the width of the car. Picture: SUPPLIED

Ceremony is probably most apparent in the new virtual mirrors, which according to Asif Hoosen, head of product and marketing at Audi SA, will be optional in the country. These cameras provide an enormous reduction in aerodynamic drag and wind noise. They are connected to OLED display panels in the tops of the door panels, which the driver can touch to adjust the view.

"The energy is significantly less than an internal combustion engine car," says Stefan Dietz from Audi aerodynamics. "So we have to make aero and other aspects more efficient. It has been a dream of aerodynamicists to get rid of wing mirrors."

However the main aspect of the new E-tron is the drive train. There are two electric axle drives, one on each axle representing the "next step of quattro", says Joachim Duerr, responsible for powertrain.

The motor on the front axle produces 125kW with 10kW extra boost available, while the rear produces 140kW and an additional 25kW under boost. Total output is claimed at 265kW and 300kW with boost.

It will be fast enough for most people, says Robert Schwartz, the E-tron’s technical programme manager. The combined motors deliver 660Nm torque, which translates to an astonishing 5,800Nm wheel torque — all through one gear — with a peak engine speed of 9,000r/min. It’s so responsive that its motors reach peak torque in just 250 milliseconds.

"In its S or Dynamic modes, the power is always boosted. It is electric quattro with no links front to rear, so it can drive with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive and we can switch a motor off whenever we want to," says Schwartz. While it’s an all-wheel drive car, its default mode is rear-wheel drive only, which is more in keeping with its 51:49 weight distribution.

Audi is expecting the range to reach 400km on the new WLTP real-world testing cycle. Much of this range can be attributed to the LG-supplied battery modules, which are the same as those Porsche will use in its Taycan. A special gel was used to keep the cells cool and for underfloor cooling, all in aid of maximum efficiency.

Mendt says he is already working on the next generation of battery cells for introduction in 2021 though.

"E-Tron is a pilot," says Mendt, pointing out that there will be additional standalone models as well as an E-tron derivative of every model in Audi’s line-up by 2025.

Audi executives said they did not invent the electric car, but they are confident they have transformed the electric car into an Audi and for some that will be electrifying enough.