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It has taken more than three years for the Audi E-tron SUV to progress from formative concept stage to full production maturity. In that time the Jaguar I-Pace and Tesla Model X have gone on sale, giving Ingolstadt’s first production electric car plenty of rivals when it goes on sale here early next year.

A lot is hanging on the new zero-emission SUV, not least Audi’s standing in what is set to become a hugely competitive segment. The E-tron sports all of Audi’s traditional design cues. At 4900mm long, 1940mm wide and 1620mm high, it is 237mm longer, 48mm wider and 39mm lower than the second-generation Q5 and is claimed to offer similar cabin space to the Q7.

It’s a smart looking car which features the sort of attention to detail we’ve come to expect from Audi, and with it comes an unsurprisingly long list of optional extras which includes the so-called Virtual Mirrors on our test car.

Understanding the E-tron's electric powertrain

The E-tron is based on a heavily modified version of the MLB platform used by the Q5, which helps to explain the visual similarities to its combustion-engined sibling. Underneath, however, it is unique.

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At its core is an electric driveline with two asynchronous motors – one sitting up front with 181bhp and the other at the rear with 221bhp– connected by an electronic ‘prop shaft’ that eschews a conventional mechanical connection for a wiring loom. Together, the two motors provide four-wheel drive and deliver up to 402bhp and 487lb ft, although this is only available in Boost mode, which also gives the new Audi a claimed 0-62mph time of 5.7sec. Top speed is limited to 124mph.

In Normal mode power and torque are reduced by 13% and 18% respectively, to 350bhp and 414lb ft, to increase the range, although this is still enough for a 0-62mph time of 6.4sec. Energy is supplied by a liquid-cooled 95kWh lithium ion battery mounted low in the floor. Overall, the battery weighs 700kg – a good chunk of the car’s 2490kg kerb weight.

The battery can be charged using a 150kW fast charger, with which Audi claims a charging time of just 30 minutes up to an energy capacity of 80%. For home charging there is a standard 11kW charger, which charges the battery in 8.5 hours.

How does the E-tron perform on the road?

The first impression when you drive the E-tron is its on-road quietness. Even by the standards of modern-day electric cars, it is super-refined.

There’s a faint, distant whine from the electric motors at each end of the cabin, and tyre noise is superbly isolated at town speeds. It is an agreeably soothing car to drive.

It’s a quick one, too. A simple nudge of the accelerator releases sufficient muscle to propel the E-tron from standstill with highly responsive and vigorous performance. Along with the strong step-off qualities delivered by its electric drivetrain, there’s also a feeling of huge flexibility when the opportunity presents itself to tap into the full extent of the Boost mode’s reserves of power and torque. The resulting acceleration is very spirited indeed and, thanks to the single-speed transmission, wonderfully linear all the way up to typical motorway speeds.

Aerodynamic work has netted the E-tron a claimed drag co-efficient of 0.27, making for excellent wind refinement at higher speeds. Combined with the near-silent qualities of the driveline and lightly weighted steering, it is extremely relaxing to drive over long distances.

However, don’t think the new Audi is the same one-dimensional driving proposition as many earlier electric cars: it also delivers the consistencies of body control and grip to make it quite an entertaining drive.

Audi has succeeded in keeping the centre of gravity low enough to ensure sudden changes in direction do not upset momentum to any large degree. It is engagingly fluid over winding roads and generates a good deal of corning speed. Its four-wheel-drive system even indulges a spot of oversteer when the ESP is deactivated, making the E-tron more fun than it really has any right to be.

The inclusion of air springs as standard produces a nicely controlled ride. There’s a characteristic firmness, as you’d expect given its weight, but the impact absorption and rebound characteristics are such that it swallows all but the biggest bumps without undue harshness. The ride height can be adjusted, with Efficiency mode dropping the springs by 27mm and Off-road mode raising them by 52mm.

Audi’s sophisticated energy regeneration control system allows you to tailor the amount of retardation dependent on the driving conditions and road, from a free-wheeling mode with no regeneration at all to maximum regeneration that pulls you up with a truly meaningful 0.3g of braking force on a trailing throttle.

The more proficient you become with the system, the greater the miles-per-kWh. The overall range is claimed to be 249 miles on the new WLTP driving cycle. You can leave the E-tron to its own energy regeneration, but there’s added involvement and a certain satisfaction in operating the shifters, a process which can be likened to gear changing on a combustion-engined car. The feel of the brake is quite natural, so you’re spared the sometimes uneven travel and lifeless pedal response that often affects EVs.

The best thing about the E-tron is that it feels like an Audi. Nowhere is this more evident than its superb interior, which arguably sets new standards of style, quality and ergonomics for an EV. Everything you’d expect in a conventional Audi is present, including the outstanding Virtual Cockpit displays and controls. The driving position and overall accommodation is excellent, and with a total of 660 litres of luggage capacity – 60 litres under the bonnet and 600 litres of boot space – it is practical, too. With the rear seats folded, it offers 1725 litres of space.

We’re going to need a lot more time behind the wheel before we can provide a definitive judgment on the E-tron.

But from this first outing on unfamiliar roads, we can say Audi has delivered a car with all the hallmarks of its conventionally engined models: smart styling, outstanding quality and a level of engineering that sets it apart both from the masses and from its rivals.

The real attraction, though, is the E-tron’s outstanding multi-faceted driving qualities which, on this evidence, set new standards in the electric car ranks.

Alex Ostern

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