An interesting sporty drivetrain, fitted to the wrong car. Impressive, but other E-trons are better bets

What is it?

In the early stages of this new era of the electric car, so much of the talk is around numbers, and how big they are. Range, battery size, power and torque levels, price… Now Audi has added another larger number to its new E-tron S Sportback: a third electric motor.

The new car, launched alongside a new S version of the existing E-tron at the same time, adds one extra motor over the E-tron 55 Sportback that sits below it in the range.

In the E-tron S Sportback, a large electric motor powers the front axle and there are twin smaller motors at the rear, allowing torque vectoring and fully variable torque distribution between the rear wheels for a promised increase in agility.

The presence of three motors, of course, means plenty of power and torque: 429bhp and 596lb ft all in, or 496bhp and a mighty 718lb ft in an overboost function in Sport mode.

Such hefty reserves require an equally hefty battery to draw their power from. In the E-tron S Sportback’s case, it’s a 95kWh lithium ion battery that’s good for a typical 226 miles. 

2 Audi e tron s sportback 2021 uk first drive review hero rear

What's it like?

The new twin-motor rear axle in the E-tron S Sportback left a huge smile on our face when we drove a prototype version on a German test track just under a year ago, finding a coupé-SUV that could oversteer on demand with a tinker of the settings and in the right driving mode. 

In its press literature to accompany the E-tron S Sporback, Audi boldly refers to the system as ‘Handling 2.0’. It effectively mimics a mechanical differential, albeit one acting in a much faster way and with far greater control. 

Back in Blighty, on a dull, damp locked-down January day on roads limited to 60mph, there were, of course, no such sideways antics, nor indeed any revelations of a new handling benchmark. Instead, it all felt much like Audi E-trons we’ve driven before.

That’s no bad thing, mind. Any E-tron is brisk and supremely refined, if lacking any real driver involvement. And so it is here. In real-world conditions, the handling gains feel marginal but are apparent. You won’t be trading in your Porsche 911 but you will be impressed by the grip levels, and how keenly the E-tron S Sportback turns in to corners. 

What the sporty positioning and S treatment also bring with them - big 21in alloy wheels, a firmer suspension tune - actually detracts from that incredible refinement E-trons have all delivered. However trick the rear axle is, it can’t mask the 2.5-tonne-plus mass of the E-tron S Sportback.

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That weight, with those alloys and that suspension tune, make for a car that’s quite cumbersome and unsettled on anything but fast, flowing A-roads or motorways. At all other times, you’re aware just how big and heavy it is.

Get it on the motorway, though, and the serenity of other E-trons returns. It glides along in near silence and reaches near Bentley levels of refinement. Here, that weight isn’t a factor; it’s a help, if anything, in making the car feel so secure, planted and comfortable.

The straight-line performance is as brisk as we’ve come to expect from EVs of this size and weight - think four-wheel-drive hot hatch levels of pace rather than a Porsche Taycan. Efficiency, meanwhile, averaged two miles per kWh over our mixed-roads test. A quoted usable battery capacity of 86kWh (remember, headline battery capacity is one thing, the quoted usable figure another, smaller thing) would give a somewhat disappointing range of 172 miles in cold weather.

Each of those miles between charges will be enjoyed from an interior oozing with quality and technical sophistication. Everything is a joy to interact with. Switches and knobs feel tactile, the haptic feedback of the screens is nicely judged, and the crispness of the graphics makes the displays a joy to view. There’s plenty going on, mind, but even after 100 miles or so on the road, the controls fall intuitively to hand.

11 Audi e tron s sportback 2021 uk first drive review cabin

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Should I buy one?

It’s well known that performance cars, when driven on the road, are driven so far within their limits, yet to experience them at their best, you can take most to the track. Quite where you’d ever take the E-tron S Sportback to experience its sideways party piece I don’t know.

Perhaps that’s not the point. The appeal of many a product is knowing they’re capable of something rather than actually doing it. (Line Lock mode in a Ford Mustang for burnouts, anyone?)

So in the E-tron S Sportback, Audi should be commended for its technical achievement rather than lauded for inventing a new kind of driver’s car. The reality is that the twin-motor E-tron 55 Sportback will suit most buyers for more of the time. The rest of us keenly await this trick axle in a smaller, lighter, performance Audi.

20 Audi e tron s sportback 2021 uk first drive review on road nose


Mark Tisshaw

Title: Editor

Mark is a journalist with more than a decade of top-level experience in the automotive industry. He first joined Autocar in 2009, having previously worked in local newspapers. He has held several roles at Autocar, including news editor, deputy editor, digital editor and his current position of editor, one he has held since 2017.

From this position he oversees all of Autocar’s content across the print magazine, autocar.co.uk website, social media, video, and podcast channels, as well as our recent launch, Autocar Business. Mark regularly interviews the very top global executives in the automotive industry, telling their stories and holding them to account, meeting them at shows and events around the world.

Mark is a Car of the Year juror, a prestigious annual award that Autocar is one of the main sponsors of. He has made media appearances on the likes of the BBC, and contributed to titles including What Car?Move Electric and Pistonheads, and has written a column for The Sun.

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roy_g_biv 2 February 2021

I would echo most of the comments here, a second rate vehicle. Johnny Smith described the first Etron as overweight and under-developed.

A similar theme seems to pervade other German EV vehicles - they all seem to be just modified ICE vehicles with EV hardware thrown in.

The I-Pace seems a much more properly developed vehicle.

vinylnutter 29 January 2021

This is disappointing. Bettered by the iPace, launched over 2 years ago, in range (229 vs 292 WLTP) and matched in performance, at 20% less cost.

The Tesla Model 3 Long range offers 360 miles WLTP and is faster than both for less than 50k. The Audi has a very nice interior of course but its all a bit underwhelming as a package.

Efficiency is poor too, 95kw battery vs 75kw for Tesla yet Tesla goes well over 100 miles farther (WLTP) despite the much smaller battery. I know its lighter but still not impressive.

As time goes on miles travelled per kw will become more widely used/understood as a metric for EV's, VAG should have the resources to do better than this surely?

Alluddite 29 January 2021

This must be one of the most pointless cars of all time. Who in their right mind would pay £90k for a car which can't even get from London to Manchester without a recharging stop? What an appalling waste of scarce resources!