7

Audi’s electric crossover is out to make waves with asymmetrical, three-motor drive

Find Audi E-tron S deals
Offers from our trusted partners on this car and its predecessors...
New car deals
Nearly-new car deals
From £32,244
Sell your car
In partnership with
Powered by

The electric car is taking some time to win over a car-buying general public that remains as sceptical about it in some quarters as it is evangelical in others – but as the technology develops, it is making headway.

We’re now seeing them as effective, reasonably priced, full-sized family cars; as desirable superminis and compact crossovers; and as luxury saloons. And while plenty have for quite a few years been performance cars of a kind, we’re also now starting to see a few convincing examples of the EV as driver’s car.

Like the regular E-tron, the E-tron S has a charging port on both front wings, but only the one on the driver’s side offers CCS rapid charge compatibility at up to 150kW.

This week’s road test subject undoubtedly defines itself as such. With the E-tron S quattro, Audi is using its ‘S’ fast-car model identifier on an EV for the first time. It was nearly 30 years ago that Ingolstadt first used ‘S’ as a special model prefix, on the 100-based S4. It has since been adopted, in prolific quantities, by four-wheel-drive performance versions of cars as different as the A1 supermini, TT coupé and Q7 SUV.

This Audi ‘S express’ has enough outright torque to put even the mighty RS Q8 in the shade, though – and it also uses electric motors in a way unlike any electric car of its type. Fully independent and asymmetrical, motor-per-corner torque vectoring has long promised to be the trump card that electric cars might use to convince keen drivers that electric motoring could be for them.

Advertisement
Back to top

Until now, it’s been a card that the mass-produced, relatively attainable electric car had still to play, appearing only on super-exotic battery-powered options like the Rimac Concept One, Mercedes-AMG SLS Electric Drive and forthcoming Lotus Evija.

The mould-breaking three-motor layout of the E-tron S quattro changes all that. But to what effect?

The Audi E-tron line-up at a glance

The new S quattro becomes the top-level version in a range of three Audi E-tron models whose list prices span almost £30,000. If you want a swoopier-looking Sportback variant, the premium on the S quattro model is £1700.

The S version is a de-facto trim level in itself, but lesser models come in Technik, Sport, S line, Black Edition and Vorsprung trims.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

2 Audi E Tron S 2021 RT hero side

Audi’s electric pioneer, the Audi E-tron, has now surpassed two years in production. In that time, it has been broadened out to become a miniature range of cars in its own right, within which you can choose between price levels and power outputs just as you would when buying any other model.

Regular crossover SUV or swoopier-looking Sportback bodies are on the E-tron menu, too. Each version comes with a little over 86kWh of usable battery capacity, though, as well as four-wheel drive delivered by at least two independent drive motors. And now, the E-tron S quattro comes with three of them.

E-tron’s neat-looking grille gains a brighter border for the S model, with chrome-edged lower air intakes to match. The front end gets a big visual lift as a result. We like.

Working within the existing confines of the car’s mixed-metal chassis, Audi has taken the rear-mounted, more potent of two asynchronous electric drive motors from the regular E-tron and installed it in the front of the E-tron S. More important, it has taken a pair of the smaller motors (only one of which usually drives the front axle of the E-tron) and squeezed both into the rear of this new version.

Each gets its own planetary gearing and can channel as much as 162lb ft of torque through each individual rear drive wheel. The combined outputs of all three motors can amount to as much as 496bhp and up to 718lb ft of torque, albeit only for eight-second bursts of ‘full boost’ acceleration. In a 4.9m-long luxury crossover SUV weighing 2620kg at Audi’s kerb weight claim (2634kg as we weighed it), that makes for less than 200bhp per tonne and 300lb ft per tonne.

But it’s the potential of those rear-mounted electric motors to act independently of each other that really ought to whet the appetite of those already familiar with how powerful electric cars can accelerate. Audi has programmed the car’s control electronics to make the rear motors behave like a conventional diff-driven rear axle, so that the difference between the drive forces applied on opposing sides of the axle is never more than 162lb ft. (You never get one motor driving flat out forwards, then, while the other motor opposes its effort.) Nevertheless, the car can also work with brake-based torque vectoring on the inside front wheel, to simultaneously complement what’s happening at the rear.

The shape of the torque curves of the electric motors, and the ratio of the single-speed gearing chosen for them, means the E-tron S hits peak torque almost instantly when accelerating from rest. It then hits peak power from a little over 40mph; but its motors are dropping away from peak before it passes 90mph.

Audi decided it didn’t need active anti-roll bars or four-wheel steering. The E-tron S has the same adaptively damped, three-chamber air suspension system as the standard car. It has been retuned for a more performance-oriented application, and the car has wider tracks than the E-tron due to its larger alloy wheels.

INTERIOR

8 Audi E Tron S 2021 RT cabin

The performance makeover expected of the interior of an S-badged Audi has something of a checklist of ingredients and the E-tron S ticks most of them – although perhaps not as emphatically as you might expect. S badges appear on the sill plates and steering wheel and are embossed onto the leather sports seats and gear selector console.

You might wonder if Audi could have risked a few more sporting touches on a near-500bhp performance model, but only until you’re reminded how uniquely upmarket electric cars combine top-level outright speed and response with more intangible smoothness, refinement and simplicity-in-operation – and how easily the firm could therefore have overdone the performance seasoning of this car. As it is, the E-tron S’s cabin introduces you rather effectively to the idea that this is a fast but still socially responsible sort of luxury family car.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve left charging cables under a heavily packed boot floor. Putting them under the bonnet is very clever. But why not put a remote release on the key fob, instead of having to fumble for the bonnet release in the footwell?

At quite a general level, it could be almost any big modern Audi. Its seats aren’t uncomfortable or tricky to berth; it makes plenty of room for adult occupants in both rows, being impressively roomy in the back; and it presents those occupants with lots of sophisticated display technology, and a fascia designed in quite a particular, crisp-edged styling theme.

The materials used on that fascia are mostly typical of the marque. There’s lots of satin chrome brightwork and piano black trim. Tactile quality is, in the main, good although not universally so. (Some slightly wobbly mouldings and sharp trim edges can be found around the margins of the centre stack, for example.) But the woven ‘carbon twill’ trim accents of our test car were an interesting and imaginative inclusion approved of by our testers.

Boot space in the car is almost as impressive as cabin space, Audi’s extra electric motor having robbed nothing in the way of loading height, and even leaving room for a spacesaver spare wheel under the boot floor for those who want one.

The charging cables are stored separately in a special cubby under the bonnet. It’s a little awkward to get to, but at least your cables won’t be buried under the week’s shopping on any occasion that you need them.

Audi E-tron S infotainment and sat-nav

Where the E-tron S’s ritzy cabin technology works, it works quite well – but it doesn’t work everywhere. The digital instruments are very clear and easily configurable, belonging effortlessly on a car with such an avant-garde technological appeal as this.

The MMI Touch Response twin-touchscreen infotainment systems remain a little unintuitive, even to testers with decent experience of them, though. The usability of the main display is improved by the shortcut buttons on its right-hand margin, but its layout of menus invites questions in other respects. All the while, the need to press the main screen extra firmly before you get a buzz of tactile feedback for every input often seems to slow you down, distract you from driving and generally make usability worse. Nowhere is offered as an anchoring point for your outstretched arm when using the main screen, either.

The lower screen, meanwhile, offers little versatility of configuration, and mostly just seems to do a second-rate job of replacing proper physical switchgear. Most testers would have preferred a physical input device or more physical switchgear.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

20 Audi E Tron S 2021 RT charging port

Except for the synthesised hum that all electric cars have to broadcast to the outside world when travelling at low speeds, the E-tron S operates in eerie quiet at all times. No gesture is made by Audi towards creating an electronic engine note like that of the Porsche Taycan.

Because the electric motors also operate so quietly from a mechanical point of view, the car sounds little different when it’s being driven hard from when it’s floating along gently. That makes it pleasingly refined, which we’ll describe shortly, but as a driver’s car, it also makes it seem aloof and disinterested in sensory excitement. Then again, if it faked some engine noise at all badly, we’d criticise that too.

If you can find a drizzly skidpan, the E-tron S will do perfect 50mph concentric drifts for as long as your heart desires. It’s remarkable, but it does feel a bit contrived in the act; like a circus elephant riding a tiny unicycle

The car’s throttle response isn’t on a Tesla-like hair trigger. It doesn’t explode away from standing in a flurry of wheelspin, although, for a car weighing 100kg more than the last Land Rover Discovery we tested, it certainly gets going hard enough. Our timing gear recorded 0-60mph in 4.2sec, which is well into super-SUV performance territory. It’s also a good 1.4sec quicker than the Audi E-tron 55 managed in 2019 and it feels pretty serious from behind the wheel.

But it’s exactly how and where the E-tron S is really quick that’s truly revealing. Rolling on from low speeds, it picks up with instant potency: 30-70mph goes by more quickly than in an Aston Martin DBX. But as the single-speed electric motors move beyond their most efficient operating window, the car’s ability to correct bad back posture tails off just a little. To get from 70mph to 110mph, it needs 8.3sec, which is nearer the pace of Audi’s own Audi SQ7 TDI (9.0sec) than the V8 DBX (6.9sec).

At any speed you’re likely to adopt on the road, this is a fast car; but perhaps not always an exciting one. Its reserves also seem much more vast when overtaking on A-roads than on motorways, and it rattles away from sharper bends and roundabouts with startling thrust but won’t be a car for the outside lane of the autobahn.

The electronically driven braking system works quite well under lighter pressures. It isn’t the most artificial by-wire system, and it isn’t grabby, either. But the harder you lean on it, the less naturally it seems able to juggle friction and regenerative braking.

For outright stopping power, meanwhile, the car struggles somewhat with its huge kerb weight. The stopping distances we recorded were exacerbated by rainy conditions, but they aren’t flattering for any serious performance car.

RIDE & HANDLING

21 Audi E Tron S 2021 RT cornering front

The E-tron S has the assured, composed handling that most will want from it, but a revolutionary it isn’t.

In particular circumstances, it can do some remarkable things for a car of its size and weight. But on everyday journeys and when driven in an interested but responsible way, it doesn’t really go beyond the kind of cornering balance, handling poise or dynamic engagement of a lot of other fast SUVs. Any difference that clever rear axle can make to the way the car handles is unearthed only beyond the limit of grip, where so few are likely to find it.

It’s a predictable, sure-footed and capable SUV at typical road speeds, but to tap the entertaining potential of its clever rear axle, you must go beyond the limits of grip

The car has Audi’s familiar range of driving modes, plus Allroad and Offroad modes for rougher terrain. It adjusts ride height, spring rates and dampers automatically as you cycle through those modes. The mid-range settings leave useful suppleness and fluency in the car’s ride, even if they allow more long-wave high-speed body movement over testing roads than some might like. Opt for one of the lower-slung settings (Dynamic or Efficiency) and primary body control is closer, but the ride becomes less absorbent and can begin to feel reactive and brittle over sharper inputs. Any ‘Goldilocks’ midway dynamic compromise can remain elusive on cross-country roads.

The E-tron S certainly better marshals its weight in corners than over bumps and testing surfaces. When cornering, it rolls a little but not to extremes and can be guided naturally and precisely enough. Through faster bends, the car simply responds as you’d expect a big fast Audi to – for better and for worse.

But if it’s a tighter corner you’re negotiating, and you’re using Dynamic driving mode with the ESC dialled back (in which setting the car’s torque vectoring is at its boldest), you’ll find that once the E-tron S has signalled its limits by nudging into stabilising understeer, you can neutralise its cornering posture very easily with power. And then, in a safe environment needless to say, even make it maintain power oversteer, with regular dabs of positive steering angle and without absurd commitment levels.

Some 2.6 tonnes of drifting electric Audi SUV is a novel thing to comprehend, let alone experience first hand. It’s just a shame that you have to drive this car so hard to know that it’s got that secret weapon; and that the rear axle doesn’t work harder to enrich the handling in everyday driving, when the E-tron S is pleasing and composed, but seldom thrilling.

The E-tron S always handles like a big car, even when it’s rotating underneath you mid-corner. Turn all the electronic aids off and, having first gently pushed on, the chassis will pivot dependably into power oversteer at the limit of grip.

In slippery conditions, however, the drivetrain and tyres need a moment longer than you might first expect to create meaningful traction in the direction that car is newly pointed. It’s the inevitable result of the inertia that the car carries. In that respect, the E-tron S feels a little like a heavily laden trolley moving around a builders’ merchant’s yard; one that’s helping you to steer it, if you like, but that you’re pushing all by yourself.

The Bridgestone Alenza tyres don’t have a particularly commanding grip level, but plenty of safety margin is delivered by the stability and traction control systems when they’re left on, so driving the car quickly and securely is easy when you want it to be.

Comfort and isolation

When we road tested the regular Audi E-tron two years ago, the car’s refinement and isolation really set it apart. The effect of putting bigger wheels and some stiffer suspension componentry on the E-tron S was always likely to compromise that feel a little, but it hasn’t hobbled this car by any means.

At a 50mph cruise on a wet day, our test car produced just 62dB of noise in the cabin, a decibel more than the regular E-tron 55 managed but still a very creditable result for a full-sized luxury car. A Jaguar I-Pace, tested in more favourable dry conditions in 2017, was another decibel noisier again.

The car’s ride is cushioning over sharper edges when you use the longer-travel suspension modes and is generally quiet over coarser, open surfaces. There is a touch more weight to the steering than you typically find in luxury Audis, and perhaps less filtering of steering forces evident through it. You can feel, for instance, the steering weight up a bit when the car’s mass shifts forwards, no doubt partly because there’s so much mass to shift. Most testers liked the more connected feel that resulted, though.

The E-tron S’s driving position is only medium high. Taller drivers will still need to bend a little at knee and waist when boarding, and few will climb up to get in. Visibility is good to all quarters, and the car’s conventional door mirrors (Audi’s camera-based virtual door mirrors are a £1250 option not fitted to our test car) are of a usefully large size.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Audi E Tron S 2021 RT hero front

Our Audi E-tron 55 road test documented a car with a real-world range of a little over 200 miles in mixed urban and extra-urban use. With the E-tron S and from the same battery capacity, you’ll typically be looking at just under 200 (218 miles versus 182 at test-average mpkWh).

By limiting the cruising speed to 50mph or so, that will rise to a little over 210 miles from a charge, and for existing E-tron owners trading up, that may be no barrier at all. To those for whom 200-mile days are more common, though, it may not inspire confidence like some EV rivals can.

Retention of 45% over three years is no bad forecast for a £90k luxury car, but both the Jaguar I-Pace and Tesla Model X fare better

When seeking to appeal to more sporting tastes, the way that maintaining usable range so clearly becomes the enemy of a brisker driving style will be an insoluble problem for the electric car. But Audi has done what it can to mitigate it by equipping the E-tron S with 150kW fast-charging capability, which its rivals can’t match.

The level of standard equipment is a little mean, considering the car’s near-£90k positioning. Audi expects you to pay extra for efficiency-boosting adaptive cruise control, for instance, and for remote pre-conditioning of the car via a smartphone app – items that ought to be standard, in our estimation.

 

VERDICT

23 Audi E Tron S 2021 RT static

The E-tron S quattro isn’t likely to win friends or influence keener drivers on behalf of the electric car. Accomplished though it may be in other ways, it simply doesn’t move the needle on the kind of entertainment value that might be expected from a car that charges from the mains.

Audi S cars rarely do such things, of course. Rated for their blend of dominant, slick, accessible speed, their motorway composure and their luxury appeal, they are seldom properly exciting. And as a car of that mould, this new one isn’t too far wide of the mark. Unless you’ve driven it quickly, though, you might well be forgiven for concluding that the E-tron S just isn’t exciting at all.

Slick, tech-laden luxury operator but no dynamic landmark for EVs

However ready it may be to simply rocket away from ordinary speeds, lots of other EVs do that; and what it offers to keep you interested above and beyond that initial titanic rush of acceleration is tricky to tease out of it.

Surprising, amusing and unlikely as they may be, this car’s torque-vectoring gymnastics are also momentary and fleeting. They do little to boost the car’s real-world driver appeal, which comes up some way short of what we’d hoped for.

 

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017 and like all road testers is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests and performance benchmarking, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found presenting on Autocar's YouTube channel.

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat.