2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive review: An SUV that happens to be electric

Embedded deep in the Namibian desert, surrounded by orange sand that looks like it was imported from Moab, we discovered one of the unexpected benefits of driving an electric car: Giraffes don’t gallop away as you creep up on them. The noise of the tires slowly crushing loose rocks and sand alerts them of our presence but they merely look on curiously, as if baffled by the psychedelic camouflage covering our Audi e-tron prototype’s body. “When we drove here in a Toyota Hilux, the giraffes started running as soon as they heard the engine,” Audi engineer Christian Graf pointed out.

Will the multi-million-dollar safari industry surf the electrification wave? It wouldn’t surprise us, though we’d be worried about finding a fast charger out in the bush.

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

The Ur-e-tron

Range and charging anxiety are two elements Audi wants to permanently delete from the minds of motorists as it launches its long-promised electric car offensive. The e-tron is the company’s first series-produced battery-powered model.

The white, black, and orange wrap on the prototypes we drove can’t hide the fact that it looks like an Audi. Spokesman Benedikt Still explained that was intentional. Stylists wanted to maintain a high degree of familiarity to reassure buyers worried about making the switch from gasoline to electricity. The e-tron is not as bold as the segment-bending Jaguar I-Pace, but it’s more approachable. It adopts key Audi styling cues without completely copying another model.

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

The down-to-earth theme continues inside, where the only sign that a battery pack lurks under the passenger compartment is the charge gauge on the left side of the digital instrument cluster. The user-friendly, dual-screen MMI Touch Response infotainment system comes straight from other Audi models, like the 2019 A8 and 2019 Q8.

Though we drove pre-production prototypes, Still assured us what you see inside is what you’ll get when e-tron deliveries begin in early 2019. The not-insignificant exception is the camera-based rear-view system. The drag-reducing, range-boosting (slightly) feature will be available in Europe and in other global markets but it falls on the wrong side of regulations in the United States. Our version will consequently get the tried-and-true (but significantly less forward-thinking) door mirrors.

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

2019 Audi e-tron prototype first drive, Namibia, Africa, October, 2018

Digitally analog

Power comes from a 1,543-pound, 95-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack that feeds a pair of electric motors. The battery is mounted directly under the passenger compartment and it’s about as big as a queen-size mattress. The system’s total output checks in at 400 horsepower and 490 pound-feet of torque, though the drivetrain only delivers the last 20 percent of those figures in 8-second bursts when a temporary overboost function kicks in. Overboost automatically turns on in the S and Offroad driving modes. Alternatively, the driver can manually unlock overboost in any mode using the touchscreen.

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