I tested a $89,100 Audi e-tron, an all-electric SUV from the German luxury brand.
When it debuted in 2019, the e-tron was touted as a potential Tesla rival from an established manufacturer.
E-tron sales, however, have been relatively disappointing. The SUV is quick and roomy, but it has limited range — just 204 miles on a charge.
I enjoyed driving the e-tron, but the price tag is so high that it's hard to justify putting one in your driveway, given that the Tesla Model X goes so much farther.
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When the Audi e-tron hit the market in 2019, it was supposed to challenge Tesla's Model X and Model Y, Elon Musk's crossover SUV duo. Based on the successful Audi Q5, the e-tron looked pretty good on paper: a substantial 95 kilowatt-hour battery pack served up more than 200 miles of range, in a luxurious package carrying the badge of a leader in the premium SUV realm.
The e-tron has, however, proved a sales disappointment in the US, with only about 5,200 units purchased in 2019. To be fair, the SUV was starting at zero, so any sale was a victory, and the all-electric helps Audi worldwide to comply with emissions laws. (Audi's conventional SUVs are doing just fine: The Q5 sold about 67,500 units last year, contributing healthily to a total of 224,000.)
As Audi's sole EV, the e-tron can sell in small numbers without disturbing the company's financial health. But it is a signal of what's to come. And as the automaker moves to roll out 20 new EVs in the next five years, and as its corporate parent VW pushes for an ambitious EV expansion to replace diesel (especially in regulation-happy Europe), the quality and popularity of those rides will take on more and more importance.
I had not yet driven the e-tron, so when Audi let me borrow an $89,100 example from the 2019 model year, I was enthusiastic to see how it stacked up against the Tesla Model X and the Jaguar I-PACE, the "SUEVs" I'd already experienced.
I'd heard good things about the e-tron, but was skeptical about the 200-mile range, given that consumers appear to want something more like 300 miles. The current "Long Range Plus" Tesla Model X can log 351 miles between charges. Upstart Lucid has already promised a range over 500 miles for the Air, its luxury electric sedan.
Still, I went in with an open mind:
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The Audi e-tron arrived in my driveway wearing a handsome "Daytona Gray" paint job — $600 extra. The base price was $74,800, but the as-tested cost was $89,190, after quite a few options entered the picture.
The e-tron is slightly larger than the Audi Q5, the marque's all-important mid-size SUV.
But the e-tron is a bit smaller than the three-row Q7 and can handle just five passengers.
Read the review.
Apart from a few flourishes, the e-tron looks very much like any Audi crossover. That's not a bad thing, as Audi's crossovers have been extremely successful in segments that are extremely competitive.
The Audi design template is the most obvious right upfront. Of course, the all-electric e-tron doesn't technically require a grille, but it has one.
The e-tron badging is exceptionally subtle. It appears on the flanks ...
... At the rear (in quite tiny chrome rendering) ...
... And in an equally modest form on the passenger side of the dashboard. Frankly, it's almost like Audi didn't want anyone to know that this crossover is an e-tron.
Audi is known for its piercing "Matrix" LED headlights, with LED running lights that are something of an industry standard.
More almost-invisible e-tron badging appears beneath the famous four rings, a reminder that this vehicle has Audi's legendary quattro all-wheel-drive system.
As with any Audi SUV, the four rings also appear on the rear hatch.
A distinguishing feature for the e-tron — one of its few electric tells — are the 21-inch, five-spoke wheels, with orange brake calipers.
They're part of a $4,900 "Edition One" package, meaning my tester was one of just 999 vehicles built for the series. I didn't particularly care for them.
The rear end of an SUV is rarely an attractive thing, but Audi's rear ends are better than most, including VW Group stablemate Porsche's.
Cargo capacity is excellent: 27 cubic feet with the second row up, 57 cubic feet with the second row dropped. That's better than the Q5.
I had absolutely no difficulty with a quick weekday grocery run.
The interior was a kinda stock Audi black, a tone I've seen a lot of lately. It just works, supporting Audi's minimalist approach to luxury.
The front seats were Valcona leather, heated and cooled, part of a $7,000 "Prestige" package.
Audis split the difference between the driver-focused cabin of BMWs and the high luxury of Mercedes. This vibe has found adherents among younger consumers, who have elevated Audi to being the third top-tier German automaker in the premium market.
The multifunction, leather-wrapped steering wheel is a standard on luxury vehicles these days, but Audi adds its "Virtual Cockpit" technology, which can transform the large digital instrument cluster, offering customized information views.
The rear seats are a roomy bench design. The legroom is adequate, and a $900 "Cold Weather" package added heaters, plus a preconditioning protocol to warm up the entire cabin.
Let's pop the trunk! OK, one might ask why the trunk needs to be popped on an EV. But Audi decided to house the electric drivetrain in the same way it would an internal-combustion engine.
The 95-kWh battery sends power to a pair of electric motors, yielding a total power output of 402 horsepower and 490 pound-feet of torque, with a 0-60 mph time of just over five seconds.
The range is a comparatively disappointing 204 miles, but the e-tron does have the capacity to handle 150-kW fast charging. The e-tron uses 88% of its full 95-kWh battery to preserve its life, and the vehicle can regain 80% of a full charge in 30 minutes.
The transmission is a simple single-speed automatic. In practice, the e-tron is smooth and quick, genuinely a fun machine to drive.
Audi's superb MMI infotainment interface runs on a large central touchscreen, with a smaller touchscreen below for climate controls. All functions are blissfully easy to use, from Bluetooth device pairing to USB integration, plus reliable GPS navigation. The Bang & Olufsen premium audio system sounded great.
What's the verdict?
I had a good time with the Audi e-tron, but I can't recommend choosing it over the Model X or the Model Y, mainly because its range undermines its use-case. Audi's bread-and-butter SUVs — the Q5 and Q7 — are supposed to be versatile, luxurious, suburban chariots, but they're also supposed to be capable of longer voyages. And while 200 miles is decent range for an EVs, it's not really competitive in this segment, vaguely delineated as it is.
What I'm saying is that if I wanted an EV runabout, I could spend a lot less on a Nissan Leaf and have comparable versatility to the e-tron. But if I wanted to take a family trip, I'd need a back-up SUV. So imagine: a two-car driveway, with an Audi e-tron sitting next to a gas-burning Q5 or Q7.
Yes, maybe. But the most recent Q7 I reviewed costs $76,000, and my e-tron tester started at almost that much before many thousands in extras raised the price by ... a lot. Do the math and you have a garage that houses $165,000 worth of SUVs, with a shared 600 miles of range.
Not such a great deal. And while I drove the e-tron all over the New Jersey-New York area for a week and didn't drain the battery, in normal everyday use, I'd surely be recharging every few days. If I'm like most owners, that's happening at home, overnight, on a 240-volt charger, so you could argue that I'd start every day with a "full" tank of electricity. But again, I could drop $45,000 on a Leaf Plus and get 230 miles of range while spending less time sweating my monthly car payments.
The e-tron is, objectively, a very nice SUV, just as the Q5 and Q7 are standouts in their segments. And its performance is compelling. And if you don't much like driving, the vehicle has all the driver-assist features you could want in the luxury category — and thanks to nearly 500 pound-feet of torque, the e-tron can tow 4,000 lbs.
But as nice as the e-tron is, and as smooth and pleasurable as it is to pilot, with outstanding design and industry leading technology, I simply can't talk myself into the idea of ownership. The e-tron is a rolling compromise, essentially a transition of the Audi of today, selling two variants of this vehicle, as the Audi of tomorrow, with more than a dozen EVs prospectively in the portfolio.
You almost can't do better than an Audi when it comes to luxury SUVs. But when it comes to luxury EV crossovers, you have superior choices.