2019’s Top 10 Tech Cars: Audi E-tron

Designed from scratch for electric propulsion

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The Audi E-tron is the company’s first electric vehicle with a clean-sheet design, and it’s a science fair on wheels, with 300 all-wheel-drive kilowatts (402 horsepower) and 400 kilometers (248 miles) of range by European standards. (The less-generous U.S. estimate should come in at around 200 miles.) But although this electric SUV is complex, its operational mantra is ease and simplicity.

Each axle, front and rear, gets its own electric motor, to enable the all-wheel-drive that Audi fans demand. The 95-kilowatt-hour battery, built at E-tron’s factory in Belgium, packs 36 shoebox-size cells from LG into a rigidity-boosting structural member.

Audi credits up to 30 percent of the driving range to ultra-efficient regenerative brakes. They are part of the first by-wire braking system in any EV; it saves weight by eliminating the physical connection between the brake pedal and the brakes themselves. A digital simulator replicates the feel of a traditional brake pedal, and a hydraulic backup system can restore a direct link in the event of catastrophic failure.

An ingenious thermal-management scheme cools the battery via a layer of heat-conductive gel beneath each aluminum-encased cell module; the gel transfers heat to liquid-filled cooling tubes. (Teslas, in contrast, run ribbons of piped coolant through the battery cells themselves.) Audi says that separating cooling channels from the fortresslike cell modules ensures safety in a catastrophic accident, because cooling fluid would never come into contact with battery cells.

Robust thermal management makes it possible to use a 150-kW DC fast charger, for an 80 percent charge in about 30 minutes, Audi says. And Audi’s parent company, Volkswagen, has committed to building a network of such fast chargers in the United States, as it’s doing already in Europe, in tandem with BMW, Daimler, and Ford. It’s a telling indication that VW has finally and fully embraced EVs.

Credit this turnaround to VW’s notorious Dieselgate scandal. As part of the multibillion-dollar legal settlement, the company is funding Electrify America, which intends to have up to 500 DC fast chargers in place or in development by this coming July in 40 U.S. states. Owners of E-trons will receive 1,000 hours of free charging at these sites over four years, giving potential buyers an alternative to Tesla’s Supercharger network, whose proprietary connector renders it unusable for owners of other electric vehicles.

Under the E-tron’s hood, a breathtaking level of systems integration divvies electricity to control motors, brakes, suspension, transmission, and the Quattro all-wheel drive. The Audi offers seven different driving modes, including one that fully disables traction control, a first for an EV. That’s critical to off-roading, in which you may need a bit of wheel spin to churn through deep sand, snow, or mud.

Inside, Audi’s latest MMI (Multi Media Interface) system, with its stacked haptic-feedback center screens, remains perhaps the best infotainment in the business for beautiful graphics and easy operation. The E-tron debuts Audi’s Virtual Side Mirrors, which replace conventional mirrors, a major culprit in aerodynamic drag, with streamlined cameras that beam a rearward view to interior displays.

Early reviews are mixed, including journalistic complaints over lack of visual clarity, and a tough learning curve for drivers. However, none of this applies to buyers in the United States, where ultracautious regulators still require conventional mirrors. But Audi’s latest semi-autonomous systems are definitely on board, including hands-off driving on highways and automatic speed adjustments based on road-mapping data and local speed limits. The E-tron reaches U.S. showrooms in May. Take a test drive, and bring your lab coat.

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