The Audi e-tron Sportback is a stylish sophomore electric car

December 2018 marked the arrival of the Audi e-tron, the first in a massive onslaught of post-dieselgate electric vehicles from Volkswagen Group. With brands across VW Group still working on new bespoke EV platforms and architectures, the e-tron was a bit of a stopgap, intended to reach the market quickly to show that upper management was now serious about electrification. Now it has company in the form of the new Audi e-tron Sportback.

Audi says that the e-tron Sportback is for its customers who care about the planet but also about aesthetics—basically you buy this car if the thought of an A7’s carbon footprint is unbearable. To my eyes, the design team should consider its work a success. The e-tron Sportback is a more attractive vehicle than either the e-tron SUV or the closely related (but internal combustion engine-powered) Q8. In fact, if you ignore everything below the top of the wheel arches, it’s a stunner, particularly the flare of the bodywork around the rear wheel and then that little ducktail spoiler.

Overall, the roofline of the e-tron Sportback is about half an inch (12.7mm) lower than the e-tron, and in US-spec with reflective side-view mirrors it has a drag coefficient of 0.28 (a reduction of 0.02).

Under those lithe body panels, the powertrain is near-identical between the e-tron and e-tron Sportback. That means a pair of asynchronous induction motors, one for each axle, with a combined power output of 265kW (335hp) and 561Nm (413lb-ft), with the ability to boost that to 300kW (402hp) and 664Nm (490lb-ft) for short bursts. The motors are powered by a 95kWh lithium-ion battery pack composed of 36 modules, each containing 12 60Ah pouch cells.

More useable kilowatt-hours

One thing that has changed is how much of the battery’s state of charge can be used for driving—for the e-tron Sportback (and MY2021 e-tron SUVs) the driver can access 86.5kWh. This is an increase of almost 3kWh compared to last year’s model, but Audi is still being very conservative in maintaining a 10-percent overhead on the battery compared to other battery EV builders.

A slightly higher useable SoC isn’t the only improvement over the e-tron I drove all those months ago. As you’d expect, Audi’s engineers have used data from the original wave of e-trons to refine the powertrain’s software. For one thing, the e-tron Sportback (and we presume the 2021 e-tron SUV) will only use the rear electric motor under most conditions. It’s able to coast more efficiently and with less drag from the brakes. And the maximum level of regenerative braking (ie the braking that occurs when you lift your foot off the accelerator pedal) has gone up by 30 percent.

Another new addition is an automatic setting for regen. In part, this works like the system in Kia and Hyundai’s BEVs, leveraging the forward-looking cruise control radar when you’re coasting so that if a car in front begins to slow, you also decelerate at the same rate. In addition to matching the deceleration rate of a car ahead, if a navigation route is active, it will also use topographic data to increase regen going down hills and before sharp corners. If you’re not a fan of letting the car decide for itself, you can switch this to manual and then use the steering wheel paddles to increase or decrease regen levels manually.

DC fast charging is fast

It’s still not the longest-legged BEV you can buy. The EPA range estimate for the e-tron Sportback is 218 miles (350km), up from 204 miles (328km) for the 2019 e-tron. That works out to 2.3miles/kWh (27kWh/100km), which is exactly what I averaged over the course of six hours and 130 miles in the driver’s seat. However, I should note that with the e-tron Sportback in Efficiency mode, I was also able to average a much better 3.7 miles/kWh (16.8kWh/100km), which suggests that it should be possible to drive more than 218 miles before having to plug in again.

I should also add that this 2.3kWh/mile average included a fair bit of spirited driving in an attempt to run the battery down below 20-percent SoC (state of charge) in order to test out DC fast charging. This taught me a few things. First, the e-tron Sportback might be nearly mechanically identical to the e-tron SUV, but it’s more fun to drive. The standard adaptive air suspension is on par with the Öhlins-damped Polestar 2 when it comes to isolating the driver from rough road surfaces and also keeping the chassis composed. It’s about as engaging to drive as the Polestar 2, but for pure driving fun, I’d still recommend a Jaguar I-Pace or Tesla Model 3 Performance when it comes to sub-$100k BEVs.

Second, DC fast charging is indeed fast. After running the battery down to 19-percent SoC I plugged it in to a 150kW Electrify America charger, which brought me back to 80-percent SoC in 22 minutes—that’s as fast as Porsche’s Taycan, which can accept much higher charge rates. Since it was 8am and there was no one else around, I allowed the e-tron Sportback to charge to 100 percent, which took another 13 minutes (for an overall charge time of 35 minutes to go from 19 to 100 percent). For the hardcore charging nerds out there, the e-tron Sportback was able to charge at 146kW for much of the session. It had dropped to 114kW by 80 percent and was at 56kW for the final minute.

Some toys are not for US consumption

There are some features and options for the e-tron Sportback that you won’t get to sample if you live in the US. When sitting in the driver’s seat, big voids in the door cards are a reminder that in other markets, you can option this BEV with side-view cameras instead of mirrors. It’s a cool idea, and one that modestly cuts drag, but as I found out at the end of 2018, Audi’s implementation left a lot to be desired, and the fact that the US Department of Transportation won’t allow side-view cameras will save e-tron customers from wasting however much it would cost to tick that box at order time.

For MY2021, US-bound e-tron Sportbacks will have the option to be fitted with digital matrix headlights. The technology uses a 1.2 megapixel LED that projects a beam that can be constantly adjusted so that you can still have your high beams on and not blind oncoming drivers. But like the laser headlights Audi wanted to import in 2014, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards make no allowance for anything other than simple high and low beams. So while US-spec e-tron Sportbacks with these headlights will delight and amuse the driver (and any onlookers) with a range of animations when the car is turned on or off, they won’t do much else that the normal headlights won’t do.

In most other regards, the e-tron Sportback does exactly what you think an Audi SUV should do. The interior remains a delight, with high-quality materials and an attractive design that stands out compared to other BEVs. The steering wheel now has capacitive sensors in it, so it monitors your hand-on-wheel time if you’re using lane keeping. (The first visual reminder to put your hands back on the wheel is at five seconds, and at 15 seconds lane keeping disengages.) There’s a broad suite of advanced driver assistance systems, and I particularly loved the way the LED cabin lights in the doors illuminate red as an extra warning when the cross-traffic alert is triggered.

For MY2020, there are just two trim levels for the e-tron Sportback: the Premium Plus, which starts at $77,400 before tax credits, and the fully loaded Edition One that costs a hefty $88,495 before tax credits. The Edition One is the version we drove, and you’ll recognize it by the distinctive Monaco Blue paint, orange brake calipers, and those 21-inch wheels. Only 200 of those are coming to the US, though, and we believe they might all have been sold now. For MY2021, the e-tron Sportback will come in Audi’s normal three trims: there’s a new entry-level Premium car at $69,100, Premium Plus at $78,000, or Prestige at $82,300. 

Listing image by Audi

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