Sometimes what a car lacks can be just as significant, if not more so, than what it has in abundance. Take for instance the new 2020 Audi e-tron Sportback, which has no shortage of technology, luxury, and engineering. And yet, its arguably standout quality is how little noise it actually makes, or at least how little of it you can actually hear. If silence is golden, then the e-tron is the gilded chariot of electric SUVs.
Just how quiet is the e-tron Sportback? Our sound meter registered a low 63 decibels inside it at a steady 70 mph—one decibel less than the standard e-tron. The Sportback nearly matches the $335,350 Rolls-Royce Cullinan's 62 decibels in the same test. Yet, even R-R's rolling sensory-deprivation chamber makes a comparative racket (71 decibels) when you unleash its 563-hp V-12 engine. In contrast, matting the e-tron Sportback's accelerator only raised the volume to a 65-decibel whir.
This is not surprising. EVs are inherently quiet due to the absence of controlled explosions under their hoods, which is why safety regulations now require all new electric vehicles to hum like spaceships at low speeds to avoid running over pedestrians. But Audi deserves kudos for refining the e-tron's aerodynamics so as to generate almost no audible wind noise at speed. In addition to laminated side window glass on higher trim levels, there's enough sound insulation packed into the Sportback's structure to account for a good chunk of its massive 5819-pound curb weight. Tire roar on the highway is faint, and even rough roads and pavement seams produce only distant thumps from the wheel wells.
The Sportback's quiet operation was particularly noticeable on our loaded Edition One test vehicle—one of only 200 built for the 2020 model year—because it otherwise performed the same as the mechanically similar 2019 e-tron we last tested. The Sportback weighs a negligible 24 pounds less than the standard e-tron. Like its sibling, toggling the Sportback's shift trigger to S mode unlocks an overboost setting that juices the combined output from its front and rear motors from 355 horsepower to 402, which is good for a plenty adequate 5.1-second run to 60 mph. There's certainly no confusing it with a cheetah-mode Tesla, as it passes the quarter-mile in a 13.8 seconds at 101 mph. But the e-tron powertrain's quick responses and instant torque make passing maneuvers a snap. Its 3.0-second 50-to-70-mph time is seat-pinningly impressive, although we'll hold our full excitement for the three-motor S version of the Sportback that we've already driven in prototype form.
The e-tron Sportback is also un-Tesla-like in that it won't regenerate as aggressively as the Tesla when you lift off the accelerator. There is no one-pedal driving for this Audi. The deceleration from the regeneration system's default Auto setting is minimal, but you can ratchet it up via the paddle shifters on the steering wheel. The strongest of the three settings noticeably slows the vehicle when you let off the accelerator and was our preferred setup, allowing the friction brakes to be used only for larger braking events and when pulling to a complete stop.
The big news for both 2020 model-year e-tron SUVs is that Audi now uses more of their 95.0-kWh battery packs—91 percent, up from 2019's 88 percent—which earns the Sportback an EPA-estimated range of 218 miles. Based on our 75-mph highway test, we calculate a real-world range of 220 miles versus 190 miles for the 2019 e-tron. That figure is average for today's electrified SUVs, but it can't match the Tesla's models. But it's a useful improvement for what is a large and accommodating SUV that can pull up to 4000 pounds when fitted with its optional towing package. Audi says the e-tron can recharge to 80 percent in about 30 minutes using a 150-kW Level 3 DC fast charger, but hook it up to a 240-volt household outlet and a full refill of electrons takes around 10 hours.
The Sportback's less-than-sporty demeanor makes it easy to nurse its energy capacity. Ride comfort over bad roads is quite good with the standard air springs, even on our test car's optional 21-inch wheels and 265/45R-21 all-season tires (20s are standard). And the e-tron's substantial mass combined with the Quattro all-wheel-drive system—which operates in rear-wheel drive most of the time—gives it a solid sense of composure. Competent, secure, and isolated, despite having Sport in its name, there's not much to urge the driver to crank the Sportback's numb and heavily weighted steering wheel around corners. Pushed to its limit of adhesion, our test car returned a modest 0.84 g of grip around the skidpad and needed a lengthy 184 feet to stop from 70 mph.
Anyone that's sat in an Audi Q8 will be immediately at home with the Sportback's interior. Most of the controls, the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, and the dual MMI touchscreens on its center stack are all from the Q8. Overall comfort, refinement, and perceived build and material quality are excellent, all of which make the Sportback a lovely (and quiet) place to relax. If you're taken by the Sportback's sleeker fastback silhouette versus the standard e-tron, know that its back seat remains cavernous for two riders and generous for three, with plenty of headroom for all but the tallest occupants. And its truncated cargo hold, at a decent 27 cubic feet, is a mere two cubes smaller than the standard model's.
With limited production for the 2020 model year, 2021 will be the e-tron Sportback's first full year on sale. Major changes include an expansion of the lineup to Premium, Premium Plus, and Prestige trim levels, up from 2020's Premium Plus and Edition One. But you'll want to opt for at least Premium Plus to get the thicker side windows, a convenient second charge port on the passenger-side front fender to allow you to charge from either side, and fancy matrix LED headlights, even if archaic headlight regulations in the United States limit their advanced capability to cheeky animations when the vehicle is parked.
As with most fastback derivatives of conventionally shaped SUVs, the stylish roofline costs more. A 2021 e-tron Sportback Premium has a base price of $70,195, the Premium Plus version asks for $79,095, and the top Prestige model costs $83,395. Compared to the standard e-tron, that works out to an upcharge of $3200 regardless of the trim. The value of silence, however, is harder to put a price on.
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