I am bombing over a rippled sand road near Abu Dhabi in Audi’s luxe new SUV, the e-tron, with the windows down, and the howling wind is about all I can hear. The e-tron, as you might guess from the name, is a battery-powered plug-in, running a pair of near silent electric motors.
In this burnt orange Mad Max desert, the sport-ute feels like the future, but the e-tron is most definitely an of-the-moment build. Plug-in electric SUVs are the automotive story of the year: The e-tron joins Tesla’s Model X and Jaguar’s I-Pace, both already on U.S. roads; Mercedes will follow with the EQC later this year, trailed by BMW’s iX3. (Get used to hearing the word frunk, by the way, the reference for the tiny trunk under the hood—bonus storage space where you’d normally find a gas engine.)
The e-tron proves to be neither a me-too machine nor just proof of concept for a company that has relied on internal combustion machines for decades. It’s clearly an Audi SUV first and foremost, with the polish and all-wheel-drive smarts you’d expect. Aside from rearview cameras that replaced the mirrors on our test model—a hokey, tech-for-tech’s-sake option that won’t appear on the U.S. model—there’s little that’s either gimmicky or compromised here.
It’s got ample power: The two electric motors combine for a 402-horsepower output, wringing fun out of even mind-numbingly flat expressways crisscrossing the desert. Mild off-road runs are made possible in part by an air suspension that can raise the body by three inches. And when traffic slows to a crawl in an Abu Dhabi rush hour, it lends a moment to appreciate the well-tailored interior, slightly more spacious than the brand’s Q5.
While there’s little design-wise to alert you that this is an EV, there’s plenty of geekery under the sheet metal. It’s a bit like the good-looking jock winning the science fair. An energy recuperation system has taken the old gas-or-throttle equation into a calculus problem worthy of the Mars lander: When you brake—or even lift off the throttle—the electric motors become generators, recapturing enough energy to make up nearly a third of the vehicle’s estimated 250-mile range. Yet you can barely feel the drag.
On mountain passes, the lighter Jaguar I-Pace proves a more spirited drive, but the e-tron is the plug-in you will want to live with if you’ve got stuff, and kids, to carry. Just think: Once the earth has really warmed up, you can swipe through digital pictures of your emission-free family hauler and say you tried to be part of the solution.