Audi's e-tron S Sportback sets a fresh standard for EV handling. Jonathan Crouch drives it.
Audi performance cars have carried the S badge since the '100' model-based S4 the early Nineties, but this is the first time it has crossed the divide into the brand's growing family of electrified e-tron models. Here, it signals a ground breaking president in volume production, this e-tron S Sportback model and its e-Tron S stablemate being the market's first EVs to use three electric drive motors, one on the front axle and two at the rear. The result, predictably, is explosive performance. Even more significantly, having two motors on the rear axle has allowed Audi to further reinvent the EV version of its quattro four wheel drive system, drive at speed able to switch not only from front to rear but between each of the back wheels. So grip and traction are never in doubt. Audi reckons this system sets a fresh standard for the way a big EV can handle and provides it in both standard SUV and, as in this case, Sportback versions of its large luxury e-tron crossover model. Let's put it to the test.
It's been over forty years since Audi redefined performance driving with its quattro all wheel drive system. With this e-tron S model, you could argue that the brand has redefined it once again - for a very different era, this being the world's first electric vehicle to use three drive motors. The larger electric motor that on a conventional e-tron Sportback sits at the rear has here been moved to the front, freeing up space for twin smaller motors to sit on the back axle, allowing torque vectoring and fully variable torque distribution between the rear wheels for what should be considerably enhanced cornering agility. The difference here is that you get real confidence through tighter, twistier turns, thanks to the electronic torque vectoring system's ability to individually control the amount of drive fed to each individual rear wheel with pinpoint accuracy, based on the grip and load active on either side of the car as you drive through each corner. It's sort of like a mechanical limited slip differential, except that here, there's nothing but software linking the two rear motors - and they respond up to 25% quicker. While all this is going on, wheel selective torque control on the front axle uses the discs and pads to gently brake the inside front wheel as you turn, further helping to rotate the car into the turn as the rear tyres edge towards their limit. The only disappointment, as with the more ordinary e-tron Sportback models, lies with the relative lack of steering feel, a familiar Audi issue, though the variable-ratio 'Progressive' rack is certainly accurate. If only though, it gave you the same confidence as the drive system, what a car this would be. Extra motive power in this S model means a higher output of course - up to 435PS with 808Nm of torque; or, with the 'S' mode engaged for overtaking, 503PS, with a thumping 973Nm of torque. Enough to simply hurl this Audi at the horizon; 62mph from rest is recorded at 4.5s, but it feels quicker than that because the pulling power is so instant, tailing off only as you edge close to the 130mph maximum.
Design and Build
In this S-specification form, the e-tron Sportback sets itself apart with key silver trimming features - most notably for the S-specific front bumper, which features that colour for the spoiler lip and the air intake surrounds. As with the ordinary version of this model, there's this huge octagonal Singleframe grille with lower e-tron branding, flanked by LED headlights which, on request, can (as here) feature the company's latest 'digital matrix' technology with its movie-style animations. In profile, more S-specific silver trimming features for the side sills and the door mirror housings. Nice touches include the optional virtual mirrors, 'L'-shaped pods that protrude on aerodynamic stalks replacing ordinary door mirrors; and the inclusion of charging flaps on both sides of the car behind the front wheel arches, which feature copper-themed e-tron badges and neatly open with the push of a button. And of course there are big wheels, which on this S model sit in arches 23mm wider so that they can accommodate massive 22-inch rims on request. Inside, this S model is set apart by Valcona leather-trimmed Super sport seats with their diamond stitching and S embossing. And by little touches like the S embossing on the gear shifter, the illuminated S-branded door sill scuff plates and by a subtle red surround for the stop/start button. There's a race-style flat-bottomed steering wheel too, through which you view up 12.3-inch 'Virtual Cockpit' instrument binnacle screen upgraded to 'Plus' status, which means you can select a more focused extra 'e-tron Sport' single dial layout. Out back, the swept back roof line doesn't compromise rear seat headroom too much. And there's a 555-litre boot, with a further 60-litre space for the charging leads beneath the bonnet.
Market and Model
The e-tron S models command a premium of around £9,000 over comparable two-motor 'S line'-equipped e-tron 55 quattro variants in the standard range. At the time of this test, that meant a starting price for the e-tron S quattro with the conventional SUV body shape of around £87,000; you'll need about £1,800 more for the sleeker Sportback body style. Either way, that gets you standard e-tron S trim; you'll need another £15,000 with either body shape for plusher 'Vorsprung'-spec. As for rivals to this e-tron S Sportback, well there aren't any other three-motor EV models in the segment, but there are plenty you might be tempted by. The money being asked here is about £6,000 more than a Tesla Model S in base 'Long Range' spec; and about £10,000 more than a Porsche Taycan Sport Turismo. We'd also want to look at the top version of BMW's iX model, the xDrive50, which only costs only around £3,000 more than this e-tron S Sportback, while offering around 130 miles more driving range. So the competition's tough; which means that this car needs to be well equipped. And of course it is. This standard e-tron S model gets you pretty much everything that's included with mid-range 'S line' trim on the standard e-tron models, including Matrix LED headlamps and all the silver-themed extra exterior updates we briefed you on in our design section. Plus the further addition of 21-inch wheels with a special 'S design', Super sports seats with diamond stitching and a 4-corner air suspension with electronic shock absorption control system.
Cost of Ownership
This e-tron S Sportback's 95kWh battery has a WLTP-rated range of between 215 and 236 miles. It's worth mentioning that this is 62 miles less than the other luxury sports EV model that Audi offers in this segment, the slightly less expensive e-tron GT quattro, which uses the same battery pack. For the boxier SUV e-tron S body shape, the range figure is WLTP-rated at between 213 and 232 miles. Replenishing such a high energy capacity battery isn't for the faint-hearted - you'd need 42 hours to do it from a domestic three-pin plug. A 7kW garage wallbox would do the job in 14 hours, a figure you could reduce to 8.9 hours with an 11kW wallbox. A 50kW public point could take this e-tron Sportback's battery from 20% capacity to 80% in 70 minutes. And if you're fortunate enough to find a 150kW public rapid charging point, that would enable up to 95% of battery capacity to be replenished in only 50 minutes - or 80% in just 30 minutes. What else might you need to know? Probably that for company car users, electric vehicles offer potentially huge tax savings as they fall into base VED Band A and will attract just 1% of Benefit-in-Kind company car taxation in the '2021/2022' tax year - and 2% in each of the following two years. There's no VED road tax to pay either and you'll also possibly be interested in the fact that as an EV vehicle owner, you'll be exempt from the London Congestion Charge. Insurance is a top-of-the-shop group 50E. Still, the news is reasonably positive when it comes to residual value. According to industry experts CAP, an e-tron S Sportback will still be worth 46% of its original value (or £40,300) after three years or 30,000 miles of use.
So what's the bottom line here? Well having a twin motor system on the rear axle and a single motor up-front doesn't just deliver huge performance and impressive traction. It also significantly enhances the fine level of control that can be used to thread this e-tron model through a series of corners at speed. Delivering a level of agility you simply wouldn't expect from anything this big and heavy. It's difficult to think of another large EV more in need of this kind of dynamic enhancement than the standard Audi e-tron and e-tron Sportback models, which in their more straightforward forms can feel a little flat-footed compared to rivals. The S models though, are very different. Don't choose the ordinary version without trying this one. It's as simple as that.