Seven years after the Tesla Model S kicked off the premium EV segment, Jaguar launched the I-Pace, but the first such zero-emission vehicles from Germany are only now beginning to emerge into the public sphere. To sample a taste of the electro-Teutonic future, we brought together the Audi e-tron, the Mercedes EQC, and the Porsche Mission E Cross Turismo (which will become the Taycan Cross Turismo). Welcome to a smog-free parallel universe where three different BEVs reinvent the term waftability.
Away We Went
One, two, three, go! The blue e-tron, silver EQC, and metallic white Porsche raise their noses in sync, the squeal from their tires momentarily drowning out the subdued faint whine of their powertrains as they surge forth on a wave of electrically generated torque. While the soundtrack evokes thoughts of a tuned-forklift race, it’s a dead heat all the way to the braking point, where aromas gather with a whiff of hot batteries and smoking rubber. The instant kick in the pants from the electric motors does not relent one bit on this short stretch of tarmac. Our subconscious waited for the upshift that would be imperative to save a combustion engine from death by over-revving, but such relief doesn’t occur in any save the Porsche, which duly slips into second after 115 mph or so.
More about the launch: When they take off from our starting grid, the three volt-eaters send your brain straight into a spin cycle. But in the days of Ludicrous Mode, shocking acceleration from a stop alone won’t make your hair stand on end. Instead, it’s the sudden full-throttle mid-speed surge that can turn unassuming passengers’ stomachs inside out. The potential of the enormous amounts of electric energy on tap have artificial limits: 112 mph in the case of the Mercedes, 125 in the Audi, and 155 in the Porsche. Given the discrepancy, when we’re on the autobahn later, it’s tempting to swim with the quick fish in the Porsche and walk the other two, but wasting energy and range does not make a lot of sense when every recharge stop takes at least 20 minutes. At least there’s no need to check the oil.
The natural habitat of electric cars at this moment is the city and a 10-mile radius around it. In an ideal world, BEVs are thus small, light, and affordable, like the VW e-Golf or Nissan Leaf. But until less compromised bespoke budget offerings become available, the electric revolution is moving top-down with pricey and prestigious products like the Teslas easily outselling no-frills e-mobility devices. Leading Germany’s three-pronged attack is the Audi e-tron, which was closely related to the Q5 before Audi R&D effectively re-engineered it for EV use. The Mercedes EQC is a more straightforward evolution of the GLC, which loses its engine in exchange for two electric motors and a battery pack. The only completely new high-end BEV in this group is the Porsche Mission E/Taycan. The Taycan’s J1 architecture, designed in Weissach, also underpins the Audi e-tron GT unveiled at the 2018 L.A. auto show and the still-tentative Bugatti Royal-e. Bentley is incidentally no longer part of the J1 program, sources say.
The lithium-ion batteries in our trio weigh between 1,300 and 1,600 pounds, not counting power-control electronics, transmissions, and electric motors. Burdened by the DNA of donor cars designed for gasoline and diesel engines, the 5,400-pound Audi and the 5,350-pound Mercedes are notably heavier than the special-purpose Porsche which tips the scales at about 4,750 pounds. Owing to its topographic battery-cell packaging arrangement that makes room in the floorpan for four so-called “foot garages,” the Cross Turismo boasts a lower center of gravity and a perfectly balanced weight distribution. The battery sits like a big flat bar of chocolate between the axles of the e-tron and the EQC. Mercedes relies on an 80-kWh battery, Audi went for an initial energy content of 95 kWh, Porsche chose an even brawnier 105-kWh power pack. All three configurations work well, sound good, and make you feel like the guy who saved the world.
We staged a dead heat for the camera, but with guns blazing, the top-of-the-line Porsche can whoosh to 62 mph in a very brisk 3.1 seconds, and it can do so again and again without losing pace. The Mercedes is second-fastest at 5.1 seconds, eclipsing the e-tron by 0.6 second. In case of the e-tron, this acceleration figure is only available in Boost mode, which expires after eight seconds. Audi nonetheless guarantees a repeatability of 10 acceleration runs and 20 minutes of uncompromised maximum speed. The other two noiseless carriages are said to be subject to similar restrictions, but at this point neither Mercedes nor Porsche have provided details.
As familiar as we all are with electricity, how many of us have ever stopped to truly consider what powers the television, keeps us warm or cool, and lights up our homes? Electricity is taken for granted, and it has proved easy to handle, safe, affordable, and readily available. Sadly, this transparent ease of use hasn’t translated into today’s high-tech luxury BEVs, which try to impress with suavely designed cockpits, irksome ergonomics, and displays many times larger than that of a smartphone. Things in the cabin were bad before the e-car entered the stage, but now one must deal with additional in-dash trickeries, as well as the acoustic, visual, and haptic diversity that comes with electromobility and the next generation of infotainment. Mandatory additional readouts include state of charge, range, energy used, energy saved, the selected charge-recuperation setting, and the distance to the most pragmatic plug-in point.
Access to the in-dash world of watts and volts comes via three different human-machine interfaces here. The Audi has its displays layered like the trays in the shop window of an expensive jeweler; the gilded dashboard of the Mercedes is dominated by a double-whammy cinemascope screen; and the Porsche tries to break new stylistic ground with a lozenge-shaped and 911-inspired floating, curved display complemented by secondary controls in the center stack. While the e-tron and the EQC are purveyors of old-school instrumentation overkill, the Porsche is notably more minimalistic inside. All three transports still lack yesterday’s promise of the future: voice control that allows you to communicate with the car in natural language. Instead, your index finger’s calluses will grow all the thicker thanks to the zooming, touching, scrolling, and swiping. In addition, the joystick-like controller is fighting a losing battle against the less intuitive touchpad, shift paddles now control the regenerative braking action rather than select gears, and every time a deceleration maneuver comes to an end, a praise-or-blame indicator will light up as an educational measure.
To drive home the green message loud and clear, the cabin illumination of choice is, er, blue across the board, but of course there are plenty of other hues available, too. Tech junkies can handle these electronic encyclopedias blindfolded, dive through the menus like descendants of Flipper, and personalize the car’s myriad functions without once looking at the manual. The older and predominantly analog target audience, however, had better brace itself for the odd shock, like when you want to check the door mirror in the e-tron, which has mutated to a display in the door panel, or when you step off the accelerator in the Cross Turismo and the vehicle will coast rather than slow down, or when you floor the accelerator in the EQC and the effect doesn’t live up to expectations. You see, even in a high-end BEV, anything can happen, anytime. The batteries can overheat, the range can shrink much faster than announced, the indicated charge point can be wishful thinking. It’s a different type of mobility, less predictable but often more fascinating, if sometimes for the wrong reasons.
The heralded “one-pedal driving,” where you can lift off the accelerator and the regenerative function will slow the car, is one of the main attractions of driving an electric vehicle, right? In the EQC, the higher of two regeneration settings delivers substantial lift-off deceleration with no need to brake until you almost hit the stop light. The Porsche, on the other hand, offers three different behaviors in response to the driver feathering the throttle. In nine out of ten situations it will coast, because forward motion is what customers expect from a sports car. When the driver pulls the paddle though, lift-off regen will set in, eventually blending its effort with the stopping power of the brakes. Last but not least, there is an auto-recuperation mode, which is governed by the distance to the car ahead. Like the Cross Turismo, the e-tron collects electric and hydraulically generated energy under braking.
Based on the GLC, the EQC comes with a steel suspension and a self-leveling rear end, but it won’t be offered with air springs or four-wheel steering. Even though the e-tron and Taycan are genetically almost unrelated, both cars have those items as standard equipment. All three contenders offer a wide choice of pre-defined drive modes, and all feature four-wheel drive and wheel-selective torque vectoring. In the torque triathlon, the Porsche swipes the trophy board clean with an instant maximum twist action of over 737 lb-ft. At 564 lb-ft, the EQC is a distant second, trailed by the Audi at 490 lb-ft.
At the end of the day, our notebook is full of snippets picked up en route. Rearward visibility, headroom, and second-row packaging are an issue in the Porsche, but these are still early days, and the car we drove was a prototype built in 2017, so these comments should be taken with a grain of salt. As far as fit and finish, noise and ride, and handling and roadholding are concerned, the Audi test car was the real McCoy. It goes well, is astonishingly quiet, and feels settled and comfortable. But the composure suffers when pushed, the brakes are intermittently jerky when electric recuperation is joined by the hydraulic system, and despite all the chassis-related wizardries, weight is an issue during every inspired change of direction. The EQC throws in the towel early on the autobahn, its body movements can be quite emphatic at speed, and the design is not exactly electrifying. On the plus side, we note the Mercedes’ strong grip and roadholding, its precise and communicative steering, and an entertaining chuckability you would not expect from a 2.5-tonner.
The e-tron order books are already open, with prices starting at $75,795; there is a sleeker Sportback derivative to come within the year. Like the Audi, the Benz fields two electric motors rated at an aggregate 408 horsepower, but although the EQC is quicker off the mark and torquier overall, Mercedes is talking about a slightly lower sticker price—think $70K. In entry-level 400-hp Carrera guise, the Cross Turismo is expected to retail at around $100,000. While Mercedes is already working on a more affordable EQC300, Audi is expected to launch the 500-hp e-tron S next year. The Taycan Carrera S is also likely rated at 500 horsepower, but on top of that there is of course the 600-hp Turbo which took part in this outing. How much? Think $140,000 before extras. (The regular Taycan sedan will have base prices between $90,000 and $130,000, for reference.) By 2022, the Taycan range will consist of three models: the Cross Turismo featured here, the sedan, and a brand-new all-electric SUV derived from the PPE architecture codeveloped with Audi.
The impact of these cars on the combustion-engine community will be huge. The Audi may be least obvious by design and when parked, but its absence of tailpipes, the two flaps that cover the charge sockets on both sides, the optional camera-operated side-view mirror stalks, and the alien soundtrack will raise quite a few eyebrows. But before e-mobility goes mainstream, we need a comprehensive charging infrastructure and more advanced batteries that charge faster, last longer, and perform better. While the EQC, e-tron, and Taycan have what it takes to challenge Tesla, the electric revolution for the people will likely have to wait on affordable EVs like the MEB family conceived by VW to hit the market in big numbers.