Properly differentiating performance models from supposedly run-of-the-mill trim variants is likely to be a challenge for premium manufacturers in the all-electric era. For one thing, no upmarket EV is ever likely to feel underpowered in the conventional sense. They all launch away from the line like startled livestock. And no matter how preposterous their output is made to seem on paper, the distant whine of an electric motor will be much the same.
That doesn't mean that the advent of things like 'Ludicrous' mode and 'Plaid' are all for nought - speed matters, after all - but anyone who says they won't miss the enlivening effect of a large, multi-cylinder engine being shoehorned into something otherwise mundane is lying. Or wilfully missing the point.
All credit to Audi then for pursuing a technical solution to the problem. Its 'S' badged product has always been about the discreet (and perhaps not so discreet) advantage of adding more power - even if it meant stroking a Lamborghini V10 to find it. The manufacturer has applied a similar degree of engineering rigour to the new e-tron S, delivering three electric motors where previously there were only two.
The upgrade is not solely about increasing power (though, of course, it does that - to the tune of nearly 100hp versus the 55 model beneath it in the lineup) it is also about enhancing the e-tron's handling capability. The S gets the standard e-tron's more powerful rear-axle motor under the nose, while two modified versions of its front-axle motor are deployed at the back. Why go to so much trouble? Because it means you can apply prodigious amounts of torque to either wheel directly without a differential running between them.
This new configuration obviously permits all sorts of opportunities. But for the most part the e-tron S keeps them under its hat. In fact, keeping things under its hat is something of a speciality. While it may very well be 50mm wider than the standard model and in possession of new bumpers front and back, in isolation it does not really seek to assert its new place in the world - which is unusual for a modern SUV on 21-inch wheels and endowed with a starting price of £89,450 in Sportback format.
Perhaps that's broadly appropriate for the S trim, which has rarely attempted to thrust itself into the limelight like the RS flagships. Desirable even, if you'd prefer to not make a big song and dance about your transition to a battery-powered Audi. But if that's the case you do start to wonder what the point is again; an S-line 55 is around £10k cheaper and still wields 490lb ft of near instantaneous torque from a standing start.
The niggle is made all the more ticklish by the fact that the e-tron S does not provide you with default access to its headline output unless you thumb it into 'S' mode. Leave it in 'D' - which you'll be inclined to do for the sake of the battery - and you'll only have 435hp to play with. Admittedly this comes backed with 596lb ft of twist, and is sufficient to make the Sportback seem abundantly brisk. But if you really want access to 4.5-second-to-62mph-grade silliness, you'll need to summon up 'Boost' on the power gauge for eight seconds of access to 718lb ft of flat-chat neck ache.
It virtually goes without saying that there is some initial appeal in seeking the extra power out. Given sufficient space and an (in)appropriate sense of abandon, and the quickest e-tron will plough toward the horizon with obvious gusto. Factor in the amount of weight it is carrying (2.6 tonnes before yours truly climbed aboard) plus the amount of air being sledgehammered out of the way, and it's a suitably bewildering turn of speed - especially when, for the most part, it's all taken in the car's stride.
Plainly, the e-tron S is no Taycan. But it still benefits from all the usual packaging advantages of being an EV. So while its kerbweight might be prodigious, the bulk of the mass is carried not only low but also evenly across the chassis. Anyone accustomed to the dynamic pitfalls of having a large petrol engine mounted high in a front end that's already nowhere near the ground will appreciate the way the e-tron can be tipped into corners. The retuned adaptive air suspension is more than up the job, too - generally speaking, you won't need to exit its 'Comfort' parameters to find an agreeable compromise between body control and bump absorption. The brake-by-wire system is no less effective.
Audi says the chief benefit of the e-tron S's new drivetrain is that the car can be made predominately rear drive in normal driving. That's mostly to aid efficiency though; start to chase it and there's no question that the car is taking advantage of its motor to the north. Nothing wrong with that, obviously: aside from the anaesthetised (although adroitly weighted) progressive steering, and a lingering awareness of its tank-like mass, it is likely that you'll drive the S with a level of confidence that borders on foolhardiness given its accelerative capacity.
Is it also likely you will actually enjoy it? Well, that depends on your affinity for the established Audi-way. Because there is admirable build quality, unimpeachable rolling refinement, effortless speed and unwavering handling here in spades. Not to mention an implausible trump card. With the car in 'S' and the ESC set to 'Sport', it will indulge 'controlled drifts' - i.e. the e-tron will assume that any unnecessary prodding of the throttle on a roundabout-sized bend is an invite for one electric motor to judiciously, though not unenthusiastically, overspeed its allotted rear wheel.
The dramatic effect of all this premeditated torque vectoring is probably less interesting than why Audi felt the need to plumb it into a 2.6-tonne SUV in the first place. Is it possible that having been denied the sound and discriminating fury of a large combustion engine, the engineers felt the need to deliver the handling equivalent of Max Rockatansky firing up the supercharger on his Pursuit Special? Certainly it lends the S an unarguable USP over all other e-trons - albeit one that is hard to justify ever using in the real world.
More than likely it is there simply because the technology now permits it, which does at least mean we can probably look forward to the same configuration appearing in something smaller and lighter and lower to the ground in the future. At any rate, it serves to make an unlikely analogy even more appealing - because, much like Max's belt-driven 'charger, deploying the full capability of the 'handling 2.0' layout is also frustrated by the need for parsimony in the face of scant resources.
The e-tron S gets a 95kWh battery, which is sufficient for a claimed range of up to 223 miles for the Sportback when measured the WLTP way. The day we returned our test car to Audi it was at fifty per cent, and just barely clinging onto 90 miles. That doesn't seem like enough. Not in the broad scheme of things, and not when the 2.2-tonne Jaguar I-Pace claims up to 290 miles from its 90kWh battery while offering a similar level of outright performance - and is available for a starting price of £65,195.
Repeatedly unlocking 'S' mode and giving the e-tron death is obviously not conducive to hanging onto your precious charge - no more so than it was when a 5.2-litre V10 was busy draining petrol from the tank. The difference, of course, is that previously you didn't obsess about where the next fill-up was coming from. So while Audi has made its first S-branded EV impressively capable in a way that no previous incumbent of the badge could claim to be - not to mention appreciably different from its siblings - it has forgotten the first rule of the new EV pecking order. Going further is arguably just as important as going faster.
SPECIFICATION | AUDI E-TRON S SPORTBACK
Engine: 3x electric motors, 95kWh battery pack
Power (hp): 503 (total, with boost)
Torque (lb ft): 718 (total, with boost)
0-62mph: 4.5sec (5.1 seconds without boost)
Top speed: 130mph
Weight: 2,695kg (EU, with driver)
Consumption: 28.1-25.6 (WLTP Combined, kWh/100km)
Range: Up to 223 miles (WLTP)
Price: £89,450 (Price as tested £95,470 comprised of Daytona Grey, £750; Digital matrix headlights with dynamic front & rear indicators, coming & leaving home animations, £3,175; 21" x 10.5J '5-Y-spoke Rotor' gloss anthracite black diamond cut sport alloy wheels, £725; Comfort & sound pack, £1,895; Panoramic glass sunroof, £1,475; Inlay in carbon twill, £450)
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