Gruelling desert test for Audi’s new E-Tron electric vehicle
THE MIDDLE of a desert is the last place on earth you'd take an electric vehicle - and yet here we are in central Namibia as Audi demonstrates how far plug-in cars have advanced.
We are hours away from civilisation - and service stations - but there are power points.
To make sure the fleet of camouflaged E-Tron prototypes doesn't run flat, Audi has freighted fast-chargers and a generator - which, it's promptly pointed out, runs on bio-diesel.
We're here because the surface of the Bitterwasser salt pan, about 200km south-east of the capital Windhoek, is so powdery it's as slippery as snow to drive on.
Audi claims to have invented the most sophisticated hardware and software for an all-wheel drive EV to date.
The salt playground is three times the size of Sydney airport and home to one of the world's best glider-flying locations.
The hot winds from Kalahari desert meet the cool air from the Atlantic Ocean creating a "highway for gliders" 5000 metres above sea level, higher than most other countries allow.
On the ground the heat is a blistering torture test for any car, let alone a hi-tech electric vehicle.
It's part of Audi's final shakedown before the E-Tron arrives in showrooms next year. Price is yet to be announced but using the US cost as guide it works out to about $140,000 once exchange rates and luxury car tax are calculated.
Customers may buy it for the badge and the daring design - this five-seat SUV slots between Audi's Q5 and Q7 in size - but there's plenty of substance under the skin.
The E-Tron has the automotive world's first water-cooled electric motors to ensure peak performance regardless of how hot it is and no matter how many times you use "boost" mode, the equivalent of Tesla's "ludicrous" setting. The rotor in each electric motor (one front, one rear) spins up to 13,300rpm.
Audi claims its software is more sophisticated when the going gets rough.
"Other (electric vehicles) will trigger the stability control or cut power but ours works like a conventional all-wheel drive, so it can handle obstacles," says Audi engineer Michael Wein, formerly of Porsche, who has spent the past 10 years developing the E-Tron's AWD tech.
To illustrate this point, Audi set an E-Tron on an obstacle that left one wheel dangling in the air. Audi claims rivals would be beached in the same scenario.
The only doubt about its off-road credentials: what happens if we cop a flat tyre? The can of tyre-inflating goop in the front boot (the "frunk") won't be much of a remedy for a split sidewall.
Of course, not everyone is going to drive an electric car into the desert, let alone off-road, but the know-how has benefits in the daily grind.
If it detects front-wheel slip - such as a patch of ice or water across the road - the E-Tron instantly reduces power to the rear wheels so they don't spin, and sends more power to the front to maintain traction and "pull" the car through the hazard.
The breadth of AWD ability means drivers can switch from "normal" to "hoon" at the press of a touchscreen. It even has a drift mode … of sorts.
The air suspension can be raised or lowered to match on-road or off-road conditions, though the car will also figure out what's best if left to its own devices.
The acceleration will impress most family SUV buyers but this isn't Tesla-quick.
Engineers say they could have created the world's fastest electric SUV but it would have been prohibitively expensive. Of the E-Tron's hefty 2490kg weight, 700kg is the battery pack.
Instead Audi aimed for performance that still gives a decent shove in the back, certainly enough to impress first time passengers.
In real terms, though, it's about as quick as a hot hatch in the 0-100km/h dash - 6.6 seconds in normal mode and 5.7 seconds in "boost".
The big question remains range. Audi says the E-Tron can travel more than 400km in ideal conditions but the cars tested when fully charged showed a distance to empty of 250km in the harsh Namibian environment.
During a slow convoy drive of about 10km through a nature reserve we lost another 50km of driving range.
Range anxiety is still real but the Audi E-Tron's capabilities are limited only by the tread on its tyres.
Price: From $140,000 (est)
Power: 2 electric motors, combined max 300kW/664Nm; AWD
Battery pack: 95kWh
Range: 400km-plus (claimed)
Spare tyre: Inflator kit