The Audi e-tron quattro concept previewed in 2015
Audi's engineers are moving the E-tron SUV into its latter stages of testing, with final evaluations of the car's traction control systems now under way.
As shown by a recently spotted development car, the brand looks on course to beat Jaguar's I-Pace to market to secure the title of the first premium electric SUV.
Spotted on the continent wearing full-body camouflage, the SUV’s all-electric drivetrain is signalled by its lack of tailpipes. Wires connecting to faces on the wheels are part of a wheel speed-analysis system, which can provide engineers with information about how speeds vary during turns and the effectiveness of traction-boosting software.
Despite the heavy covers, the car's design looks to have been toned down compared with the E-tron quattro concept (see gallery) it is based on, with a slightly less butch front and less raked rear window. But the concept's lighting designs, which include a strip to connect the tail-lights, look to have been retained.
A senior Audi executive previously told Autocar that beating the I-Pace to market would make it the “first real premium manufacturer doing a premium electric SUV”. This title could be important in kick-starting sales.
The E-tron, predicted to have a range of at least 500km (311 miles), is built on a development of the electrified platform Porsche is using for its Mission E electric saloon. It is powered by three electric motors, two of which drive the rear wheels while one powers the fronts.
This set-up was seen in the E-tron quattro concept of 2015, which offered maximum combined outputs of 496bhp and 590lb ft. It enabled a 0-62mph time of 4.5sec and a restricted top speed of 131mph – a preview of what’s to come with the production model.
This set-up will also be used in a second all-electric SUV model, which itself was previewed by the E-tron Sportback concept shown at this year’s Shanghai motor show. It features a more swept-back design and will make it to market one year after its sibling.
Audi has previously said that the E-tron SUV will “cost about the same as a well-specced Audi A6”, suggesting it will have a price point of at least £60,000. The second SUV may top that figure.
Audi sales and marketing boss Dietmar Voggenreiter said that Audi has chosen to launch the E-tron next year because that is when battery technology will be mature enough to offer a range of more than 500km (311 miles). This figure is “crucial”, he said, because consumers won’t accept less.
Charging infrastructure should also be more extensive next year — another key reason for choosing a 2018 launch date. “A 400km to 500km range must be possible and we must have a fast charging infrastructure,” said Voggenreiter. “Both things are coming in 2018. The battery energy density is there and there is a lot of charging infrastructure in Europe, the US and Asia.”
Voggenreiter said Audi was involved through the Volkswagen Group with rival firms such as Ford, BMW and Daimler in ensuring there’s a fast-charging network for longer-range electric vehicles to use.
“It’s not our job to invest in charging points,” he said. “We are pushing and organising this, though, and working with partners on it.”
Voggenreiter referred to the ‘chicken and egg’ situation of limited charging infrastructure to date: there has been no need for third parties to install chargers because there are not enough cars to use them, and vice versa. “No cars, no infrastructure, but in the next two years there are lots of investments,” he added.
Audi has opted not to launch its electric cars under a sub-brand, like BMW with its i models and Mercedes-Benz’s future EQ range. Instead, it is using E-tron, which has been a suffix on electrified Audis, as a model name in its own right. It is intended as a stand-alone, milestone launch model to introduce the technology in a similar strategy used by Audi with ‘quattro’ in the 1980s.
Speaking last year about the E-tron name, Audi boss Rupert Stadler said: “It is comparable to the first Audi Quattro, which was known simply as the Quattro. In the long term, the name ‘E-tron’ will stand for a pure electric driveline structure.”
Voggenreiter said the E-tron name will be used on a range of follow-up electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, where it will appear mostly as a suffix, as is the case with the A3 e-tron. It’s likely that Audi’s next-generation models, which will start with the A8 this summer, will all get electric versions. The A8 e-tron is most likely to be the first candidate.
An SUV body is important for the E-tron because it is the most on-trend bodystyle, said Voggenreiter. “A lot of customers have been asking when we’ll bring this car to market,” he said. “There is certain demand in the premium segment and we’re not being first to market for the sake of it; it’s the right product. It’s a real SUV, with Audi design language.”
Voggenreiter suggested the Audi range of e-tron models will get slightly different styling from the Marc Lichte-designed new look that will be rolled out across the rest of the line-up, starting with the A8.
“E-trons are close to the designs of Lichte but in different packages,” he said. “There isn’t an engine in the front.”
The size of the E-tron suggests it’s a Q6 in all but name, but Voggenreiter hinted that the Q6 was a separate project altogether. He cited speculation that the Q6 should be a “four-door coupé SUV” based on the Q5, in a similar style to the Q8 being spun off the Q7. But he said the E-tron isn’t the Q6 because it’s “not a four-door coupé SUV. It’s a sporty SUV”.
Sam Sheehan and Mark Tisshaw