Audi's electric SUV steps out in style

·5-min read

Sorry I'm late, I'm just back from the future.

It's a place where all cars are emissions free - powered either by clean-burning hydrogen or electricity. I've been there all week, driving a machine called the Audi E-Tron.

It's not some prototype or an odd-looking curiosity. It's the German maker's biggest foray into the EV world - an SUV-styled, five-seat family vehicle that gives another window into the green future awaiting all Aussie motorists.

While not quite a trailblazer in the EV segment, it's an interesting machine nonetheless.

BMW has trodden this territory for a while with its funky-looking i3 and racy i8, as has Nissan with its Leaf. The Koreans moved in recently, bringing EVs much closer to the mainstream, as have the Chinese with their MG.

So the E-Tron isn't necessarily breaking new ground. But it's a significant car, given the sway that the big European makers, and particularly the Germans, have on the driving trends.

Audi has long been a bit of a barometer of where technology is heading - as their motto Vorsprung Durch Technik (progress through technology) might suggest.

The company was a leader taking all-wheel-drive off the racetrack and onto the road. And when much of the market still thought of diesels as smoky, clunky engines used mostly in trucks, Audi was building engines to dominate the famous Le Mans 24-hour with its amazingly fast R8 prototype.

Now, the future is electric and once again, Audi has sniffed the wind.

The E-Tron is the first of what will soon be a full range of electric-powered machines wearing the four-ring badge.

Based on Audi's strong-selling Q5 SUV, the E-Tron is offered in two body styles: a conventional SUV format and the 'Sportback' coupe-style soft-roader that is becoming a must-have for duelling German makers.

The Sportback in its most advanced form, the 55 Quattro 'first edition' model, costing an eye-watering $169,350, is tested here. The lesser-equipped 50 Quattro will start from a tick under $140-grand.

EV technology comes at a premium cost, but in its defence this car's swollen price delivers a long list of consumer technology. There's 360-degree parking cameras, variable all-wheel-drive, adaptive air suspension, 21-inch alloys, Matrix LED headlights, Milano leather seats, a Bang and Olufsen audio system and Audi's clever 'virtual cockpit' digital instrument display.

Audi has introduced 'virtual exterior mirrors' - a camera on each side of the vehicle where the wing mirrors normally sit, which beams footage onto little TV screens integrated into each of the door panels to show what's coming up behind and beside.

More practical is the fact that Audi will give E-Tron buyers a six-year subscription to the Chargefox network of public charging stations, which is akin to getting free fuel for six years on your petrol vehicle.

As we've come to expect from EVs, there's a regal serenity about driving the E-Tron. It moves silently and effortlessly, and it feels like you're being whisked along by a superior being, rather than driving a car. On smooth roads, where wind and other noises are further suppressed, it's quite surreal and calming.

It helps that the car's substantial weight, with those big electric batteries on board, makes the E-Tron feel even more planted, providing further soundproofing effect.

But there's plenty of zip to the driving experience, too. Accelerate hard and all 664Nm (plus 300kW of power) are available instantly. That translates to a quickish 5.7-second dash to 100km/h.

From the outside there's little to distinguish the E-Tron from its Q5 sibling, save for the lack of exhaust pipes and a couple of subtle badges.

Inside, the E-Tron is cutting-edge Audi, which is about as good as cockpits get, with gloriously luxe and exquisite finishes, and a welter of electronics. It's intuitive, practical and beautiful all at once.

The E-Tron's price ensures that Audi has gone to the bespoke end of the accessories cupboard, with premium finishes, superb audio and the choicest leather.

So what about the EV's nemesis, driving range? Well, the batteries provide 95kWh, good for a tick over 400km, depending on driving style and how many gadgets are in use. That's less range than some competitors - notably high-end Teslas - although for most drivers it's sufficient for a week of city commuting.

The Audi can be charged from a typical domestic wall socket, but be warned - it can be a lengthy process for a full charge.

A regular free charger at a local shopping centre added about 60km of range after being plugged in for an hour. That's quicker than charging at home.

Either way, it's a relatively fuss-free way to 'fill up'.

We came away more than satisfied after a week with the E-Tron, a car that feels special and which will provide a template for the family wagon of the future. Which, as it turns out, isn't such a scary place at all.

AUDI E-TRON 55 QUATTRO SPORTBACK

* HOW BIG? Basically the same size as Audi's Q5 and delivers the comfort and space you'd expect from any premium full-sized SUV.

* HOW FAST? Not blindingly so, but its power is nicely calibrated so that acceleration is available at the most useful times.

* HOW THIRSTY? Next question. And if you're clever, you can get someone else to pay for your electricity by recharging every time you visit the shopping centre.

* HOW MUCH? Brace yourself. The fully-equipped first edition model as tested costs $171,650, which includes $2300 of metallic paint. But entry-level pricing for the Quattro 50 is $137,100 plus on road costs.

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