The Audi PB 18 e-tron debuted with a splash, aiming for the same rarified air as ultra-luxury cars. USA TODAY
RICHMOND, Calif. — The upmarket electric-car floodgates are starting to open.
Audi on Monday threw an elaborate bay-side party just north of San Francisco to unveil the e-tron, a $75,000 SUV that arrives fast on the heels of Jaguar’s $70,000 I-PACE.
Together the two new vehicles represent the first real challenge to Tesla, which has stood virtually alone in the premium electric vehicle market with its Model S ($100,000) but which now is facing production lags with its entry-level Model 3 and hits to the reputation of its volatile CEO Elon Musk.
The German company’s decidedly mainstream machine dives into an EV market that remains just 1 percent of new-car sales. But the e-tron acts as a hedge against what experts predict will soon be a lucrative segment as consumer acceptance grows and EV charging stations mushroom.
“The premium EV race is about to get interesting,” says Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive, noting that 10 new players are expected to enter the electric car market over the next two years as manufacturers warm to the market created by Tesla.
“The (e-tron) features standard-issue Audi design cues, meaning a beautiful interior and exterior execution,” he says. “For electric vehicle doubters, plenty of which remain, the e-tron will mark an important threshold on the path to widespread EV adoption.”
Audi is accepting reservations for the e-tron now, and expects to begin shipping cars from its new manufacturing plant in Brussels in the second quarter of 2019. Its arrival comes just weeks after the automaker pulled the covers off a rakish prototype electric supercar at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
Dubbed the PB 18 e-tron, that sports car is another gauntlet thrown down at Tesla, which is updating its two-door Roadster coupe. Audi also plans to reveal the e-tron GT concept, which looks to be a direct competitor to the Model S, at the Los Angeles auto show in November.
In an echo of other EVs, Audi’s e-tron SUV is powered by twin-electric motors front and rear, while its 95 kilowatt/hour lithium-ion batteries line the car’s floor.
But look inside, and you see a standard-issue luxurious German sport-ute. Which is the point. That’s Audi’s bread and butter, with some 53 percent of U.S. sales accounted for by SUVs.
“This is a full-stop Audi, backed by a network of hundreds of dealerships and a company with more than 100 years in the business,” Audi of America president Scott Keogh tells USA TODAY.
“Tesla deserves massive credit from moving electric vehicles away from just being cars for a quirky market, they went luxury,” says Keogh. “Our message for anyone considering an electric car is simply, we want our day in court.”
Soon other automakers will as well. In fact, Porsche, Audi’s sibling in the VW Group family, is poised to unveil its upmarket Taycan sedan next year, and Audi and Porsche are collaborating on a series of platforms that will allow both companies to electrify a vast range of model by 2025.
Notably, neither Audi nor Jaguar decided to take on Tesla directly, eschewing a sedan design and instead going straight for the increasingly hot premium mid-sized SUV market.
Where the I-PACE has more of a crossover feel, Audi’s mission with the e-tron is to offer consumers a car that feels like its luxury Q7 or new Q8 SUVs but with an electric powertrain. In other words: Don’t shock the customer too much.
To look at the e-tron is to behold a vehicle that looks like just about every other SUV on the road. Which is the point.
It features a traditional shape that recalls its gas-powered counterparts in the Audi family, and is almost as big as the upmarket Q8 SUV. E-tron offers seating for five, respectable cargo area with 57 cubic-feet of space, all-wheel-drive and a 4,000-pound towing capacity.
While Audi isn’t saying what the e-tron’s electric range is, one can assume it’s somewhere north of 200 miles. Audi does say that with a fast charger, an empty e-tron will hit 80 percent of battery capacity in 30 minutes.
Some of the reason Audi is mum on mileage is because this isn’t necessarily a car aimed at road trippers as much as soccer moms and dads with a slate of commutes and errands on the day’s itinerary.
“Think of it this way, how great is it that every morning you know your tank is full,” says Keogh, waving off range-anxiety concerns, long the bane of EV marketers.
For charging at home, Audi Home Charging will be provided by Amazon, with up front pricing and installation of a charging “pump” in your house, Audi announced at the Monday event. Alexa also will be inside Audi, as part of the infotainment system.
The entry-level e-tron doesn’t feel so entry-level. Listing for $74,800, it comes with 20-inch wheels, a top-view camera system, LED interior and exterior lighting, a Bang & Olufsen sound system, heated and cooled seats and a panoramic sunroof.
Bump things up to the Prestige model at $81,800, and the Premium Plus package includes a head-up projection screen for speed and other information, a Driver Assistance package, massage seats and a full leather interior.
And the $86,700 First Edition package adds 21-inch wheels, Daytona Gray pearl paint, orange brake calipers and black leather with gray stitching.
One thing U.S. e-tron buyers will not get, regretfully, is a very high-tech touch that so far is only legal in Europe.
That would be the car’s side-view mirrors, which on the Euro model consists of small rear-facing door-mounted cameras that project the image of what’s behind the drive onto small OLED screens on the driver and passenger doors.
We get the old school mirrors until the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decides cameras and screens are safe.
So for now, we’ll have to be happy with the rest of the deliberately conformist e-tron, which, if successful, has the potential to revolutionize the EV landscape.
Reservations are open now at audiusa.com.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava.
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