Audi e-tron S review: this performance electric SUV is thrillingly rapid – but also rather pointless

Alex Robbins
·11-min read
Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021
Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021

We’ve had an Audi e-tron Sportback on long-term test for the last few months, and frankly it provides more than sufficient performance. Squeeze the accelerator pedal and the car hurtles forward, shortening the distance between you and the next bend at a slightly mind-boggling rate. Nobody who’s driven it has ever felt it could do with more power.

Yet an e-tron with more power is exactly what we have here. It’s called the Audi e-tron S, and as with any other S-badged Audi it sets out to offer everything the standard car does but with a little more luxury – and quite a lot more raw power.

Given that the standard car already kicks out 402bhp and comes dripping with leather and equipment, the e-tron S is going to have to have some real tricks up its sleeve to justify its existence.

Pros

  • Shatteringly fast

  • Devastatingly quick

  • Astonishingly rapid. Did we mention it’s fast?

Cons

  • Expensive to buy and run

  • Short range

  • Feels a bit pointless

Under the skin

There’s actually a lot more to the S than simply a regular e-tron that’s been breathed on. To understand fully what’s gone on underneath, first you need to know that the standard model’s immense power comes courtesy of a powerful electric motor driving the rear axle, and a less potent one that drives the front wheels as and when conditions require.

Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021
Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021

What Audi has done is taken the more powerful motor from the rear axle and fitted it to the front of the S version. It’s then added not one but two of the standard e-tron’s front-axle motors to the rear axle of the S.

This has resulted in an additional benefit: allowing the car’s electronic brain to control those two rear motors independently has the same effect as a limited-slip differential. In other words, power can be sent to each rear wheel separately, so that grip is maximised and power isn’t spun away. The result is not only a set-up that delivers more power, but a rear end that’s more controllable.

It also bestows upon the e-tron S an ability to perform lurid drifts, says Audi – something few other electric cars can manage, because in order to accomplish this the rear wheels need to turn at different rates. If there’s just one electric motor turning two wheels, then were those wheels to turn at drastically different rates it would play havoc on the internal gubbins of that motor – which is why so many electric cars’ traction control systems are set up to curtail any and all slip from either of the drive wheels.

Audi e-tron S Sportback - profile
Audi e-tron S Sportback - profile

To cope with the extra power the air suspension has been beefed up and the e-tron S has gained some whopping six-piston calipers at the front; inside, meanwhile, there’s diamond stitching on the leather seats and a smattering of glitzier trim.

Size and space

With those exceptions, though, there isn’t actually all that much inside to remind you you’re sitting in a more special e-tron. You get the same high-quality but dour grey plastics, and while there are dark matt brushed aluminium inlays, they doesn’t look all that different to the untrained eye to the ones you get in the standard e-tron – and while the natty “carbon twill” upgrade fitted to our test car is more tactile, it’s just one more strip of grey.

Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021
Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021

There’s the same glossy array of screens to control most of the cars functions, too; for the most part, the entertainment system and virtual dials are clear and responsive, though as we’ve found in our long-termer, the climate control screen is less successful.

You can’t adjust things by feel when they’re on a screen, and pulling your eyes away from the road to peer down every time you want to locate a particular control is an annoyance you could do without.

One area in which the standard e-tron excels is passenger space, and as you might expect, the same goes with the E-Tron S; those chunkier sports seats don’t really impinge on leg room in the back – indeed, there’s plenty to spare even for the lankiest occupants – while up front there’s more than enough room for both driver and passenger, as well as lots of clever slots and cubbies for odds and ends.

Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021
Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021

Lift the boot lid and you’ll be surprised to find quite a high boot floor, so hefting heavier bags in is a bit more of a workout than you might expect and smaller dogs will have a tricky time climbing in. Having said that, there’s about as much outright volume as you’ll find in a large estate.

Pounds and pence

You’ll need deep pockets to find your way behind the wheel of the e-tron S. With its starting price of £87,000 – £16,000 more than you’ll pay for a basic e-tron 55 Technik – it isn’t exactly an electric car for the people.

Mind you, it is a little cheaper than the Tesla Model X, which is about its only direct rival. On the flipside, the Model X is faster, and goes further between charges, so arguably it justifies its extra cost.

As with all electric cars, the e-tron S makes the most sense when viewed through the lens of company car tax; even here, though, lesser e-trons make even more, costing slightly less yet delivering almost as much pace and a greater range.

Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021
Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021

And as you might expect, the e-tron S is a touch less efficient than the lower-spec e-tron; 2.3 miles per kilowatt-hour (mpkWh) plays 2.5. It’s roundly beaten on this front by the Model X, too, whose low drag enables it to get an impressive 3.0mpkWh.

What does that mean for your wallet? At current average energy rates, the e-tron S will cost around £60 more in which to cover 10,000 miles than the e-tron 55, and around £168 more than the Tesla. Not much, then, but it could make a difference, especially as energy costs rise.

It’s worth noting, too, that the e-tron S has the same 95kWh battery (of which 86kWh is usable) as the e-tron 55, too; given its lower efficiency, it ties in that its range is also somewhat lower; 223 miles, to be precise, according to the official figures, though in the real world you probably shouldn’t expect much more than 190 miles to a full charge.

On the road

An expletive is, really, the only reasonable way to react to what happens the first time you grit your teeth and mash the throttle pedal of the e-tron S. Even if you think you’re prepared for it, the ballistic acceleration still knocks the breath out of you, flinging your head back against the headrest as all four wheels grip up and it vaults forward like a rhino on pep pills.

Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021
Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021

That this acceleration is near-silent only compounds the surreality of the experience; true, there’s a touch more motor whine from the e-tron S than there is from the standard car, but you’d struggle to spot it unless you drove the two back-to-back.

Allied to this almost obscene amount of get-up-and-go is the sort of infallible, grip-heavy handling Audi does so well. In fact, the speed the e-tron S can build and then carry along a twisting, diving back road is extraordinary. At full pelt you feel like you’re on a rollercoaster, the e-tron S exerting the sorts of forces that, after a short while, force you to back off for a while lest your breakfast make a sudden and unexpected reappearance.

Trying to overcome that monumental grip to provoke that fancy rear axle into one of its slides on a public road requires not only foolhardiness but guts – not to mention plenty of space. You can just about feel it starting to work if you push really hard, though you really do have to be paying attention.

Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021
Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021

At this sort of pace, too, you can start to feel the suspension working to contend with the laws of physics – those vast cornering speeds not sitting entirely well with the car’s weight and top-heavy nature – but for the most part body control is impressive. Indeed, driven the way most people will drive it, the e-tron S remains studiously neutral and entirely unflappable.

It rides well too, although you’d expect this given the standard e-tron is one of the composed and cosseting cars around. The S is firmer, as you’d imagine given its remit, and on certain road surfaces its chunkier tyres deliver a booming background hum that can be a bit irksome once you’ve tuned into it. But for the most part this is still an admirably comfortable car – especially on motorways, where its impressive control over wind and road noise make it a wonderfully serene way to munch miles.

The Telegraph verdict

The thing is, the same can be said for the e-tron 55 we’ve come to know these last few months. And that, rather, is the e-tron S’s problem. It just doesn’t feel sufficiently different enough to warrant the extra outlay.

Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021
Audi e-tron S - tested February 2021

Comparing the two is a little like comparing a duck’s egg with a chicken’s. Yes, there’s a difference, but you won’t really notice it unless you’re an egg connoisseur – especially once it’s in a cracking omelette with a nice bit of Gruyère and some Yorkshire cure. So why pay more for the fancy one – unless all you want to do is to show off?

As a technological tour de force, and proof of man’s mastery of the laws of physics, the e-tron S is mind-warpingly impressive. Viewed simply as a car, it’s undone by the capability of its lesser stablemates which, in almost every real-world circumstance, are just as good, yet cost far less. If it’s an e-tron you’re want, then, you’re best off selecting from lower down the range.

Telegraph rating: Three stars out of five

The facts

On test: Audi e-tron S

How much? £87,000 on the road

How fast? 130mph, 0-62mph in 4.5sec

How economical? 2.3mpkWh (WLTP Combined)

The oily bits: N/A

The electric bits: 3x AC synchronous motors with 95kWh battery (86kWh usable), 150kW on-board DC charger, Type 2/CCS charging socket

Electric range: 223 miles (WLTP Combined)

CO2 emissions: 0g/km

VED: £0 first year, £325/year for five years thereafter, then £0/year

Warranty: 3 years / unlimited miles (60,000-mile limit in third year)

Boot size: 660 litres

Spare wheel as standard: No (not available)

The rivals

Tesla Model X Long Range

661bhp, 360 miles, £90,980 on the road

The Model X has the E-Tron S beaten on pretty much every metric; it’s faster still, it’ll go further between charges, and it’s even got more seats. Plus, of course, there are those falcon doors, which add a bit of a visual spectacle. Granted, it’s a few grand more to buy – but it feels like you’re getting more for your money here.

Audi SQ8

500bhp, 22.4mpg, £84,490 on the road

It’ll cost you vastly more to run, but less to buy, and this SQ8 does the performance SUV thing a little more convincingly than the E-Tron S, with a more intoxicating soundtrack and the entertainment of gearchanges added into the mix. Of course, it’s vastly worse for the environment, and perhaps even less socially acceptable.

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