TEST DRIVE: 2021 Audi e-tron S Sportback — Brilliantly Done, Flawed Regardless

The latest iteration of Audi’s full electric flagship has arrived and that meant having a closer look at the vehicle that I personally saw in Los Angeles at the end of last year, and the first generation e-tron, which I drove in normal SUV shape around Abu Dhabi in 2018. Those experiences were both under the wing of Audi, during press events, and never gave me the ability to fully experience the everyday use of the vehicle. This changed when the Bavarian manufacturer dropped off an e-tron S Sportback in a wonderful Catalunya Red Metallic paint for a week long test drive.


Let’s first discuss the exterior and interior highlights. First up, the exterior. The e-Tron Sportback toes the line between crossover and sedan-on-stilts and is available alongside a more SUV shaped e-tron (S) variant. For the 2021 model, the Germans added new front and rear bumpers with strong contours. The air curtains of either side of the front bumper are noticeable to say the least. The diffuser insert at the rear end extends almost across the entire vehicle width. The wheel arches are 23 millimeters wider, which evolves the cars appearance from previous models.


The main highlights on the outside are two-fold. First of all, the digital matrix LED headlights. Each light is divided into 1.3 million pixels and can be controlled with great precision, which opens up many new functions. In narrow areas, it shows the car’s position in the lane and thus helps the driver to remain safely in the center. The auto headlight and high beam assist features dim using 64 stages, creating several million possible light patterns. The Matrix LED light also masks out other vehicles while continuing to fully illuminate the zones between and adjacent to them.


The stars of the show are the entry and exit animations projected in front of the car. There is a choice of five preset animations with no custom option yet. If you want to let the world know you have arrived then make sure to opt for this feature. The headlights themselves are a true visual feast and the best I have personally experienced so far. The way the system lights up objects in front of you, and provides an uniform beam of light on the matters that need to be lit, is unique and astonishing. Every car should have headlights like these.


The second highlight is the addition of virtual mirrors with cameras. I won’t touch on them too much, following my story two years ago, but I can share that I’m more used to them now then I was initially in the e-tron I drove back in 2018. I am still not sure I would want them on a daily basis, but as a gimmick they are a lovely addition to a technology-packed Sportback S.


Moving from the good looking and wonderfully shaped exterior to the interior is one of familiarity. The cabin comes across as one that you would find in a Q7, Q8 or even A8. Great work by Audi keeping that touch of resemblance, build quality and use of materials. The only differences you might notice are the center console and unique gear selector, which doubles as a cushion for your wrist when you operate the lower control screen — a neat feature. This business-as-usual interior offers everything you want from it, with the MMI infotainment system and centrally positioned drivers display providing access to all the features you require.

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However there is one point of note I would definitely want to mention, and which is connected to the nature of it being an EV. Those unfamiliar with EVs, they do require additional search and navigational tools to let you get over the point of range anxiety. In the e-tron you have the option to search for charging stations and there is the “e-tron Route Planner”, which enables you to calculate the fastest route including optimum charging stops. This taks into account traffic data, the driver’s driving profile, and the duration of the charging stops.


For shorter routes and the ability to find a suitable charger nearby, the story is different and not as straightforward as you may think. The navigation system and the MMI are still too focused on conventional ICE powered vehicles and still need more intuitive systems that proactively assist you with finding available charging stations. Especially since chargers are not as common as fuel stations here in Germany.


Before we dive further into the EV-experience, let’s touch on the driving dynamics of the new e-tron S and conclude the overall feeling of it, because this is where the e-tron clearly shines and is able to hit every single note. Many of you might be worried that the decline of the internal combustion engine will mean the end of motoring joy, and the e-tron S shows that isn’t necessarily the case. Even though it is an ultra-heavy SUV, tipping the scales at 2965 kg, it controls its weight decently, grips and changes direction more tenaciously than expected. At least a lot more tenaciously than most regular SUVs I have driven.


The ride is smooth, composed and comfortable. The instant torque from the big Sportback’s electric motors makes for incredibly satisfying launches. However, the steering is a bit vague and uncommunicative. You still get an Audi drive select with seven profiles and standard adaptive air suspension sport with S-specific tuning. All in all, the low and central installation position of the battery really benefits this vehicle and the way it handles. Electric all-wheel drive and electric torque vectoring via the two electric motors at the rear axle and you can see that Audi really meant business when they added the S to the model name.


Combine the two asynchronous electric motors at the rear axle and one at the front axle you have a combined peak output of 320 kW (429 horsepower) and a peak torque of 808 Nm (595 lb-ft). In boost mode, they achieve 370 kW (496 horsepower) and 973 Nm (717 lb-ft). This allows you to go from zero to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 4.5 seconds and up to a limited top speed of 210 km/h (130 mph), which is an astonishing feat for a nearly three-tonne machine. The recuperation system inside the e-tron offers energy recovery in coasting mode and during almost all brake applications. You have the choice of three levels, which you can set via the paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Just choose the auto mode and the car does it for you.

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However, For me the discussion start at the EV side of things. This is, in my opinion, the dealbreaker when it comes to an EV, not only the e-tron S.


Let’s start this section by reading Audi’s press release and note that the range with one battery charge is claimed to be up to 364 kilometers for the e-tron S or 370 kilometers (229 miles) for the e-tron S Sportback in the WLTP cycle. For those familiar with EVs, this means we are talking about roughly 300 kilometers (186 miles) of range in real life. This coincides with what the dashboard told me after every full charge.


The consumption, however is a totally different story with my tests under winter conditions. Temperatures under five degrees Celsius showed a range that depleted considerably faster than the kilometers which were driven. Of course, heated seats were enabled and headlights switched on due to the early sunsets, but also with a normal driving style, not dissimilar to how you’d drive an ICE vehicle.


What does this say? Like many other people have reported, using an electric vehicle in the winter isn’t always favorable, due to the cold weather having impact on the battery. But losing 180 km (111 miles) of range over a distance of 130 km (80 miles) is worse than even I had expected. Add to this the tricky situation of charging and we are not ending the range anxiety discussion but are adding another thought to an already flawed and troubled thinking process.


The charging situation is still an unpredictable one. It can be one of brilliance, luck or being totally annoyed after a few days of being connected to it. In my case, there wasn’t a charger in town. The only solutions were two petrol stations next to the A6 Autobahn where, over a period of one week, I had to charge at least three times to fully top it up from lower levels. With home charging not being available, I was only left with the option to charge the 95 kWh battery (86 kWh net) at a 150 kW HPC (High Performance Charger). Luckily, you can opt for numerous solutions on the road with up to 11 kW or, with direct current, up to 150 kW.


Just to see how the charger worked, I kept track of the charging process. From 34-percent to 100-percent, charging took roughly between 45 to 50 minutes in cold four-degree weather with the highest peak power being 113 kW shown on the charger itself. There are faster chargers available across Germany, which would allow for a quicker fill up but those weren’t nearby. In the end, it is always a question of driving further for a quicker charge or being closer to home and wait longer for it to be charged. Which is a thinking process that is totally unnatural to a traditional car owner and currently flawed due to the lack of a decent charging network across the world. Of course, I agree that home charging is one of the ways forward, but 11kW or 22kW via 3-phase at home still requires hours of charging to get a decent fill-up.

Also from a monetary point of view, home charging is the better option since it is cheaper. A full charge from 0 to 100-percent, using the HPC charger, costs in Germany, where I tested the vehicle, roughly 40 EUR which equates to 48 cent per kWh. This is when you don’t have a regular charging service contract. The contract lowers the price to 38 cent per kWh, which is roughly 32 EUR for a full charge. Not bad at all, but if you only have 300 kilometers of range and you lose 1/3rd of it on every single charge due to the low temperature conditions and characteristics of the car, it starts to become a bit too expensive. Not only the charge itself, but also the lost hours charging.

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I am not saying here that there isn’t a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. However, with these kind of ranges, and the anxiety in your mind to charge, calculate your ability to reach certain locations and the absence of intuitive in-car systems that support your thinking process, even if the e-tron was the best car in the world, it still wouldn’t be a suitable replacement for the way motoring works today. If we want to make the step in the direction of a future featuring EV cars, then the world needs to drastically change. Not only our mindset, but more importantly we need an improved charging network and the ability to accept home charging as a proper solution. Of course, this is next to extending the range of our vehicles, which we will see in the near future.


The 2021 Audi e-Tron S Sportback is a brilliant long-distance car with great looks and offers us all the most realistic vision of how our electric future could look. It is properly built, rides brilliantly and has some lovely features in the form of its LED front headlights and camera wing mirrors. It offers all that we want from an Audi. As an EV, though, we can’t look away from its flawed range. And yes, the charging network and the cold weather weren’t in my favor, but even then I wouldn’t be able to choose the Audi e-tron S Sportback over an RS6, S8 or maybe even a Q8. There is no way a frequent long-distance traveler could life with this brilliant, but flawed long-distance transporter.


[Photo Source: Vincent Toth]