At 5 o’clock in the morning, the only sound heard at the summit of Pikes Peak, 14,114 feet above sea level, is the ceaseless whipping of the wind. Inside the Audi e-tron electric crossover SUV prototype, I hear almost no sound at all.

Silence, like the e-tron itself, is soothingly familiar. That’s something that can’t be said about most electric cars on sale today.

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Audi invited me to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the automaker whisked me up Pikes Peak before dawn in a Q5. At sunrise, I slipped out of the frigid wind—Pikes Peak is the only place in the Continental U.S. with a polar climate—and into an e-tron prototype to descend 8,000 feet back into reality.

Audi isn’t ready to let the media drive its e-tron yet, so instead I rode shotgun and Audi chassis engineer Oswin Roeder took the wheel. Over the course of an hour, including a few stops, I learned a little about what the e-tron is and a lot about what it is not.

The “normal” electric crossover SUV

The e-tron will be Audi’s first ground-up foray into electric cars when it goes on sale next year, but many shoppers may not even realize it. Ignoring the garish wrap Audi has affixed to its numerous e-tron prototypes, the electric crossover looks, feels, and even rides like a silent, spacious version of the Audi Q5.

Besides the wrap, the e-tron makes no effort to draw attention to itself. There are no “falcon wing” doors, no bug-eyed headlights. It’s Audi’s answer to the Jaguar I-Pace, except with a Teutonic eye toward practicality.

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Inside, there’s plenty of tech with a trio of screens taking the place of the panels of buttons once normal in cars. Yet those same high-resolution displays are found in other Audis, such as the A6 sedan.

Where Audi hopes the e-tron will distinguish itself is in its performance, and not all of it in traditional ways.

Yes, the e-tron features a boost mode, which rockets the crossover forward for 8 seconds at full press of the throttle. It’s blindingly fast, but the 0-60 mph sprint of about 6 seconds Audi promises pales in comparison to the I-Pace’s 4.5-second dash or the Tesla Model X’s 3.3 seconds in Ludicrous Mode.

2019 Audi e-tron prototype drive, Pikes Peak

2019 Audi e-tron prototype drive, Pikes Peak

The e-tron features a 95-kwh lithium-ion battery packed, as you might expect, under its passenger compartment. For those counting, that’s 5-kwh more than the Jaguar. A pair of electric motors—one per axle—shuttle up to 402 horsepower to all four corners during boost mode. Under regular driving, Audi says to expect 355 hp.

Audi is especially proud of the e-tron’s braking system, which blends electric regeneration—recuperation as Audi calls it—with conventional hydraulic assist. During our 8,000-foot descent toward Colorado Springs, Roeder rarely applied the e-tron’s brakes.

He used paddle shifters to select one of three drive modes instead, generally sticking with the most aggressive mode that offers a one-pedal driving experience. In that mode, the e-tron recaptures otherwise lost power to supply the battery with charge. Audi says that “recuperation” accounts for nearly a third of the e-tron’s 250-mile estimated range.


2019 Audi e-tron prototype drive, Pikes Peak

2019 Audi e-tron prototype drive, Pikes Peak

The middle mode allows for lighter brake regeneration, while the default mode adds no braking to the equation and instead prioritizes “sailing,” or coasting.

A vehicle monitor hooked up to the prototype I rode in showed that Roeder almost never used the hydraulic brakes, even while descending one of the highest peaks in the U.S. At the end of the ride, the e-tron’s battery charge grew from 45 to 55 percent full.

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I can’t comment on pedal feel since I never sat in the driver’s seat, but given the e-tron’s one-pedal ability, it might not matter.  

Tellingly, a mandatory brake temperature check about halfway down the mountain revealed that the rotors were at about ambient temperature. The park ranger on duty told us that inexperienced drivers often cook their brakes to the tune of 500 degrees at that point. Perhaps think twice about buying a former rental car based at the Colorado Springs airport.

With the e-tron, Audi is taking a conservative, but comprehensive stab at an electric car. It’s well after 5 a.m. now, but it’s still too early to say for certain if finding comfort in familiarity is the best bet.