Audi E-tron S Sportback 2021 review – flawed but fascinating EV with some serious range issues
The most convincing example yet of an electric SUV, undone by the usual range compromise
We’ve been down this road before – the Audi E-tron S is a German SUV pulled apart and delicately put back together with electric motors and batteries in place of the combustion engine. So far, these types of adapted electric models from the German big three have been average at best, but the new high-performance Audi E-tron S could be a sign of some brightness amongst the gloom.
Like Audi’s other ‘S’ models, the E-tron S treads the fine line of adding performance without creating associated compromises. Yet this time the extra shove is not gained from an uptake of cylinders or turbochargers, but by a third electric motor. Other changes have also been applied to the suspension, brakes and steering components, but inherently the new E-tron S rides on the same adapted platform as its lesser E-tron sibling.
This specific example is also in Sportback form, which replaces the standard E-tron’s two-box body for the one featuring a sloping roofline (and no rear wiper). This doesn’t impact too greatly on rear packaging or practicality, but the standard ‘wagon’ bodystyle is still a more rational option.
Engine, transmission and 0-60 time
The key difference between the E-tron S and a standard E-tron is the aforementioned addition of a third electric motor. In a simple rearrangement, the standard E-tron 55’s large rear-mounted motor and small front-mounted motor have switched places, with a second small electric motor then added to the rear axle.
This doesn’t only increase the S’s combined power rating, but has also allowed Audi’s engineers to fully exploit drive from the rear axle, with each wheel independently controlled. Each motor powers its respective wheel or wheels via its own single-speed transmission.
The result of this arrangement is a peak equivalent power figure of 495bhp, with up to 717lb ft of torque available for eight seconds at a time on overboost. By normal performance SUV standards its acceleration figures are nothing out of this world, the E-tron S reaching 62mph in 4.5sec, but in practice it feels more potent.
It will eventually top out at 130mph, but will probably run out of charge before it gets there. The lithium-ion battery pack is identical to that found in the E-tron 55, packing a 95kWh gross capacity, 84kWh of which is useable. Audi quotes up to a 223-mile range on the WLTP cycle, which we'll get into later, but let’s just say it’s ambitious for now.
Audi has also paid attention to the chassis, updating both hardware and software to give the S a feel that’s distinct from that of its lesser siblings. These changes start with a new calibration for the standard-fit air suspension and dampers, increasing roll stiffness and reducing squat and dive under acceleration and braking. The suspension system is also able to vary the body height by up to 76mm depending on the selected drive mode. The wheelarch cladding has also been widened by 23mm on either side to fit the larger wheel and tyre packages. The car comes with 21-inch wheels as standard, with 22-inch units available as an option.
The brakes have been uprated to six-piston items on the front axle, which feels like a very wise idea given the quite astounding 2620kg unladen weight figure. No carbon-ceramic options are available, but due to the electric motor’s uprated regenerative braking capability, quite a surprising amount of the E-tron’s braking performance is not derived from friction braking anyway.
What’s it like to drive?
Initially similar to a standard E-tron, which is to say refined, calming and sophisticated, but not what we’d call stirring. Audi’s different Drive Select modes quite often feel undramatic in their effect on the driving experience, and the same could be said of their use in the E-tron S – that is until you put your foot down.
Where a standard E-tron will give you a shove in the back under acceleration but no more, the S feels significantly more potent, pinning you into the excellent sports seats with that seductive feeling unique to high-powered EVs. It’s not quite at the nausea-inducing levels of a Taycan Turbo S or whatever the latest Tesla Model S is, but definitely feels in that league.
What’s of more interest, though, is the S’s augmented powertrain, which quite significantly transforms the E-tron’s handling balance. In Dynamic mode, the E-tron S will dramatically overdrive the outer rear wheel, making an SUV of 2.7 tons with the driver on board feel shockingly agile.
Drive it with ham-fisted inputs and the nose will run wide, but take a gentle stance on turn-in, get that weight over the front axle and the rear end will gently rotate in a controlled manner when you jump back on the power. Try this in a Tesla and it’ll quickly feel out of its depth, but the E-tron almost feels more like a giant RS7 on stilts.
Of course, feel in any form is scarce – feedback resulting from steering inputs, braking and body movements is comprehensively hidden underneath a woolen blanket of mass and technology, one so thick that only the lateral forces exerted onto your body give any indication of speed. As an experience it’s fascinating and odd all at the same time.
Drive in a calmer fashion and there are next to no compromises in comfort or drivability either. It’s a superbly refined and comfortable motorway cruiser and is as plush and well built as any other expensive Audi in the range. Of course, the very notion of performance SUVs continues to draw blank looks at evo, but compared to a Cayenne GTS or even the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio the Audi E-tron S has its own distinct appeal.
The price you pay for all this performance comes in the form of range, or rather the lack of it. Audi quotes a WLTP range of 223 miles on a charge, but in a combination of mixed motorway driving in cold conditions, we saw barely 170 miles. When spending close to £100,000 on an electric SUV, being unable to comfortably perform a 150-mile round trip unless you’re in the softest of eco modes feels like a compromise too far.
Price and rivals
The E-tron S in Sportback form costs from £87,895 in the UK, and comes with a comprehensive list of equipment as standard, including 21-inch wheels, Nappa leather interior trim, the full suite of Audi’s slick infotainment screens, excellent matrix LED headlights and an electric tailgate, amongst other bits and pieces. There’s an optional Comfort and Sound package available in the UK which bundles a Bang & Olufsen sound system, extended interior lighting, full keyless entry and start and a 360-degree parking camera for a very reasonable £1895.
The Sportback is also the first Audi to be available with what it calls its Digital Matrix LED headlights. These go further than just augmenting the shape of the light ahead according to conditions and other cars – they actively project images and shapes onto the road surface for various reasons. When on motorways the headlights project a brighter square in the lane in front of the car with markers of where your tyres are relative to the lane markings, regardless of the car’s positioning within the lane. While initially distracting, it did soon become a useful tool to gauge the car’s placement, but in reality doesn’t seem worth the extra £3150 Audi charges for it.
The Audi E-tron S value proposition overall is stronger though, as when compared to the inflated price points of rival performance SUVs, the whole package actually seems quite aggressively valued. Compared with our preferred Porsche Cayenne, the GTS, it is almost identically priced, while significantly undercutting the Turbo models. The Alfa Romeo Stelvio is less expensive at £73,195, but smaller inside, and while the Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S and BMW X4 M both crack £80k, the former costing over £90k, they don’t strike as nice an everyday balance as the Audi.