More than ever, time is moving fast. The Audi e-tron (as it was back then) launched at the Paris motor show in October 2018; the first customers got their cars early in 2019. Doesn’t seem long ago at all, because it wasn’t. But for both Audi and BMW it’s been a period of huge upheaval. Back then you could still buy an RS3 or a TT, and there was a rear-drive R8 available that didn’t cost £200k; on the BMW side there was a six-cylinder 1 Series, a manual 3 Series and dual-clutch M cars. The notion of a four-motor BMW M EV would have still seemed fanciful, even then. Yes, we’ve gained cars like an M3 Touring and RS6 Performance in that time (the former felt just as unlikely as an EV in 2019), but the tide has emphatically turned. Even for brands with storied combustion heritage, electric propulsion is deemed the only way forward.
And you know what? Maybe the iX and Q8 e-tron aren’t the expensive BMW and Audi model we envisioned, but they're what we have. There’s most certainly plenty to talk about, too. If you don’t keep up, you get left behind - simple as that. And it won’t take very long in the current climate. Moreover, the decades-long pitched battle between Audi and BMW is not going anywhere, even as it moves into a segment that's only really been alive and cooking for a few years. So which is the better electric SUV in this brave new world?
We’ll begin with the Audi, fresh from a mid-life facelift that’s indicative of the apparently necessary pace of change. No mere cosmetic job and name change (to Q8 e-tron and Q8 e-tron Sportback driven here), the model received chassis tweaks for a sharper drive, a bigger battery for more range, plus more coils in the electric motors and a rework of the cell software to better efficiency. This for a car first on the roads in 2019, and driven in revised form before the end of 2022 - it’s life cycle development running at warp factor 9.
A conventional Q8 would have been preferable for this comparison, rather than the hunchback Sportback, but it all feels very Audi regardless - right down to the fonts, screens, and buttons. Anyone making the switch from petrol power will feel immediately at home. Perhaps too at home, in fact; the touchscreens seem very familiar and not always the most responsive for a car that’s £100,000 as tested. Again it shows just how quickly progress is being made that what was probably quite slick and smart 20 months ago no longer feels close to the best out there. The driving position is good, the quality fine - and the wing mirror-replacing cameras an unmitigated disaster. John spoke with Volvo last week about the flagrant superiority of mirrored glass; suffice it to say, the rest of PH concurs wholeheartedly.
On the road, the Audi further demonstrates the benefits and drawbacks of the attempts to normalise a large, high-sided EV. Weight down low keeps it laudably nimble, the throttle response is accurate, and the ride away from its dynamic setting generally agreeable, assuming you've got a steering wheel to hold onto (and a bit unrelenting if you don't). Even with the range concerns of early cars, it’s easy to see why e-trons are available out there with more than 70,000 miles already. It’s very easy to get along with, and, in its own way, not without reward. The facelifted Q8 does steer better than it used to: weightier, keener to turn and further defy that mammoth kerbweight, and it’ll accept full throttle almost as soon as it’s pitched in, revised electronics computing furiously to sort virtually anything out. With the throttle pinned past the kickdown stop and all 490lb ft deployed, it feels brisker than the numbers (and the gap to the BMW) would suggest.
However, in attempting to emulate so closely the experience of an ICE SUV, the e-tron does occasionally miss out on making a virtue of its EV-ness. Even with paddles to adjust the forcefulness, the regen never really permits convincing one pedal driving, some noise of anything beyond the impressive refinement would be welcome, and, in contrast to the iX, a big block of dash hems the driver in. Great in a sporty car that you want to be a part of, but the Q8 is not that - even with the latest raft of tweaks. Instead, it feels like space in a family-friendly SUV that could be better optimised. The overriding impression, in fact, is of something like the regular SQ8 Sportback that’s missing its V8. Some in Ingolstadt will probably take that as a compliment, and the car is decent in an adequate way, for sure - but by offering something that feels like a combustion version with the combustive bit removed, the e-tron arguably makes too little of the virtues afforded to it by battery power.
Or at least it's made to seem that way by what BMW has been up to. Elsewhere the firm has tentatively played the it's-just-another-BMW card with notable success, but the iX is something different. Some of the boldness that exemplified the i3's innovative appeal has finally trickled down; the iX feels like its own thing in the way its electrified city car did. Granted, the manufacturer has fallen over its own shoelaces by trying too hard to express this character trait as a new design language, but in other ways its refusal to play it safe is cheering (seriously). Where Audi mostly sticks to the established script, BMW has gone a long way to embracing the requirement for change with a gameplan that actually befits its strengths. And if not everything about its luxury SUV leap lands, what does is incredibly persuasive.
The interior for one, is a revelation. For all its basic good sense, the Q8 doesn't come close to the sense of occasion offered by the cheaper BMW. Snapper Harry, predictably sensitive to light and space, reckons it feels like an expensive hotel room, and he’s absolutely right. The iX cabin deploys both light and space to maximum effect, as it does novel trim materials and imaginative touches. Its infotainment screens look and feel a generation on from the Q8, too, but it's the heightened sense of wellbeing that leaves a lasting impression. Where the Audi boxes you in and tries to compress the world into something to be repeatedly overcome, the iX pulls off the enviable trick of seeming as open to its surroundings as a garden veranda. Accordingly, for mile after tranquil mile, you decompress like a Buddhist monk on his holidays. Or for as long as the smallest iX battery will let you, at any rate.
In terms of rolling refinement, and even against a reasonably subdued Audi, it’s another level of hush again. Driven back to back, sections of road that seemed challenging in the firmer Audi are smoothed pleasingly flat. Obviously intended to seem plush - and succeeding - the iX copes with substandard tarmac splendidly on its larger 22-inch wheels, and isolates its occupants in the sort of thoughtful bubble that starts to feel like a real treat. Not everyone likes a nannying regen drive mode, but it's hard to argue with the prescience of BMW's assistance - gently slowing down as the traffic does or when approaching a junction isn't to be regarded as witchcraft these days, but the iX usually judges it admirably well and has the sort of control surfaces that double down on the car's amiable ease of use.
Spending more time with both highlights how EV powertrains can improve as well, the BMW operating without delay consistently, and not just when maximum boost is requested. The slowest iX of the line-up is comfortably fast enough, moreover, because it still has 322hp and just 25lb ft of torque less than the Audi. Also, on the basis that on-the-door-handles driving isn't really the iX's style (another impressive point of difference; why would you expect it from a 2.5-tonne SUV?) you do tend to wonder what you'd do with additional straight-line speed. Certainly, it is unlikely to enhance the pleasure of being in the thing, which is not something you'd necessarily think in an X5 or X7. Again, the iX seems like a breed apart from BMW's established norms - and that's impressive given it does share some bits.
Inevitably the Audi is the keener cornerer, more resistant to understeer as well a tad more willing to entertain on the way out. But there isn’t as much in it as might be assumed based on the iX superior comfort levels - and in any case, it’s hard to place too much stock on handling ability when comparing cars like this. It’s hardly like the Audi charms its driver with finely honed control weights or a freakish ability, instead merely placing a bit more emphasis on incisiveness than cushioning your spine. Broadly speaking, the BMW’s take on that balance is more appealing, capable enough when a corner is encountered and a dream for the rest of the miles that just need trudging through.
Speaking of miles, let's return to the question of battery size. On the age-old basis that bigger is better, the Audi claws back some advantage here, albeit in a way that results in it being the heavier car. Its battery is almost 50 per cent larger than the BMW’s, basically, at 106kWh usable against 71kWh (the old e-tron mustered 86kWh). That accounts for a claimed range increase of almost 100 miles more than any efficiency gains. Even the bigger BMW battery available on the more expensive models (105.2kWh) isn’t as juicy as the Audi whopper.
By the stats, it means 257 miles for the BMW and 332 for the Audi, which is a big difference, and for all the areas the Audi can feel old (or old-school) the efficiency on a limited day of driving was comparable, hovering around two miles per kwh (against the 2.9-3.1 claimed by both, and probably achievable in more normal driving). For all the ways that the iX feels the complete package as an xDrive 40 model, the extra range and charging capability of an xDrive 50 (195kW against 150kW) might seal the deal. And what’s another 145kg when starting with 2,440kg?
Of course, it does mean that neither car could be called perfect. To give it its due, the Audi is better than it used to be. It is decent enough to drive as well as plenty fast, and now comes with a respectable range on top. Even in silly Sportback format, it is obviously easier on the eye in a conventional sense. But it is precisely that tendency toward convention that limits its appeal elsewhere, and especially in this company. Ultimately it feels quite ordinary for a car of such vaunted stature; making EVs feel like regular cars made sense in the days (and for the price) of the e-Golf and the like, but whatever you’re spending £100,000 on ought to embody specialness somewhere along the line. The Q8 e-tron, without the engine or the panache of something like an SQ8 or e-tron GT - or the innovation that the segment practically mandates - feels like a tough sell.
By contrast, in celebrating the EV-ness of the iX, BMW has liberated it. That it doesn’t entertain in the conventional BMW way isn't going to please everyone - but there's absolutely the sense that the manufacturer is okay with that (you only need to look at the thing to know that universal approval isn't necessarily being sought). Instead, as something to pilot - the appropriate verb here - it has striven for a different, sometimes deeper sense of pay-off, and, in its capacity to simultaneously soothe and ensorcell, the iX has located an inimitable charm. Crucially, save for the convenience of refilling it in five minutes, it is impossible to imagine that a noisier, busier and less well-packaged combustion version would replicate what makes it likeable. Even with the present compromises inherent in electric motoring, that makes the BMW iX feel like something of a watershed moment. Or at the very least an interesting footnote in a story of inexorable, unrelenting progress come five years’ time.
SPECIFICATION | 2022 BMW IX xDrive 40 M SPORT
Engine: 400V Lithium-ion battery, 71kWh usable, twin AC synchronous electric motors
Transmission: Single-speed, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 326
Torque (lb ft): 465
0-62mph: 6.1 secs
Top speed: 124mph
Weight: 2,440kg (‘weight not loaded’)
Efficiency: 2.9-3.1 miles per kWh
Range: 253-264 miles (WLTP), max 150kW charging
Price: £72,000 (price as standard; price as tested £80,490, comprising Laserlights for £2,000, 22-inch Style 1021 aero alloy wheels for £1,350, BMW Individual Storm Bay paint for £1,890 and Interior Design Suite - Amido for £3,250)
SPECIFICATION| 2023 AUDI Q8 E-TRON SPORTBACK 55 LAUNCH EDITION
Engine: 400V Lithium-ion battery, 106kWh usable, twin AC asynchronous motors
Transmission: 2-stage ratio planetary gearbox with single gear
Power (hp): 408
Torque (lb ft): 490
0-62mph: 6.5 seconds (5.6 with boost)
Top speed: 124mph
Weight: 2,510kg (unladen without driver)
Efficiency: 2.9 miles per kWh
Range: 336 miles (WLTP), max 170kW charging
Price: £98,300 (price as standard; price as tested £99,095, comprising Chronos Grey metallic paint for £795)
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