The premium car world was a little slow off the mark when it came to electric cars.
Tesla was making a name for itself as the go-to brand for high-end EVs before the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes had even offered a hint at an electrified future.
But after lagging behind for so many years the established players are now determined to show the America upstart who's boss, with promises of dozens of new all-electric models in next few years.
Jaguar fired the first salvo with the I-Pace, Mercedes now has the EQC, and Audi has brought us the e-tron, which it says is the first of four pure EVs it will launch by the end of 2020, with at least 30 EV or hybrid vehicles on sale by 2025.
It slots into the range between the Q5 and Q7 and goes head-to-head with the I-Pace and EQC. It is also looking to catch the eye of buyers considering the bigger, pricier Model X.
Visually, Audi hasn’t risked straying too far from the fold so the e-tron is immediately recognisable as an Audi SUV although with some unique touches. A full-width rear light bar, unique alloy wheel designs, a partially filled-in grille and black side streaks highlighting the location of the battery mark it out as more than just another Q5.
Under the skin, the e-tron features a 95kWh battery and a motor on each axle for all-wheel-drive. In boost mode, these provide 402bhp and 490lb/ft for up to 60 seconds, before reverting to the normal 355bhp output.
That means if you mash the throttle to the floor the e-tron will whizz you to 62mph in 5.7 seconds - not bad for something weighing 2.5 tonnes. However, it’s not as quick as either the I-Pace or Model X, and it also falls marginally short of key rivals in terms of weight, power, torque and official range.
The range, of course, is a tricky issue and in real-world testing of all three I’ve found 190-200 miles to be a realistic figure.
Use that up and Audi says the e-tron will charge up to 80 per cent in just 30 minutes but that’s using a 150kW DC rapid charger and there aren’t many of those around - yet. At home, if you let you e-tron run completely flat, 11kW AC charging will take just under nine hours to get it back to 100 per cent. 22kW charging is an optional extra.
Although it’s quick to 62mph and astonishingly brisk when you need to overtake, the e-tron isn’t a particularly dynamic car. While there’s plenty of grip from the quattro system, it feels heavy and unengaging if pushed. You’re far better settling down into a calm easy cruise, at which it excels.
Breezing along an A road or motorway it’s incredibly hushed and smooth, with acoustic glass and standard-fit adaptive air suspension dealing with most of the inconveniences of modern roads.
Inside, it’s the usual Audi story of beautiful materials and construction, with some badging and a lack of physical buttons the biggest clues that this isn’t just another Q5 or Q7.
Strangely for Audi, though, the e-tron’s interior has a couple of ergonomic missteps. Most obvious is the double touchscreen setup. A 10.1-inch sits above an 8.6-inch one, mimicking the Touch Pro Duo in the Jaguar I-Pace. However, they don’t flow into each other as smoothly as in the Jag, with the main one overhanging the lower and making it harder to use. It doesn’t look or feel as connected as the I-Pace’s setup but, being an Audi, it works better.
It’s a minor quibble though in a cabin that will comfortably seat four adults and beats its rivals for attention to detail and space, with a 660l boot.
As Audi’s first EV, the e-tron is a hotbed of technology. The 12.3-inch virtual cockpit is standard, as are the two central screens with haptic feedback, voice control, Audi’s internet connected services, wireless phone charging and the potential for over-the-air upgrades. There’s also the integrated route planner than will take into account your charging needs and predictive efficiency assist which offers driving tips based on GPS, traffic sign and car-to-X data.
Audi is also very proud of its “virtual” door mirrors. Fitted to Launch Edition cars, these use tiny cameras mounted on skinny stalks in place of traditional mirrors - with the aim of reducing drag. The cameras send the rear view to high-resolution OLED screens in the doors. The image quality is excellent but the positioning, especially on the driver’s side, puts the image too low, too close and at the wrong angle for comfortable, confident use.
Opt for one of the lower spec cars and that’s not an issue but you do miss out on goodies such as adaptive cruise control, matrix LED headlights, more advanced collision avoidance systems and a panoramic sunroof.
Whichever spec you go for, the e-tron is an impressive machine. It blends a quick, smooth, clean EV powertrain with Audi’s usual high production standards, making it a great advert for our electric future.
Maybe it is time for Tesla to worry.
Audi e-tron 55 quattro
Price: £71,560 (£82,655 as tested) Powertrain: 95kWh battery, two electric motors Power: 355bhp (402bhp in boost mode) Torque: 414lb/ft (490lb/ft in boost mode) Transmission: Fixed-drive, four-wheel-drive Top speed: 124mph 0-62mph: 5.7 seconds (boost mode) Range: 241 miles CO2 emissions: 0g/km