Driving Dakar: I get behind the wheel of Audi’s RS Q E-Tron electrified race car

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I’ve driven some pretty cool gas-powered cars in off-road racing, from my own 1600 class buggy at events in California to a Volkswagen Beetle Class 11 in the Baja 1000. I have also competed in production electric vehicles, including race a Rivian R1T in the Rebelle Rally (twice) and one Volkswagen ID 4 in the Mexican 1000. But I’ve never been able to put these two types of powertrains together – until now.

The RS Q E-Tron is a hybrid off-road racer, and Audi entered three of them in this year’s Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia. Power comes from a 52-kilowatt-hour battery charged by a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine. So, yes, this Audi still burns gas, but only to be able to recharge the battery. Don’t forget that Dakar stages can sometimes exceed 500 miles; current battery technology simply can’t provide that kind of range. Under Dakar rules, the RS Q E-Tron is limited to just 386 horsepower.

Of course, my test drive isn’t as grueling as what this car goes through in Dakar. Instead, I’m in Sardinia, with professional Dakar navigator Emil Bergkvist aboard a shotgun. My task is to pass a reconnaissance lap, three hot laps and a recovery lap on a short rallycross course.

But first, I have to understand the cockpit. There’s a screen in front of me (with my name on it!), displaying information about tire pressure, speed, battery charge status and whether I’m in forward or reverse, the essentials. A screen in the center of the cabin displays the same information, plus brake bias and remaining fuel. This screen also has controls for the windshield wipers, hazard warning lights and, yes, the air conditioning. It’s hot over there.

The steering wheel has eight buttons, but I won’t need to use things like the turn signals, horn, or speed limiter, so I forgot most of them. Instead, I focus on placing the huge brake and gas pedals under my feet. With everything in control, Emil gives me the OK to go, and I head for the course.

The rallycross stage has a lot of corners and there are plenty of opportunities to sidestep that all-wheel-drive race car. But not too far. After a first observation lap, I quickly realize that it’s hard to know exactly where the E-Tron’s big BF Goodrich tires are, only that they’re well outside the cockpit. It’s also hard to look where I want to go because the E-Tron’s A-pillars are massive. I find myself trying to move my head to get a better line of sight in turns, but my racing seat doesn’t allow much movement—and I’m not even wearing a head and neck restraint.

The gauge cluster shows me everything I need and nothing superfluous.

Audi

Lifting the throttle before my first corner, I expect the electric drivetrain to provide regenerative braking, but instead the car comes to a halt. Luckily, I lifted my foot early enough to brake with my left foot and slow the car down for the turn. Emil tells me the E-Tron has regenerative braking but it was disabled for my test session which makes things a bit easier as mechanical brakes are what I’m used to having in my own racing car. But I’m a bit disappointed – I want to know how much regeneration this thing provides to slow down the platform.

The soft suspension of the RS Q E-Tron allows for some real body body shit, but after a few turns I get used to all the movement. Emil coaches me a bit, telling me to get on the throttle faster than I think, before the suspension even fully settles. Before long, the E-Tron drifts a bit, countersteering to execute perfect slides.

I’m a bit surprised at how light the steering is, but frankly, if I were to ride this thing hundreds of miles every day for 12 Dakar stages, I’d like a break from the heavy steering too. I could steer the E-Tron with just one finger if I wanted to, and I never have to rock the wheel to get it to spin. (OK, maybe once when I cooked it too fast and understeered into a corner, but that’s my own fucking fault.)

In the Dakar Rally, the RS Q E-Tron has to cover hundreds of kilometers at a time.

Audi

The gasoline engine is programmed to fire when the battery reaches a certain state of charge, but the co-pilot also has control. Midway through my session, Emil flips a switch and the hum of the gas engine fills the cabin.

Right now, I hate it. The gas engine is noisy, and since it only functions as a generator, it doesn’t rev with my acceleration. It just buzzes at a constant speed, sending power to the battery. Again, that’s the only way Audi can make the RS Q E-Tron a contender in a long rally stage, but I much prefer the futuristic whine of a purely electric powertrain or the rumble of a petrol engine squeezing its way. towers.

On that note, for future races, swappable batteries might be a solution, as my buddy Kyle Seggelin designed for his Handcrafted electric Toyota 4Runner for the King of the Hammers off-road race. But exchanging batteries still takes a long time. In a world where 50 gallons of fuel can be dumped into a car in less than 30 seconds, Audi would waste valuable time replacing batteries. The fact that a gasoline engine charges the batteries guarantees propulsion for the whole stage – no external charging is necessary.

I’m ready to go!

Audi

On this year’s Dakar Rally, Emil and his driver, Mattias Ekström, did the best of the three RS Q E-Trons, finishing in the top 10. However, teammates Stéphane Peterhansel and Edouard Boulanger recently won the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in the RS Q E-Tron, and the car will take part in the Andalusia Rally in Spain in June. And of course, there is always Dakar 2023.

The RS Q E-Tron is a great showcase to show how existing internal combustion and battery technologies can work together in a racing application. Me, though? I’ll stick with pure gas or electric.


Editor’s note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the automotive industry. The judgments and opinions of CNET staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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