There’s been a great debate raging regarding EVs (Electric Cars) in SA in recent times and, to be frank, some of it is a bit misguided. I do, however, think that the topic does need to be fanned and properly vented in order to debunk the myths and have factual, moot points on the table.
The premium segment is currently awash with EV advocates, many of which will be launching in Mzansi next year. Audi, for instance, will have no less than 6 models - under its e-tron EV banner - on sale in the first quarter of 2022, including the model featured here, the e-tron S Sportback. TopGear SA was afforded a pre-launch drive of the model to suss out, not only the product itself, but also the feasibility and readiness of the brand as it enters a new chapter in its product and business portfolio.
It took a while for the e-tron range to arrive locally, which the outfit attributes to various aspects that had to be considered in order to have a seamless entrance into the market. Chief of these was to ensure that there was buy-in from dealers, which would future-proof them. Then there was also the aspect of having sufficient initial stock, semiconductor chip shortages notwithstanding. These, thankfully, are said to have been addressed, so we will wait and see the uptake of models when they officially go on sale in early 2022.
For now, however, it is all about our spell in the e-tron S Sportback and let me from the onset declare that it is one helluva good-looking SUV. And I reckon that Audi has done well to debunk the notion that EVs ought to look futuristic and unconventional, because buyers prefer familiarity with their vehicle interaction. Aside from the charging ports on either side of the front flanks and the lack of exhaust tips, and the sealed off front grille, you would be hard-pressed to tell the e-tron S Sportback from its internal combustion engine Q siblings.
Our test unit also came with quite an appealing package that sees the Black Optic trimmings replace the standard chrome embellishments; it lends an even more menacing grit to an already handsome vehicle. This is further underpinned by the 22” alloy wheels in their “throwing star” design, giving the e-tron S Sportback kerb appeal that received its fair share of admirers and compliments.
Cabin architecture continues to be one of the best in the business as we have seen in recent Audi products, with the dual centre screens not only deriving ease of use, but liven up the cabin spectacularly. The instrument cluster continues with the digital cockpit theme and, instead of a tachometer, there’s now a battery power and range indicator, which is easily legible. That said, the rest of the architecture is familiar Audi fare with good perceived and tactile quality materials used on most touch points.
EVs are inherently heavier than their ICE counterparts and the S Sportback comes in at a hefty 2 620 kg, this is largely attributable to the 95 kWh lithium-ion battery pack that sits on the floor pan of the vehicle. It produces 370kW and 808Nm (973 Nm in overboost) driving all four wheels via a single-speed transmission. 0-100km/h is said to be 4.5 seconds - it does feel quicker than this - while top speed is pegged at 210km/h.
Performance, as one can imagine, is quite impressive thanks to the instantaneous, elastic-like power delivery, which is quite addictive. This is perhaps the one aspect that truly makes us here at TopGear SA Magazine embrace EVs with such great conviction. Handling for such a portly SUV is good if not impressive, while the large wheel and tyre setup does not seem to have a negative bearing on overall ride quality and composure. Regenerative braking, where the brakes recoup kinetic energy through braking and converting that into electricity to recharge the batteries, can be varied via the paddles behind the steering wheel. The driver can choose the degree of regenerative braking, with the most aggressive setting hardly requiring the use of the brake pedal, essentially creating what we call pedal driving. It is quite a cool and easy way to drive once you become accustomed to it.
As a product, the e-tron S Sportback is an impressive package, but the crux of EV ownership is always the charging infrastructure and the driving range on a full charge. For home charging, each e-tron model comes with a 3 phase, portable wallbox charger that will be fitted to your home by an electrical technician. This will also include the fitting of a 3 phase industrial plug by said technician to a dedicated plug point where your e-tron can be charged. Audi SA will offer R5 000 support for this to e-tron buyers in order to get them setup. With this setup, it will take you close to 13 hours to charge from empty to full charge
Of course, the best form of charging would be the public DC charger, that offers up to 60kW of rapid charging capacity, which will see up to 80% full in just 40 minutes of charging. These are strategically located at major shopping centers and EV retailing dealerships including Audi and BMW as part of the GridCars EV charging network. Of course there will be more players in this space soon and we can expect the charging footprint to expand further, which is quite critical to the local EV expansion programme.
According to Audi SA, there will be 10 preferred e-tron dealerships, which will include 3 in Gauteng, 3 in Tshwane, 2 in KZN and 2 in Cape Town. The second phase of expansion will take place between 2022 and 2024, where more Audi dealerships will become e-tron dealers. Unsurprisingly, there has been very little resistance to investing from dealers who were keen on future proofing their business, and I think that is indicative of keen interest for dealers to embrace EVs, which bring a whole new ball game.
Audi’s foray into the EV space is arguably one of the most calculated, as it will bring a range of models instead of just one, which bring variety and slightly different pricing points. BMW is also launching the iX in two different flavours, while Mercedes-Benz will also bring its EQ range to the fore, starting with the EQC SUV. However, all these remain premium offerings, meaning that it will appeal to only the well-heeled. At a starting price of R1 990 000 for the e-tron 55 advanced and going up to R3 300 000 for the RS e-tron GT, while the e-tron S Sportback on test here comes in at R2 425 000. That’s quite serious capital outlay, which means that the adoption of EVs on a global scale in Mzansi is still some way off.
Volkswagen will also introduce the ID electric vehicle range and, together with currently the cheapest EV on the market, the MINI SE, should open-up the EV market to a much bigger audience. In the short to long term phase, we need to accelerate the reception and feasibility of EVs in SA and we hope that the Green Paper agreement on the advancement of new energy vehicles by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) will accelerate this. The jury is still out, but we keep a beady eye on how this will unfold and the accountability levelled at the stakeholders alike.