When it comes to luxury brands around half of annual sales are SUVs for companies like BMW, Porsche and Audi – for the latter, SUVs account to 53 percent of sales in the US market. So why fix what ain’t broken? Everyone is betting big on electrification, and Audi is the latest mainstream power player to finally join in with the 2019 Audi e-tron – Motormouth went to San Francisco to find out what the buzz is about…
In San Francisco at the launch of the first ever electric Audi, company design boss Marc Lichte tries to sum it up for me right from the start.
“We wanted to be the first,” he says.
Except, Jaguar already got there last year.
Lichte is brazenly sidestepping Tesla, and sticking to traditional manufacturers and this sudden fixation for electric vehicles. His benchmark is the competition from Munich and Stuttgart, and in the rush, Ingolstadt too made compromises in order to bring the zero-emissions e-tron to market next year from roughly AED350,000.
Like BMW with the 2020 iX3 and Mercedes-Benz with the 2020 EQC, Audi based its first ever production electric vehicle on an existing fossil-fueled car, the Q5, and heavily modified the platform to suit a floor filled with a battery pack about as big as a double bed – aluminium cells the size of 36 shoe boxes, each filled with 14 batteries. You get 432 of them in total, providing the equivalent of 400 horsepower and 400km of driving range, spot on for the times.
Within the mainstream, only Jaguar did its due diligence, getting started as far back as seven years ago in order to develop a dedicated electric vehicle platform for the I-Pace that’s already on sale. The Germans, it seems, were too preoccupied with diesel and profit to care. Now the tune’s changing, and everyone’s rushing into electrification.
In Europe and the US EVs have a market share of around one percent, and in California where the take is hot, the share is still just three percent. Car companies, meanwhile, are placing disproportionately big bets – Mercedes is pumping over $11 billion into electrification; Audi targets 800,000 EV sales a year by 2025; BMW is busy building a $1 billion EV factory…
“Something that’s been proven in all companies throughout history is, if you don’t move, you lose,” says Audi’s product marketing boss Fermin Soniera Santos.
“There are enough examples of very successful companies who had a unique proposition, and unique products, so why aren’t they here now? They are done, they missed the chance. We have to move – electrification is a big part of the future. It’s not the only part, but it’s going to be the main part.”
Compared to BMW’s iX3 however, Audi made a concerted effort – the e-tron SUV looks nothing like its Q5 relative. It’s a much bigger vehicle, measuring in about 240mm longer, with a 100mm longer wheelbase. Because the 20-inch wheels themselves are so large, the proportions appear more snug and pleasing than the Q5’s, because the e-tron seems to have a higher waistline, lower roof (the car actually sits taller, but the roof slopes and the glasshouse is narrow which fools the eye), and contrasting cladding low down to visually lighten the whole mass.
Lichte says that over mere looks his styling team prioritised slipping quietly through the air, so the e-tron comes with a low drag coefficient of 0.28, comparable to a small sedan and actually better than something like a Porsche Boxster.
“The cabin is further back because of aerodynamics,” says Lichte, “And we did a lot of development in the wind tunnel. In electric vehicles aerodynamics is the most important subject, because of range extension, plus, when you have no engine noise you really hear the wind noise. It stands out… And don’t get me wrong, I have big respect for Tesla, but the wind noise is extreme over 120km/h.”
To get around it in the e-tron, Audi dropped the most cumbersome feature on modern cars, the aerodynamicist’s bane, the exterior wing mirrors.
“The energy needed to overcome the wind resistance is lost forever,” says Audi’s aerodynamics expert Stefan Dietz. “This is why we had such an ambitious aero target from the very outset of the project, virtual wing mirrors.”
It’s nothing new, but the obstacle for years has been legislation, and in Europe to begin with Audi has convinced authorities that cameras and displays instead of mirrors are good to go. The Americans are skeptical, so US-spec e-trons will come with normal mirrors, but Audi Middle East says we will get the virtual technology in the UAE.
“Getting rid of conventional wing mirrors has been the dream of generations of aerodynamicists,” says Dietz. “The virtual wing mirror reduces drag by a further 0.05 points, and on top of that, the wind noise in the car is lower.”
Maybe there’s irony in a two-tonne SUV prioritising aero, but it works, with a low-set grille and low bonnet for a small frontal area. The massive grille is two-thirds solid plastic, and one-third active flaps that open or close to lower drag or allow more cooling. Since there’s room to play with in electric vehicles, the e-tron gets a 600-litre boot and a ‘frunk’ good for another 60 litres under the bonnet.
You charge it with a plug around the side, and that’s a story in itself. Bet case scenario, you can juice up an e-tron in four hours at home although for most it would take all night. Using a public power-charger, it takes about half an hour to get 80 per cent capacity from flat dead. How do you convince the 99 percent of non-EV buyers that a two-minute fill-up with petrol isn’t an easier option? According to Audi, customers say they’re willing to wait 10 minutes for a full charge which isn’t far away in development.
Germany’s Grosser Drei – BMW, Audi, and Mercedes – each quote equal range capacities for their first attempts in all-electric motoring, and nearly identical power figures for the iX3, e-tron and EQC. This is all sizing up for an even fight, but will it fill the house?
Mainstream car manufacturers have been watching Tesla all along and timing it right for the trend to prevail – “We did it, because we want the customer to follow us,” says Lichte.