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This is Audi's Tesla-Model-S Fighter. Will it Sell?

By John Rosevear - Apr 18, 2017 at 6:06PM

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The Audi e-tron Sportback's specs look promising: 95-kWh battery, three motors, on sale in 2019.

We've known for a while that Audi AG (AUDVF) is planning to release a long-range battery-electric SUV early next year, the first component of its plan to directly challenge Silicon Valley upstart Tesla (TSLA 7.33%).

Today, Audi revealed a preview of the second component of that plan. It's the sporty SUV-like vehicle you see here, and Audi said that it plans to bring something very much like it to market in 2019.

The e-tron Sportback concept, a sleek silver SUV

The Audi e-tron Sportback concept is a preview of a battery-electric Audi that will arrive at dealers in 2019. Image source: Audi AG.

What we know about Audi's latest Tesla-fighter

Officially, the Audi e-tron Sportback concept is a show car, set to go on display at the Auto Shanghai show next week. But Audi wasn't coy: CEO Rupert Stadler said that a production version of the coupe-like SUV will go on sale in 2019.

Audi also wasn't coy about sharing technical details. The e-tron Sportback has a 95-kilowatt-hour battery pack powering three electric motors, one in front and two in the rear. It's all-wheel-drive, of course, and while it's not Tesla-Ludicrous-mode fast, it's pretty quick for a big SUV-like vehicle: Audi claims a zero-to-100-kilometers-per-hour (62-miles-per-hour) time of 4.5 seconds.

The e-tron Sportback concept SUV, viewed from above

Another view of the Audi e-tron Sportback concept. Image source: Audi AG.

The electric Audi's construction is broadly similar to Tesla's approach. The liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack is positioned between the vehicle's axles, below the passenger compartment, giving the e-tron Sportback a low center of gravity and near-equal (52:48) weight distribution.

A cutaway illustration showing the e-tron Sportback's motors and battery pack

Image source: Audi AG.

Audi said the 95-kWh battery pack gives the e-tron Sportback range "in excess of 500 kilometers" on the European test cycle. That probably translates to "in excess of 260 or so miles" on the stricter U.S. test (but it could be well "in excess"). Audi didn't give details on recharging times, except to say that the production version will be compatible with both AC and DC chargers that use the Combined Charging System format.

The unusual design might prove popular

Stylistically, the e-tron Sportback combines the sportiness of a coupe with a four-door cabin and a crossover SUV's ride height -- an intriguing set of choices that could make it a compelling alternative to a Tesla Model S when it arrives in 2019. (Tesla has done a great job of updating the Model S's technology over time, but the car's basic shape and architecture may seem dated in a couple of years, next to the Audi.)

The e-tron Sportback concept's front seats and dashboard

The Audi e-tron Sportback concept's interior looks nearly ready for production. Image source: Audi AG.

Inside, it's definitely a step or two ahead of current Teslas (no surprise, this is an Audi.) We only have photos to go on right now, but the e-tron Sportback's interior and dash look close to production-intent -- I see nothing that's obviously a show-car flight of fancy.

In terms of production, Audi's electric-vehicle effort is supported by corporate parent Volkswagen’s (VWAGY 2.01%) aggressive, big-budget move toward electric vehicles. Nearly all of VW's brands are known to have long-range electric vehicles under development. Audi's economies of scale (via VW) could well eclipse Tesla's by early next decade.

So will it sell?

The production version of the Audi e-tron Sportback will certainly draw interest when it comes to market -- if nothing else, it's an attractive design. Whether it'll sell in large numbers will depend on whether Audi can produce it in large numbers, on whether it's offered at a competitive price -- and possibly on how well Audi's first long-range electric, due next year, is received.

The Audi e-tron quattro concept, a blue electric SUV

Audi's e-tron quattro concept, first shown in 2015, previews the electric Audi SUV that will arrive early next year. The production version of the e-tron Sportback will follow a year or so later. Image source: Audi AG.

It'll also depend on how well the electric Audi's technology matches up to Tesla's: Audi's numbers are in the right ballpark, but the details will matter. On the other hand, in Audi's favor, it's a safe bet that its production electrics will match or beat Tesla's Model S and Model X on interior quality and overall fit and finish. Those may be compelling points for mainstream luxury-vehicle buyers who like the idea of an electric, but who may have had qualms about Teslas.

We'll know more as we get closer to production. But right now, Audi's electric-vehicle effort looks very promising.

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