If we’ve learned anything in the past decade and a half, it’s that coupes can have any number of doors – nominally speaking, at least. Automakers use the word not only to describe sleek four-door passenger cars, but swoopy five-door SUVs as well. And those who insist on only the most intricate automotive taxonomy can now option an electric vehicle with that combination of attributes. Enter the 2020 Audi E-Tron Sportback.
Identical from the beltline down to the conventional E-Tron SUV, the Sportback differentiates itself by sitting 0.5-inch lower, with a much less formal roof from the B-pillar back. The styling also pays dividends in aerodynamics – the svelte Audi EV boasts a slippery drag coefficient of 0.25, relative to its more traditional SUV sibling’s 0.28. But as the saying goes, something’s gotta give – what chinks might we discover in the armor of the E-Tron Sportback? We spent a few days in a well-optioned Edition One example (limited to 200 units) to find out.
While some automakers seem to blend in with one another, Audi is still relatively content to march to the beat of its own drum. In terms of styling, the brand zeroes in on a more avant garde definition of premium, and the E-Tron Sportback is no exception.
Exterior styling follows the lead of other Audi models, with kinky, L-shaped headlights and a hexagonal grille; although mostly blocked off, the E-Tron’s grille surface boasts a few tiny active shutters that provide cooling for the front brakes and some on-board electrical components. The Sportback also gets attractively blistered wheel arches that recall the company’s 1983 Sport Quattro in a very clever, modern way.
The fastback gets unique rear doors and a large liftgate, with a small roof spoiler and larger ducktail imparting even more sportiness.
Like all E-Trons, there are several interesting styling features on the Sportback, including a piece of silver rocker panel trim that Audi says is to denote where the vehicle’s actual power plant resides (there’s a 95-kilowatt-hour battery and two electric motors sandwiched in the floor). The fastback gets unique rear doors and a large liftgate, with a small roof spoiler and larger ducktail imparting even more sportiness. Tangram-shaped LED elements in the taillights give it a unique visual signature at night, too.
And in the case of our Edition One limited-production tester, gorgeous Plasma Blue exterior paint mates with denim-hued Monaco Gray upholstery, Volcano Gray ash natural wood, and Dynamic Orange brake calipers for a surprising, sophisticated color palette. There’s also a set of sleek 21-inch wheels, all done up like two-tone sawblades. No one can accuse the E-Tron Sportback of shirking away from risky style.
Posh, But Imperfect
The interior features Audi’s new Lamborghini-lite cabin styling, defined by geometric shapes on the steering wheel spokes, screen bezels, and wood trim. The blue-gray upholstery looks all the more modern thanks to pale gray Alcantara door panel trim and contrast stitching on the seats. Even though the roofline is lower than on the standard E-Tron, interior room suffers only slightly. Front and rear headroom are both down by 1.7 and 0.7 inches respectively, though there’s still enough space for even tall adults in both rows. Leg and shoulder room are identical to the more conventional electric SUV, and seat comfort is first-rate throughout.
A long highway trip made us appreciate those supportive chairs, as well as the commendable job Audi has done in banishing outside noises. Often, the absence of a noisy internal combustion engine calls out an EV’s other sonic intrusions, but in the case of the E-Tron Sportback, double-pane side glass and what must be pounds and pounds of insulation keep the interior tranquil and quiet at speed.
Even though the roofline is lower than on the standard E-Tron, interior room suffers only slightly.
The E-Tron Sportback’s first flaw appears in the dual-touchscreen MMI infotainment system. An upper 10.1-inch display features high-definition navigation, audio, vehicle settings, drive mode selection, and other functionality, while the lower 8.6-inch screen handles climate controls and handwriting recognition duties. While the handwriting feature is now able to understand long strings of characters in one swipe – before, the operator had to enter one letter at a time – the system is still rather difficult to use on the road. Simple adjustments like climate temperature or fan speed require too much attention to be useful on the highway.
And we were surprised to notice a few unfortunate interior issues in our time with the Sportback – the Audi Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster bezel, for example, seemed to be separating from the dash slightly. Meanwhile, the gap between the dash and the passenger-side door panel was askew, a problem not repeated on the driver’s side. The asymmetry would drive the detail-oriented nuts.
Much like its Audi-specific, modern-architecture styling, the E-Tron Sportback drives with the same panache one would expect of a vehicle wearing the Four Rings on the front. While there are faster, sportier EVs on the road, none carry themselves with as much poise as the E-Tron. Air springs and suspension joints seem to be coated with thick grease for how smoothly they operate; ditto the steering. On winding roads, the E-Tron Sportback boasts plenty of grip and surprising responses given its 5,754-pound curb weight – that platform-mounted battery pack lowers the center of gravity nicely.
Although neither a unique five-cylinder thrum nor supercharged-V6 engine whine accompany forward motion, the E-Tron Sportback still accelerates like an Audi, with the front and rear electric motors providing a total of 355 horsepower and 414 instantaneous pound-feet of torque – most of the time. Set in Dynamic mode, the EV explodes forward with a heavy shove to the back, a temporary “Boost” function opening up the pipes for 402 hp over short periods. Audi claims a 0-60-mph time of 5.5 seconds, making it one of the slowest luxury EVs on the market, but there’s still plenty of zip for both errands and feisty driving.
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The driver can select a preferred level of brake regeneration, and its most aggressive setting nearly enables true one-pedal operation around town, with 0.3 G of stopping force available. And in the canyons, these regenerative brakes not only turn momentum into energy, but they also reduce fade and wear on the 14.8-inch front and 13.8-inch rear rotors. Surprisingly, the handoff between electricity generation and friction braking is smooth and linear, with no grabbiness usually endemic to brake regen.
In regular around-town tootling, the E-Tron Sportback emits a fun and funky low-speed whine to alert pedestrians of its otherwise-silent presence. Along with entertainingly responsive acceleration, that noise is one of the few indicators behind the wheel that the E-Tron is anything but a normal Audi SUV. It feels like a charming school science project, particularly with the windows down. Much how diesel owners appreciate a little clatter under the hood, we’d bet EV drivers can’t get enough of that futuristic deceleration sound.
How Much Green?
The 2020 Audi E-Tron Sportback starts at $77,400, available in Premium Plus, Prestige, or Edition One trims – 2021 will bring a less expensive $69,100 Premium model that still boasts 20-inch wheels, four-zone climate control, and Audi Virtual Cockpit. Our whole-hog tester carried an all-in price of $89,490, padded by the launch-spec $4,100 Edition One pack (unique colors, S-Line bumpers, and S-Line door sills), a $6,000 Prestige package (Valcona leather upholstery, a second charging port on the passenger side, a head-up display, expanded ambient interior lighting, and ventilated seats), rear side airbags, and a $995 destination charge.
That’s a whole lotta dough for an EV that still only achieves a middling 218 miles of EPA-rated range – our time with the vehicle yielded a real-world figure just under 200 miles. And that’s up from the normal E-Tron’s 204 miles, thanks mostly to the Sportback’s improved aero. Tesla’s comparably priced (but far less attractive) Model X boasts an Audi-shaming 351 miles of range. And then there’s the Jaguar I-Pace, a gorgeous all-wheel-drive EV that can do 234 miles on the EPA test cycle (with an admittedly smaller interior). Against competition like that, a $90,000 E-Tron Sportback is a tough sell.
Of course, neither of those competitors offers the Audi’s combination of buttery-smooth driving dynamics, modernist styling, and interior space and comfort. The company hopes there are enough drivers out there willing to sacrifice on overall range in exchange for some traditionally Teutonic self-assurance, and if that’s the case, the Sportback is a stellar EV. And let’s be honest, most folks in the market for an all-electric luxury crossover like the E-Tron probably have the means to install a charging station at home, rendering the EV range argument invalid for all but the most demanding commuters.
Although we found a few flies in the E-Tron ointment during our time with the SUV, it’s still hard to deny that Audi’s first long-range EV delivers a brand-consistent driving experience mated to wonderful styling and a cosseting interior. The Sportback is just more of the same, done up in an even sleeker wrapper.
2020 Audi E-Tron Sport Back Edition One