LOS ANGELES—Reviewing an electric vehicle like the 2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback is tricky for an old hack like me. EVs are still a novelty for many, and it’s easy to focus only on electrical aspects like range, charging, and (most of all) that silent, satin-smooth power delivery. The way I see it, that sort of approach is rapidly becoming outdated. It won’t be long before all-electric cars are, if not mainstream, then at least a common option, and I think it’s time we start evaluating them like we would any other car. The 2021 Audi E-Tron is a great place to start. Electric or not, it’s a fantastic vehicle and one I really enjoyed driving.
For those unfamiliar, the big story behind the E-Tron Sportback is not so much its electrical powertrain as its body. It’s got all the same mechanical pieces as the 2019 E-Tron SUV; what sets it apart is the A7-esque hatchback body style. The E-Tron Sportback toes the line between crossover and sedan-on-stilts.
As soon as it arrived, I hopped in and headed north toward my favorite curvy roads. On the freeway ride to Malibu, the Audi was lovely, its ride pillow-soft and extraordinarily quiet, even without the optional dual-pane side windows. The view out is, shall we say, unusual: The driving position and windshield shape are reminiscent of a car, but your height off the road feels like a particularly tall SUV. Credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) goes to the battery pack, which is mounted under the floor and raises everything accordingly.
2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback Shows Us How Much Fun an EV Can Be
Now, if you’re worried that the decline of the internal combustion engine will mean the end of motoring joy, I can assure you that the best is still ahead of us. I had a great time piloting the E-Tron Sportback through the curves, all the while recalling something John Lamm wrote in a 1972 Cadillac review for our sister publication, MotorTrend: “The Cad rides like a Chevrolet with a 1,200-pound steel slab welded to the bottom of the frame. Handles that way, too.” I always thought he meant that as a dig, but now that I found myself driving a car with a 1,600-pound slab welded to the bottom of the frame (bolted, really), lemme tell ya, friends and neighbors, this is the way to motor. That low center of gravity all but obliterates body lean, and the big tires gripped strongly and gave plenty of early warning before letting go. Weight balance is near 50/50, and the steering feels light and precise. Too much speed yields gentle understeer, just like most all-wheel-drive Audis.
The E-Tron Sportback comes with air springs as standard, and it demonstrated everything I love about an air suspension: Great handling and a ride as smooth as the proverbial baby’s butt-cheek, even with the car in Dynamic mode.
Range and Charging for the 2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback
I also discovered the disadvantages of hot-dogging in an electric car: On my way up the hill, I used up 20 miles of range in just over two miles of driving. Range is a sore spot with the Audi, as the anticipated EPA range (not finalized at the time of writing) from its 95-kWh battery is 218 miles, far short of the 300-or-so offered by Tesla’s SUVs and promised by Ford’s all-electric Mustang Mach-E. I happen to believe that “range anxiety” is part state-of-mind and part myth. Most EV owners charge at home, and the average American drives less than 35 miles per day, so 218 (or even 118) is plenty for most driving. But for long distance driving, 218 miles is a short tether.
On the plus side, the E-Tron Sportback supports 150-kW charging, which can theoretically get the car from empty to 80 percent in 30 minutes. (Charging slows down as the battery fills up.) I stopped by one of Electrify America’s 150 kW chargers, and got from 38 percent (85 miles of range) to 76 percent (163 miles) in 22 minutes. I picked up my first 20 miles of added range in the first 5 minutes of charging,
Back to the curvy roads: I don’t have a charger at home, so I slowed down as I approached the summit, but only a little. That wasn’t easy—the E-Tron may be tuned for comfort, but it’s the kind of car that just begs you to speed up in the corners. If Audi ever comes up with a performance electric—may I be the first to suggest they call it the RS-Tron?—I am so going to run out of juice on a canyon road somewhere.
Happily, the rule in Malibu is that which goes up must drop back down to sea level. For the downhill sections I used the steering wheel paddles, which control the amount of accelerator-off regenerative braking (there are three stages of regen, if you want to get granular), and with judicious use I was able to pick up plenty of power while keeping momentum through the curves. The game I set for myself was to drive as fast as I could without touching either pedal. I had more fun doing this than I should probably admit to, and by the time I got to the end of my route I was showing the same range remaining as I had when I started. God bless you, Isaac Newton, wherever you are.
Power When You Need It and Serenity All the Time
I’ll pat myself on the back for exhibiting such restraint, because it’s easy to get carried away with the E-Tron Sportback’s available power. The dual-motor all-wheel-drive powertrain is rated at 355 horsepower and 414 lb-ft, and will boost to 401 hp and 490 lb-ft if you shift to Sport mode and push past the point of resistance near the end of the accelerator pedal’s travel. It’s hard to describe the feel of 490 lb-ft of electric torque, because it’s not at all like a gasoline car, where it takes time to build, then trails off. Floor the e-Tron at any speed, and you just sort of get magicked to whatever speed you want (or, more frequently, a speed well beyond, up to its top speed of 124 mph). Some day, when all cars drive like this, we’re going to wonder why the hell we ever bothered with internal-combustion power.
Having already discovered the delights of the e-Tron Sportback on the freeway, I took the city streets home. What can I say about the car except that it’s lovely here, too? A bit big, perhaps—the E-Tron Sportback is a much larger car than it appears from the outside, and you’ll feel that from behind the wheel. But it’s smooth and quiet and serene to a degree that gasoline cars have trouble approaching at any price.
2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback’s Cabin is Modern and Functional
Like its powertrain, the E-Tron Sportback’s dash represents Audi’s latest-and-greatest, with crisp LCD screens in place of traditional buttons and gauges. I’m still getting used to virtual climate controls—changing temperature and fan speed by tapping or swiping on the screen—but I like that when you press one of the E-Tron’s virtual buttons, you get physical feedback in the form of an audible click and a vibration from the screen. It makes the transition that much easier. And I love, love, love, love Audi’s moving-map instrument panel display with its satellite imagery (even if that’s more useful for helicopter pilots than earthbound drivers).
A few things I don’t like: The slab of open-pore wood that bisects the dashboard looks totally out of place to me, as if “wood” was on the checklist and someone fulfilled the obligation without considering the consequences. (My wife disagreed, she thought it looked fine.) The center console is a big gaping hole that can only be partially covered by the armrest, and something about that just annoys me—there ought to be a sliding panel to seal it closed.
As for the whole Sportback thing, obviously you give up some cargo space compared to the e-Tron SUV. The eTron’s cargo floor sits nearly at waist level for a short guy like me, owing partially to the fact that Audi stubbornly insists on fitting the car with a real spare tire. (How could they?) Underhood space is taken up by make-the-car-go stuff, but there’s a small covered compartment big enough for the home charging cord, and it’ll accommodate handbags or other valuables one wishes to hide from prying eyes.
The Sportback body gives up some rear-seat height compared to the E-Tron SUV, but I found plenty of headroom (I’m 5’6”, so no surprise there) and easy ingress/egress. I see it as a small price to pay for the Sportback’s handsome lines, which make the E-Tron SUV look dowdy and matronly by comparison.
Is the 2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback the EV to Buy?
Speaking of prices to pay, the spread for the E-Tron Sportback is $70,195 for the Premium model (including destination fee and before the $7,500 Federal tax credit) and $83,395 for the top-of-the-line Prestige. My mid-level 2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback Prestige Plus, with optional metallic paint and rear-seat thorax airbags, split the difference at $80,090. That puts it in the same general price range as Tesla’s big SUV, the Model X, which goes farther on a charge and has more fancy bits (falcon-wing doors!) but isn’t as well engineered.
What I like best about the 2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback is that it presents a realistic vision of our electric future. As an EV, it’s cool—but if you ignore its powertrain, it’s still cool: It looks good, rides like a Rolls, and is good fun to drive. Shame about the range, though, because the E-Tron Sportback has all the makings of a great long-distance car. If Audi can get the range to that magic 300-mile mark, the E-Tron Sportback will be as easy to live with as it is to review.
2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback Highlights
- Mechanically similar to Audi E-Tron SUV
- 355 horsepower, with boost to 402 hp
- 95-kWh battery, 218-mile range
- 4,000-lb towing capacity when properly equipped
2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback Pros
- Luxury-yacht ride with respectable sporty handling
- Control interface is high tech yet easy to use
- Looks way cooler than regular E-Tron SUV
2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback Cons
- EPA range rating falls short of other long-distance EVs
- A few annoyances in the interior
2021 Audi E-Tron Sportback Premium Plus Specifications
|PRICE||$70,195/$80,090 (base/as tested)|
|ELECTRIC DRIVETRAIN||95-kWh Li-Ion battery pack, 2x asynchronous induction motor/402 hp, 490 lb-ft (combined, peak)|
|ELECTRIC RANGE||218 miles|
|LAYOUT||4-door , 5-passenger, dual-motor, AWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||76/78 mpge (city/highway)|
|L x W x H||195.0 x 74.3 x 56.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.5 sec|
|TOP SPEED||124 mph|
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