2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback first drive review: Slipstream SUV serenity

Make no bones about it: Audi’s all-electric E-Tron SUV may have received high marks from professional auto reviewers and new owners alike, but it hasn’t moved the automaker’s sales needle in the US. In all of pre-pandemic 2019, the Audi sold fewer than 5,400 E-Trons here — less than an average month of Q5 sales. It’s amidst this frustrating backdrop that the 2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback model whirs into dealers, its racier slope-back roofline hoping to catch both eyes and sales.

Based on visuals alone, the E-Tron Sportback has undergone the now industry-standard four-door-coupification process more successfully than most luxury crossover SUVs — EV or not. From the windshield header forward, the Sportback looks the same as its more traditional two-box sibling and indeed, it has nearly the same height. However, owing to its dramatically plunging rearward greenhouse and frameless windows that clean up its roofline, the Sportback looks simultaneously lower and arguably more stylish, adding in a dash of athleticism. The Sportback isn’t just slipperier to the eye, it enjoys a 0.28 coefficient of drag, 0.02 better than its boxier relation.

Range and charging specs are only part of the story

On the performance front, the Sportback is all but identical to the standard E-Tron, but a number of incremental improvements across both body styles increase appeal. Among the changes, Audi upped the available battery capacity slightly, increasing the customer-accessible portion of this 95.3-kilowatt-hour pack to 86.5 kWh — nearly 3 more than first-year E-Tron models. This translates to 218 miles of range and EPA estimates of 76 MPGe city, 78 highway and 77 combined. (The rest of the pack is held in reserve to preserve longevity.)

When it comes time to juice up, the Sportback supports Level 3 150-kW quick charging, which can jolt the battery from 0% to 80% in around 30 minutes. More common Level 2 chargers (like those most EV owners install) can replenish an entire pack in around 10.5 hours. Each E-Tron also comes with 1,000 kWh of complimentary charging through the Electrify America network.

Speaking of filling up, the Sportback is available with dual charge ports, one on each front fender. Especially for city dwellers who live in condos or apartments with tight access to charge points, this unusual bonus feature could be a major quality-of-life enhancer.

This Plasma Blue E-Tron Sportback First Edition is one of 200 coming to our shores.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

To be clear, the Sportback’s aforementioned range figures are unremarkable — a base, Tesla Model X Long Range Plus has a 351-mile claimed range, but starting at around $80,000, it’s nearly $10,000 pricier than a 2021 E-Tron Sportback (more on pricing in a minute). Of course, while smaller than the Audi, the Model Y Performance comes in at 291 miles for far less money (around $60K) and there’s a slower, less-expensive Long Range spec with 316.

In my experience, however, with both this Sportback and with previous E-Tron testers, Audi EVs achieve their range estimates with relative ease, almost regardless of driving behavior or ambient conditions. Conversely, Tesla’s stated ranges usually feel like best-case scenarios. As with all things, your mileage may vary, but the real-world range gulf between these rivals is likely far smaller for most drivers than these vehicles’ window stickers would suggest.

Performance beyond the numbers

I start with these performance comparisons if only to get them out of the way. For better or worse, it seems impossible to review a new premium EV of any stripe without acknowledging how they numerically stack up to offerings from Elon and Friends. That said, I’m likewise here to propose an alternate view, which I think delivers a fuller picture of luxury electric life in general, and this E-Tron Sportback specifically.

You’ve likely found that all EV reviews from the humble Nissan Leaf to the Porsche Taycan wax rhapsodic about the instant torque and silent running inherent in battery-powered vehicles. Especially for those coming out of a convention internal-combustion-engined (ICE) model, that’s certainly a valid first impression and it’s absolutely the case with this E-Tron Sportback. And while that notion speaks to the innate serenity of electric power, this Audi takes that sense of wellbeing to a higher level, both in the way this SUV goes down the road and the way its cabin and tech make you feel.

As is typical for EVs, there’s not much to look at under the hood. Lift that plastic lid and you’ll find the charge cord.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

The Sportback’s two-motor powertrain routes 355 horsepower and 414 pound-feet of torque to all four wheels by default, rising to a temporary 402 hp and 490 lb-ft in Boost Mode. The latter setting is enough to whoosh this 5,750-pound softroader to 60 mph in a drama-free 5.5 seconds. That’s reasonably quick, but again, not headline- or Instagram-worthy stuff by today’s EV standards. What makes the Sportback impressive is the utterly placid manner in which this performance is conjured. Yes, it’s quiet. Yes, it’s linear. And yes, it feels endlessly repeatable without apparent degradation in performance during hard driving.

While it feels uncharacteristically new-age-ish (and somewhat nebulous) of me to say, the tactile quality of the E-Tron’s cabin materials and the precision of their assembly contributes to that aura of slipstream serenity. There’s no doubt about it, the fit and finish of the E-Tron Sportback’s interior is worlds more luxurious and of noticeably higher quality than something like the Jaguar I-Pace, let alone anything Tesla has ever made. The last new Tesla Models X and Y that I drove dazzled with their accelerative urgency, but their high-performance spells were momentary broken by surprising amounts of wind noise and the occasional mysterious creak or graunch from beyond the firewall and rear hatch area.

The E-Tron’s other performance attributes are tuned harmoniously, too. The standard adaptive air suspension is remarkably compliant over greater Detroit’s indifferently maintained roads, even riding atop this example’s upsized 21-inch tires. With the Drive Select controller set to its firmest detent, the E-Tron’s ride is more than livable and cornering attitude is flat, doubtlessly aided by the weighty battery pack slung low in the chassis. I prefer keeping the steering set to Sport for a heftier feel when charging down a winding road, but no matter the setting, the steering is precise but numb.

Like other modern Audi models, the E-Tron Sportback feels tech rich and very well assembled.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

A word on omissions and creeps

A note about the braking: Audi worked particularly diligently to blend the EV powertrain’s regenerative braking with traditional friction binders and the results do nothing to erode the Sportback’s air of overall effortlessness. Unlike some EVs, they’re easy to modulate thanks to consistent feel.

However, there’s one key thing the brakes don’t do nearly as well as many other EVs: one-pedal driving. While Audi worked in a user-selectable setting with stronger regenerative braking than early E-Trons, it’s not close to being enough to enable one-pedal driving. According to company officials, Audi engineers deliberately chose to limit lift-off regen in the name of maximum efficiency. Admirable as that may be, lots of EV drivers tell Roadshow they quickly fall in love with single-pedal driving and not offering a driver-selectable setting to accommodate this popular customer preference feels like more than a minor exclusion — it feels both shortsighted and needlessly overbearing.

Similarly, it’s also odd that Audi’s coders haven’t made a forward-creep setting available. Manual-transmission cars aside, nearly every modern vehicle rolls forward slowly from a stop when the brake pedal is released, as when pulling away from a stop sign or inching forward in a left-hand turn lane. Not the E-Tron. You have to nudge the accelerator. You get used to this, of course, but if the goal is to make transitioning from a traditional ICE model as easy as possible, this is an omission.

The E-Tron comes with standard 360-degree, top-down camera coverage for easy parking.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Interior and infotainment tech

The cabin certainly feels a bit more intimate and racier, but that’s mostly when looking in the rearview mirror or if you’re seated in the second row. TL;DR: Plenty of leg, knee and toe room, but headroom is a bit tight for those over 5 feet, 9 inches and the windows don’t roll down very far.

As far as cargo volume goes, it’s largely unaffected by the coupification process. The Sportback offers 27.2 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, or 54.5 with them folded (decreases of 1.3 and 2.0 versus the standard E-Tron, respectively).

Beyond that, the Sportback’s insides are pure modern Audi, which is to say impeccably assembled, tastefully decorated and rocking an impressive tech hand. Thanks to a trio of large displays, one for the Virtual Cockpit gauge cluster and two for the touchscreen MMI infotainment system, when the power is off, the E-Tron Sportback’s cabin look is almost eerily minimalist, particularly when rendered in darker colors like this one. That doesn’t mean it’s boring inside, though. By comparison, the Model Y’s pared-back dashboard and single display may nail the minimalist yoga-studio-on-wheels aesthetic, but thanks to its significantly cheaper materials and occasionally frustrating controls, Fremont’s finest doesn’t deliver the same sense of serenity and solidity as the Sportback. 

You take the Tesla. Namaste in this Audi, friend.

Second-row space is quite good, though those taller than 5 feet, 9 inches may want to slouch a little.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

E-Tron Sportback model years and pricing

Earlier, I mentioned that the E-Tron Sportback sits between the Tesla Model Y and X in price and indeed, it does. That said, further explanation is necessary. Due to COVID-19-related production and shipping hiccups, both 2020 and 2021 model-year Sportbacks are trickling into dealers more or less simultaneously and unlike Team Elon, all E-Trons remain eligible for the full $7,500 federal tax credit.

A very short 2020 model-year run consists of two models: A midrange Premium Plus spec that include features like adaptive cruise control, 360-degree camera suite and 16-speaker Bang and Olufsen 3D audio for $78,445 (including $1,045 for delivery). The other choice is an all-boxes-checked 2020 Edition One like the example seen in these images. It adds the Prestige Package, which includes features like the aforementioned twin charge ports, head-up display, massaging contour front seats, full leather (including dash, armrests and center console) and even an air ionizer/fragrance dispenser. Just 200 Edition One models will be sold in the US and you’ll be able to spot them on the street by their special Plasma Blue metallic paint and the 21-inch bi-color wheels shrouding orange brake calipers. Price? A heady $89,540 with destination.

Interestingly, for the 2021 model year, Audi significantly retooled the E-Tron Sportback’s model line, enabling a much lower starting price. A new entry-level Premium trim starts at $70,145 delivered and it’s rather well equipped, including standard features like four-zone climate control and 20-inch alloys. Mid-trim Premium Plus models add ventilated 12-way power seats, matrix LED headlamps, B&O audio, wireless charging and a driver-assistance package, among other features for $79,045 delivered. Go whole hog on a Prestige to net nearly all of the features from the Edition One and you’re looking at $83,345 in your driveway before any federal, state and local tax incentives.

Modestly slicker than its more upright E-Tron sibling, Audi is hoping this Sportback can jumpstart their EV sales.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

It’s worth noting that a base Sportback is $3,700 more expensive than a regular E-Tron, a strategy that’s in-line with the industry’s “four-door coupe” SUV pricing trend: Same vehicle + different style – usable space = more money. While this value calculus perplexes your author, consumers have been supporting this type of math since the 2008 BMW X6, so more power — and profits — to ’em.

Overall, the new E-Tron Sportback combines impressive luxury with a fluid, unflappable feel. What this SUV doesn’t really muster, however, is an experience that’s materially much different than the standard E-Tron. The idea that the Sportback is sportier is largely an illusion and it would’ve been interesting to see what might’ve resulted had Audi elected to give this model its own driving character. Regardless, if you’re looking for luxury, quality and serenity now, the E-Tron Sportback delivers like few vehicles — electric or otherwise. 

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