Audi stuck with the brand's familiar SUV look for the electric E-tron. Pictures: SUPPLIED
Audi stuck with the brand's familiar SUV look for the electric E-tron. Pictures: SUPPLIED

Audi might not have launched the all-electric E-tron recently were it not for the rapid scale of events after Dieselgate that have forced many automakers to speed up the arrival of their electric vehicles.

So it was that we found ourselves in Abu Dhabi, the home of oil and gas, for the launch of the pure electric Audi E-tron.

We started at Masdar City, a project started in 2009 as a sustainable city in a land of petroleum. Set to be home to 50,000 people and the employment base for 40,000, it would cost 10 times less to implement today than it has cost over the nearly 10 years since it began, such has been the pace of change when it comes to the cost of technology.

It has a 10MW photovoltaic electricity generation farm, streets that are angled towards the wind from the sea to reduce the temperature by up to six degrees Celcius compared to the rest of Abu Dhabi, and a hi-tech air cooling tower based on the same principles as those on top of many a home in the Middle East.

It’s a project rather than something that is going to make any kind of dramatic impact on the city or the region, a sort of token gesture perhaps. Some might say it is the same with electric vehicles (EVs), that the industry is just paying lip service in order to appease governments and activists.

Lip service or not, the fact is that EVs are coming and the
E-tron will launch in SA in the last quarter of 2019 and like the others, will not come cheap

It’s indicative at the moment, but Audi SA boss Trevor Hill expects it to match the I-Pace on price at around R1.6m. The
E-tron is a little larger than a Q5, and also 40% more rigid, substantially heavier and up to a million bucks more expensive.

Audi has kept the looks traditional so as not to make customers spill their schnapps when they see it. It has a trapezoidal grille even though it doesn't actually need it, although the grille features slightly different styling to the usual Q-wearing models.

There are two charging points, one on each side, great for the days when you will be able to charge on the side of the road. The E-tron has a clear design line that runs right around the body, culminating in a Porsche-style light strip along the rear.

The 95kWh battery pack claims a lifetime of 10 years, the same as the expected lifespan of the car. Power is sent to two electric motors, one on each axle, providing quattro all-wheel drive without the need for a propshaft between the axles or a differential. The rear motor is larger, giving the E-tron a slight rear-wheel drive bias although up to 100% of the torque can be sent to either axle.

The E-tron features charging sockets on each side of the car. Picture: SUPPLIED
The E-tron features charging sockets on each side of the car. Picture: SUPPLIED

The front motor produces 125kW, the rear 140kW but the rear also benefits from the maximum level of energy recuperation under braking, something we tested while also experiencing the dynamic capabilities of the E-torn on the Jebel Hafeet mountain pass.

It was fascinating to see the recuperation in action via an iPad app. The paddles on the steering wheel are not to change gears — there are no gears, not even fake ones — but to adjust the level of recuperation between 0.05g and 0.1g. Our best efforts in Efficiency mode yielded an extra 5km of range. It might not seem like much, but we were chuffed.

Then it was time to charge the car. Charging points are almost nonexistent in Abu Dhabi and Audi had to bring its own fast charger which charged the E-tron up to 80% capacity while we went off-roading in a camouflaged prototype. It was nothing testing — more of a gravel road and a couple of dry riverbed crossings — but it showed how the power can be pushed to wheels with the best grip and that the hill descent control does a decent job.

The E-Tron is capable of some mild offroading. Picture: SUPPLIED
The E-Tron is capable of some mild offroading. Picture: SUPPLIED

Most of the time we cruised on the long highways of the UAE, which gave me a chance to experience the virtual wing mirrors. Gone are the traditional mirrors, replaced by cameras on each side which will be standard on the models in SA. The images are then shown on screens in the doors. It takes some getting used to; the screens became more clear to see as the afternoon wore on and were positively high definition as the desert sun set.

The touchscreen infotainment system has haptic feedback to ensure you aren’t stabbing at a virtual button two or three times before you actually provide an input. There’s wireless phone charging, multiple USB ports and a frunk, relating to the trunk in the front where traditionally there would be an internal combustion engine.

The virtual mirrors will be standard in SA, which will push up the price but also the cool factor. Picture: SUPPLIED
The virtual mirrors will be standard in SA, which will push up the price but also the cool factor. Picture: SUPPLIED

Finally we get to the range, which Audi claims to be 400km. The car wasn’t too far off in my Abu Dhabi drive, achieving about 350km. It’s still way off that of a petrol and even further off that of a diesel but it shows how range is improving and remember, this is an SUV not some little city runaround. It has space for five, a massive boot (and a frunk) and can do some mild off-roading. It can even hurtle up and down mountain passes, although do all of that and you will want the boot to be occupied by a mobile generator.

This year is set to be the year of elections and electrons. It’s going to be very interesting indeed.