First Drive: Initial Impressions of the Audi Q4 e-tron

by: George Achorn, photos: Audi of America

The reason I’ve been traveling in Los Angles is mainly to drive this. It’s the new Audi Q4, based on the Volkswagen Group MEB scalable electric chassis matrix. As you may have surmised from the name, it fills the position between Q3 and Q5 crossovers, closer in exterior dimensions to Q3 and closer to the Q5 in interior room due to the more efficient use of space thanks to the electric drivetrain and “skateboard” style chassis.

Okay, admittedly I went into this with low expectations. I get crossovers are literally where most of the market buy cars and so I assumed it’d be a very good electric crossover. No surprises there. It is a very good electric crossover. The reasons for the low expectations were simply that a crossover typically isn’t a very tossable and dynamic driver. Our family e-tron is quite nimble for a crossover, and laden with luxury. It’s a great everyday driver. It even handles quite well with the batteries (and thus weight) low in the chassis. It’s still heavy though, and that’s hard to get round. In spirited riving situations, the original e-tron still drives heavily. This is what I expected from the Q4.

Our driving route took us out of Oceanside, CA on roads that would be typical of a commute. Here, it was very good and unremarkable because it was exactly what I expected. After a scheduled coffee stop in Temecula though, the route became winding and sinuous… and the Q4 became a total surprise in how good it was.

What made the difference? For starters it’s about 1,000 lbs. lighter. Beyond that, it’s also got a steel suspension that wasn’t overly firm in the earlier run, but now was proving very taught and planted, aided also by Audi’s electric quattro.

For me though, the real game-changer was what Audi calls “B-mode”. B is for brake, and it operates similarly to but not fully like a so-called “single pedal” setup in other electric cars like a Tesla. Effectively, you let off the throttle and the car dips right into regenerative braking, thus torque braking the car. I think EV owners think that’s more efficient, though Audi found in testing that the automatic regeneration that they use is most efficient and so that’s the default mode. Even still, B-mode is there to embrace the single pedal philosophy while not going into absolute full regenerative wind down when you fully let off. I suspect that’s to help keep nausea in check for folks who aren’t so into jerking driving inputs. I appreciate that.

Okay, so B-mode is more of an intense regenerative braking, which isn’t braking at all mechanically and instead simply puts power back on the battery. Functionally, it’s also torque braking, like riding around in an internal combustion engine car in second gear at high revs. That’d get annoying day to day, but in spirited driving it’s a wonderful thing. Ask anyone running tight roads or a tight track in a dynamic car and torque braking to scrub off speed is a big part of that sort of driving.

In the original e-tron, there is no B-mode. You can use the steering wheel paddles to “shift down” into two levels of regenerative braking to feel like torque braking, but it’s not as aggressive as B-mode and it clears out the moment you hit the throttle. In the e-tron GT it’s the same, except it doesn’t clear out once you use the throttle and it will keep regenerating when you come off throttle. Even still, it’s not as aggressive as B-mode.

So in those winding roads, B-mode wasn’t an efficiency play for me. It was operating efficiently and recapturing energy certainly, but the most valuable quality of that was the level of torque braking. If I’d been in a manual sportscar I’d have been in 2nd gear a lot, and torque braking a lot, then shifting to third as the road got less tight and I’d run out of revs, then back to 2nd in the next set. On a longer less tight road, this might be third and fourth gears instead. B-mode is like that second gear in a lot of ways, but you never run out of revs and so its use in that capacity is infinite… so it can also be third gear on a bigger stretch. It just doesn’t matter.

What it made the Q4 was an incredibly fun driver through this stretch. That was completely unexpected. I’d be really curious to see how Q4s do on a closed circuit frankly. It’s fun, and while heavy it’s not as markedly heavy as larger EVs.

Audi will sell a ton of them for people just looking for a solid crossover choice. I have no doubt they will love it. That’s not surprising. It’s a foregone conclusion. It’s the people not looking for (and yet finding) a remarkably good back road driver’s car that I think will be the most surprised.

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