Auto focus

Breaking the ICE

S Muralidhar | Updated on July 09, 2021

It will be priced above its segment, like most other EVs. But does the Audi e-tron match its maker’s mark?

The affordable electric car is an oxymoron. In fact, even a high-performance electric will still be in many ways an oxymoron. Is the 0 to 100kmph sprint time the only measure of performance and experience you expect from a car? Any EV has to be truly comparable to its own ilk in the ICE (internal combustion engine) world. The price plus perceived value plus ownership experience has to match the existing fossil fuel benchmark. And this remains the same across price and size segments of the car market. Even a buyer who has a couple of crores to spare is still going to look for validation and financial logic if he has to choose between an EV and its fossil fuel counterpart.

So, why is there a disproportionate number of super-expensive, high-performance EVs compared to mass-market models? And how are all of these selling? It is because developing a luxury sports car’s new V8 petrol powertrain could cost as much as developing an all new electric system. Also, buyers in the luxury class are less price sensitive and, more importantly, the electric vehicles are designed to deliver an identical ownership experience. For EVs range anxiety is still a concern, though it helps if the electric model is in the luxury class competing with equally expensive ICE models. With the battery pack contributing almost 50-60 per cent to the vehicle’s price tag, mass market EVs just don’t enjoy pricing power.

Design

All of these thoughts filled my head last week, as I stepped up to the bright red Audi e-tron that was to be my companion for the day. First things first, I push the start button and peer straight into the instrument cluster to confirm its battery range. After being driven to the airport, it still displayed a 343km range on a battery charge level of about 80 percent. Phew! That’s one box ticked from the list of concerns. Next up, ground clearance. Adaptive air suspension and an option to raise the e-tron means one more box can be ticked.

This e-tron 55, one of the first developed by Audi, is a C-segment BEV (battery electric vehicle) based on the Q4. Of course, by now Audi has expanded its range of e-trons across segments, and they include Sportback body styles. Given Indian roads and weather conditions, the SUV is the most practical (are you listening Tesla?); no wonder it is currently the most popular body style for ICE models too. Nobody likes to hear their EV’s metal bottom scraping over that neighbourhood speed breaker or parking ramp… not when you know that the battery pack is located under the floor.

Audi is launching the e-tron 55 Quattro later this month, and it is the right size for Indian conditions. From the outside, it is almost easy to walk past thinking that it is just another new Audi SUV in the market, until you spot the e-tron badge on the side panel flaps which hide the charging slots. While the overall exterior design is like a conventional Audi, there are pointers to its BEV status. The platinum gray single frame grille is one. The classic Audi grille’s slats are now mostly covered with black plastic panels since there is no large radiator right behind that needs cooling. There are also the four horizontal struts in the headlamps that are e-tron specials. From the side, the 20-inch special alloys and the orange brake calipers are easily the most interesting features. The slim camera only door mirrors that Audi showcased in the proto has been replaced with regular mirrors. The other discreet bit on the side is the black side inlays on the doors actually visualise the location of the batteries. The rear features a continuous LED light strip and reinterpreted light configuration for the tail-lamps. The squat, wheels pushed to the extreme stance for the e-tron 55 gives it a sporty stance, will it be as exciting to drive as it looks.

Cabin

One of the first things about the cabin that strikes me is how remarkably quiet it is inside. What’s that you said? No engine… duh, of course I know that. But it is so highly insulated that even honks from other vehicles seem faint and distant. The fact that there is no engine noise to connect with, was expectedly disconcerting initially. However, there is a speaker on the outside that generates an electronic noise for warning pedestrians both while the car is being driven forward and in reverse. Inside, a driver-focused cockpit and a familiar steering wheel sort of gently goad me to give the e-tron a go. For me the best part of the e-tron 55’s cabin is how pleasingly elegant the dashboard has been constructed. It is not one ‘mahoosive’ touchscreen that gets thrust into your face. And yet, there is no dearth for haptic-feedback-loaded, glass-clad, touchscreen real estate. A digital instrument cluster with Audi virtual cockpit, a head-up display, two MMI displays turned towards the driver and pretty much every control is packed into these.

The cabin build quality is excellent. Materials used feel premium to touch and feel, and there is a very familiar mix of lacquered wood, aluminium and piano-black plastic trim. There has been no skimping on premium add-ons too, including ambient lighting, a 16-speaker, 705-watt B&O music system, 4-zone air conditioning and an air-quality package with a built-in fragrance diffuser. The nicely bolstered leather seats are great for long drives. And I found the unique transmission knob a typical Audi touch at making the mundane seem special. With the charging cable and some of the other components packed into the ‘engine bay’ in the bonnet, the boot is spacious and entirely usable.

Performance

All of us are aware by now that in relative terms any EV is quicker than its fuel counterpart. But, EVs suffer from other mechanical limitations most often because corners need to be cut to save on costs. On the contrary, the Audi e-tron 55 can carve corners. With a light foot, it feels heavy in city traffic. But, when pedal meets floor, the e-tron lurches forward delivering all of the 408hp of power and 664Nm of torque in one instant large morsel. Gulp!

It is quick off the block and keeps up a sort of verti-linear progression of pace upto its electronically limited 200kmph. But, of what use is speed without control. That too is the e-tron 55’s speciality. With its adaptive air suspension and progressive steering, it manages to keep the ride and handling spot on. Precise turn lines and speed sensitive weight at the wheel makes it feel very much like an ICE Audi. The suspension is the other highlight. Suspension settings change with Audi Drive Select, and the vehicle’s ride height is adjustable for a low-set sporty dash or for a bit of raised, off-road style tarmac crossing. It feels rock steady at high speeds and solid without seeming rigid while driving over really bad roads.

The e-tron’s 95kWh battery pack can deliver a driving range varying between 359-484kms per charge according to the brochure. There are three levels of regenerative braking or recuperation you can choose from. The default coasting option is a low level of regenerative braking.

The steering mounted paddles (yes, that’s what they are for) can activate two increased levels, and with the higher one you almost don’t need to use the brakes at low speeds. Audi offers a 22kW AC charger slot on board, which will take 4.5 hours for a 80 percent charge. It’ll be safe to say that judicious driving can ensure a range of about 350kms, enough for a week of commuting or a trip to the nearest town.

Bottom line

If you asked me why someone should buy the Audi e-tron 55 with a likely on-road price of ₹1.2 crore plus, here are two points to consider. Like I’ve said earlier, the first reason will be that it feels exactly like a sporty ICE based Audi. With powered controls for the charging slot flap, auto closing doors and much more in the cabin, there is nothing to indicate any austerity because this is a BEV.

That is the story that matters. You will still be paying a premium, but that’s part of the price we all need to pay to save the environment.

Published on July 09, 2021

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

  1. Comments will be moderated by The Hindu Business Line editorial team.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.