Staying ahead in the car game isn’t easy. Take a glance at the collection of futuristic concepts adorning the cavernous halls of this year’s Geneva Motor Show and it’s clear that the level of competition in the automotive world is fierce. But making a concept is reasonably easy. The difficult part comes when bringing to market a production car that is truly ahead of its competitors. Aiming to do just that is German car giant Audi as it rolls out its very first all-electric production car – the e-tron.

‘The main task was to create a car that wasn’t scaring anybody off,’ says Audi exterior designer Stephen Fahr-Becker. ‘The temptation was to be very radical with the design. As designers, we knew this was ground-breaking, so we wanted to make it look totally different.’ Despite the e-tron representing a seismic shift in the product offering of a marque at the heart of the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal, it’s looks are far from revolutionary. ‘We did product clinics all over the world, and people said: “Why can’t you just make a decent looking electric car? Why does it always have to look like a stranded whale?”’ said Fahr-Becker with a wry smile.

Audi e-tron wing mirror

But looks can be deceptive. While its overall aesthetic appears to be an obvious – and albeit restrained – progression of Audi’s current design language, the car carries certain design cues that hint at its unorthodox underpinnings. ‘Because it’s the first really proper electric car from Audi, we wanted to give the customer the feeling that this is an electric car,’ explains the designer. ‘At the front, we have a mostly closed grille that has almost a shield-like expression. Then, on the rocker area – basically the lower third in between the wheels – we made it a little more extroverted to point out where the new centre of power lies.’ In the region Fahr-Becker highlights, lies a 95 kWh lithium-ion battery – the SUV’s state-of-the-art powerplant, which gives the car a range just short of 500km (310 miles). ‘I like the rear view a lot, I just like the fact that the rear light band is basically a shoulder line that’s coming from the top-front light and going all the way around the car.’

For what the e-tron lacks in radical exterior styling, it more than makes up for in performance. Despite the fact that fast, mass-production electric cars have been commonplace since Elon Musk first created the Tesla Model S, the novelty of blitzing the 0-62mph dash in under six seconds and near silence never gets old. While it may have all the characteristics of an SUV, the e-tron is, like so many of its peers, competent and agile, be it on the highway or on a technical and twisty B-road. In the cabin, it’s a similar story to the subtle exterior, save for the two video screens in the top of the front doors, which serve the same purpose – albeit digitally – as the non-existent wing mirrors.

Audi e-tron passenger door controls

In an industry where manufacturers are striving to set apart new age technology from the old guard, the e-tron could be mis-labelled as a considered but all too conservative EV challenger from the German powerhouse. In reality, it’s a bold attempt to integrate forward-thinking technology into a car designed to appeal to today’s mass market. ‘There’s a lot of nice cars coming where in our design studio’, admits Fahr-Becker. ‘I’m really looking forward to the next few years, because there’s some really expressive and sporty cars coming. People already saw a glimpse of the e-tron GT – it’s quite sculptural, it’s clean, but it’s also very emotional.’

For a marque still recovering from a loss of consumer confidence, the e-tron is a steady but reassuring start to a new and exciting electric era for Audi. With deliveries of the proven, production-ready e-tron starting imminently, Audi’s charge into an all-electric future is well underway. §