Audi e-tron GT Concept First Drive: Welcome to the future

When you get the opportunity to drive a concept car, and to be ahead of a superhero like Tony Stark, you don't say no. No, I'm not the genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist I wanted to be growing up – I'm still working on that – but getting to try out the Audi e-tron GT Concept is perhaps the next best thing.

Now, Tony Stark already drove this car in the filming of the upcoming Avengers 4 movie, but when Audi brought it out from fresh under the LA Auto Show 2018 spotlights and onto the streets of downtown Los Angeles, it was still well ahead of the release of the movie, not to mention years before the production model arrives in dealerships. Concept cars – as I've found before – can be fickle things, and it was touch and go for a couple of days since Mother Nature was determined to "rain" on our parade. Luckily, come the afternoon I was due to take the wheel, the skies cleared for that all-important 90-minute window.

I can't blame the excess of caution. Audi told me that the e-tron GT Concept is simply that right now, a concept car, and it won't do well on wet roads. With only one in existence, I wasn't keen on breaking it.

All the same, Audi's kid-glove treatment is at odds with your first impression of the car, outside and in. As with most other EVS, the silence inside the cabin is deafening. There's very little noise from outside, if any: the electric motors are hushed to begin with, and then Audi lavishes special foam insulation inside the firewall. In the Audi e-tron GT, the foam is more than double in thickness compared to a regular road-car. Since there's no engine sound to think about, this feature is more oriented towards isolating the cabin from road noise.

Things do get more aurally interesting once you're underway, with the e-tron GT Concept sounding much like a spaceship. The twin electric motors provide instant torque from the get-go. I didn't get the chance to push it – again, Audi was preaching caution, and there was a chaperone alongside me and even a motorcycle escort to make sure I didn't go rogue – and the combination of low-profile show-floor tires, potholed roads, and priceless prototype meant testing the 590 horsepower and 3.5 second 0-60 mph time would've been ill-advised anyway. The LA traffic instead gave me time to appreciate the beauty and careful ergonomics of the cabin.

So no, this first drive experience is not about judging the performance of the car in high-speed, pedal-to-the-metal driving. If the low seating position and girth of the e-tron GT Concept is any indication, though, Audi is pulling out all the stops to ensure its Grand Tourer EV won't be shamed on twisty mountain roads by the Tesla Model S or indeed anything else that shows up between now and market launch.

Few changes will occur – or are needed, in my opinion – to the design before that point. I'd say it's one of the most gorgeous 4-door GT cruisers I've ever laid eyes on, simply oozing the aura of a proper sports car.

"It took us three-quarters of the year to really nail the design," Parys Cybulski, of Audi Exterior Design, told me. And by that, Cybulski is mainly referring to the rear quarter panels. In a conventional car, the shoulder line and the quarter panels are two different elements. In the Audi e-tron GT, however, the those two elements come together in a single fusion, creating a smooth, flowing, and muscular stance. "But the front of the e-tron GT is also difficult to design," Cybulski added. "We had to integrate the sensors and air intakes with the overall theme in the front."

That theme required a change in perspective, given the traditional design focus of internal combustion cars."We visualize Quattro with a blister on top of all four wheels," Marc Lichte, Audi Head of Design, explained. That explains the wide, low, prominent stance of the e-tron GT. "The heart of every car is the engine, which is emphasized with the power dome hood," Lichte continues. "But since the Audi e-tron GT has no engine in the front, we found no need to design a powerful hood."

Instead the car plays to other strengths. "Much of the detail is focused on the lower panel in the doors," Lichte points out. "The batteries are the heart of an electric car, so we focused our attention in accentuating the three-dimensional shape in the lower part of the vehicle, which suggests something powerful is going on behind the lines."

Even the design of the door handles received the royal treatment. "We discussed the door handles a lot," added Lichte. "The door handles in the production model will be more tapered to match the curves in the doors."

The Audi e-tron GT Concept sits low in the ground. And I mean really low. The car itself is sculpted to be as low as possible to improve the center of gravity, ending up only a tad higher than the Audi R8, though longer and wider to accommodate four in comfort. This got me thinking: could the new Audi e-tron GT aesthetic also be the reinterpretation of the new R8?

"It's too early to talk about a new R8, but we have many ideas," Lichte said, gently but firmly shutting me down. No matter. If Audi can do for its supercar what it is doing for its super-GT EV, I won't be disappointed.

The dashboard flows from the center console to the front door panels, which gives the car an elegant feeling of expansiveness. There are no straight lines inside the cabin. Everything is rounded, slanted, and angled. In other words, it feels supremely high-tech and purposeful.

It'll be paired with systems that perform as well as they look. Audi says a new version of its MMI infotainment is currently in development, which will be strictly for the e-tron GT only. When the production car arrives at Audi showrooms come 2020, you can expect better graphics, simpler menus, and a more intuitive user experience.

Audi says the e-tron GT Concept is 90- to 99-percent ready for production. They still need to finalize a couple of things, like the energy recuperation system and the suspension configuration, before relaying the go-signal for production. As I closed the door behind me, though, I couldn't help but think how the vehicle is not the "Tesla killer" that many people are touting it to be.

Instead, driving the Audi e-tron GT Concept made it clear that this isn't only seriously threatening Tesla, but putting conventional gasoline-powered vehicles on life support. Welcome to the future.