Words: Sammy Chan
Photography: Sammy Chan
Published: April 12, 2021
The e-tron is Audi’s vanguard into all-electric, zero-mission mobility. Equipped with a large 95 kWh battery and 351 km of range, this mid-size SUV is poised to steal the spotlight away from the Tesla Model Y, Polestar 2, and Ford Mustang Mach-E with its handsome sheetmetal, mainstream cabin, and generous list of safety and connectivity features. And before you start calling our editor about capitalizing the ‘e’ in ‘e-tron’, that’s how Audi labels it. Furthermore, let’s try to refrain from any cheap japs about its odorous French translation.
This is the Sportback version of the e-tron, essentially a coupe-like hatchback form of the more conventional e-tron SUV. Mechanically, they share the same underpinnings, though the Sportback appears more athletic with its sleeker silhouette and fastback styling from the B-pillar onwards. Photographs of the Sportback suggest it’s quite compact in size when in reality, it casts a large shadow. 20-inch wheels come standard, with 21s and 22s as optional sneakers, further accentuating its wide and sporty stance. Audi has successfully created a realistic take on the modern day EV, bridging the gap between conventional and futuristic designs, and without all the flashiness and spaceship bling that are typically associated with the segment.
The interior follows the same theme. We have come to adore its stark simplicity and those coming from an A4 or Q5 will find familiarity and won’t have to deal with any learning curves, except for the funky new gear shifting contraption that doubles as a wrist rest. Though questionably ergonomic, it does make for a party piece to differentiate itself from non-EV Audis. Of note, ignore the four-spoke steering wheel and digital side mirrors found on the Audi Canada website. We don’t get those features here in Canada.
The proliferation of digital real estate will surely split opinions but Audi’s new dual-screen infotainment system works well, and we’ve experienced it before in the Audi A7 and Lamborghini Urus. The screens offer an adjustable amount of haptic and audio feedback, and strongly vibrates to confirm each selection. That leaves less ambiguity on the table that plagues many other vague feeling touchscreens, but it doesn’t address the issue of hunting for the intended button and visually confirming you hit the right prompt - not easy when you’re trying to keep all eyes on the road.
Audi did their best to remedy these concerns with ergonomic steering wheel controls, a voice control system that effectively detects natural spoken dialogue, and a 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit interface with 1920p native resolution - graphics that wouldn’t look out of place on a MacBook Pro. There’s even a shortcut button on the steering wheel that you can customize but the selectable options are limited - you can’t even program the driving modes. We had ours set to switch on the heated steering wheel. Still, I find anything with a rotary dial much easier and more convenient to use, like BMW’s iDrive or Mercedes’ MBUX unit. And relegating all the heating and venting controls to a virtual button seems a step too far.
The rest of the interior is well-made with typical Audi craftsmanship, and would make any Tesla owner brimming with jealousy. There are plenty of premium features but the cabin may feel slightly undramatic for those used to the glitzy interiors from Range Rover and Mercedes. The three-spoke steering wheel has been drafted from the A7 and though it appears basic in photographs, it’s very substantial in person with the light grey stitching, glossy black panels, and a thin but large rim. It feels exceptionally premium under grip, and the leather is much less synthetic than Tesla’s.
Seat comfort is above par with a great range of adjustment, wide shoulder and lumbar supports, and the rear seats are not penalized by the sloping roofline. In fact, my six-foot figure can sit behind myself with generous room to spare. In addition to the extensive sunroof, outward sightlines are excellent, the raised seating position means you sit around the level of an Audi Q3, and though trunk space is less than the regular e-tron, it’s more than usable. We’re just not sure if equipping a spare tire underneath the trunk bed was a bright idea, as the precious real estate could have been better utilized. There is some storage area underneath the front hood where a combustion engine would normally sit and even though it’s somewhat shallow, there’s enough room to store all of the e-tron’s charging paraphernalia.
The e-tron Sportback utilizes two electric motors, one powering each axle for an all-wheel drive setup. Total output is 355 hp and 414 lb-ft, though a temporary boost mode is available by selecting Sport Mode, and ramps up that figure to 402 hp and 490 lb-ft. The result is a 0-100 km/h sprint in 6.6 seconds, or 5.7 seconds in boost mode.
Audi claims a range of 351 km, which is oddly 6 km less than the e-tron SUV, and less than the rivaling Jaguar I-Pace (377 km), Polestar 2 (375 km), and Tesla Model Y (488 - 525 km), but claims and real-world range tend to be different. The full array of charging options are available, from a standard household 12V outlet, to the popular 50 kWh charger that takes about 9 hours for a full charge. The 150 kWh DC fast chargers will do the job even quicker, from 0-80% in 30 minutes, but are rare sightings across Ontario.
For $600, Audi will add a second charging port (Level 1 and 2 AC charging only) on the passenger side of the e-tron, so you never have to worry about parking the correct way on your driveway for optimal access, and both have an electronically-operated cover that opens and closes with the push of a button. We couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if you plugged in separate chargers into both ports - would it explode from EV greatness? We didn’t have the electric cojones to find out.
Even with a heavy mix of highway driving that is notorious for quickly draining EV batteries, we yielded an impressive 312 km of range from our fully-juiced up e-tron Sportback, only 39 km away from Audi’s official claim. That was with regenerative braking taken into account, and while the feature is off by default, you can flick the left and right paddle shifters to set the strength. They’re not potent enough for one-pedal driving though, and the setting resets every time you press the gas pedal - I’m sure passengers will appreciate the smoother and less nauseating ride without it.
When you need extra range in a jiffy, there’s a selectable Range Mode that helps you maximize the kilometres by limiting the climate control functions, and turning off the heated seats and steering wheel. Overall, more range never hurts but we wouldn’t be surprised to see the average EV’s range ramped up significantly in the next few years as battery technology advances and becomes more efficient.
Forward acceleration in the e-tron is typical of all other 300-400 hp electric vehicles, and isn’t too far off of the Porsche Taycan 4S we tested earlier. It’s snappy, instant, and whiplashing right from the word go unless you have the driving mode set to Comfort or Efficient, where it reacts more sluggishly. And even with the e-tron’s significant curb weight (it’s heavier than the Rolls-Royce Ghost SWB), the sheer accessibility of the torque is applaudable and ends up feeling light on its feet. The brakes are also praiseworthy, linear enough that you can’t tell it apart from conventional hydraulic brakes, and assist in lowering the learning curve for those transitioning over into EV ownership.
Most will flock over to the e-tron Sportback for its brand prestige and zero-emission mindset, but it’s the ride quality that they will stay for. This is where the e-tron Sportback differentiates itself from the competition. Soft and pillowy with just a tiny hint of underlying firmness, it rides even better than Audi’s own Q5, and the e-tron owes a lot of that to the excellent air suspension and whisper-quiet cabin. Well-mannered and remarkably satisfying to drive for long distances, even with the sizable 21-inch wheels, the only downside to the softly sprung setup is the rather lazy handling and excessive body roll. You won’t be able to tackle high-speed corners with the same kind of sharp finesse found in the BMW i3s or Jaguar i-Pace, and even with a relatively low center of gravity, the e-tron just doesn’t harbour that kind of inherent athleticism.
Then comes the question of value. The Audi e-tron Sportback starts at $88,850 for the Progressiv trim, while the Technik and its suite of upgraded features like a head up display, Virtual Cockpit, ventilated front seats, and surround view camera, bumps that price tag up to $96,500. That’s only about a $3,000 premium versus the standard e-tron SUV. In comparison, the Jaguar I-Pace costs $91,000 and the Polestar 2 lists at $69,900. The actual e-tron Sportback we were driving was a more limited 999-unit model called the Edition One, and was on sale for the 2020 model year for $111,500 and comes with the exclusive Plasma Blue paint colour and 21-inch wheels flanking orange brake calipers that you see in our photographs. Clearly, not an inexpensive entry fee into the kingdom of luxury electric vehicles.
Those wishing to make their first step into the realm of EVs will find much to love and enjoy with the e-tron Sportback, from its decent real world range, first-rate cabin tech, and supremely calm and collected road manners. If you aren’t keen on hopping on the Tesla bandwagon, can live with 300 km of range, and want something sharper and sleeker looking with Teutonic craftsmanship, then the e-tron Sportback will make a stellar zero-emission companion.
Model: 2021 Audi e-tron Sportback 55 quattro Edition One
Paint Type: Plasma Blue
Base Price: $111,500
Price as Tested: $111,500
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,902 / 1,976 / 1,615
Unladen weight (kg): 2,595
Powertrain: Two asynchronous electric motors + 95 kWh lithium ion battery
Horsepower: 355 hp / 402 hp in boost mode
Torque: 414 lb-ft / 490 lb-ft in boost mode
Transmission: 2x single-speed transmissions
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Range: 351 km
Observed Range: 312 km