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EVs: Set to bridge the design-performance gap

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A new breed of electrics is out to sex up the car ownership experience, writes S Muralidhar

In the past, hybrids and electrics have been the ugly ducklings of the automotive industry. Over practical, and over focused on efficiency, these cars were somehow designed to be especially drab and...

A new breed of electrics is out to sex up the car ownership experience, writes S Muralidhar

In the past, hybrids and electrics have been the ugly ducklings of the automotive industry. Over practical, and over focused on efficiency, these cars were somehow designed to be especially drab and unappetising. Wonder if they were meant to make their buyers feel guilty and drive them to atone for the sins of their polluting past.

Over the last two decades, even after hybrids became mainstream, cars sucha as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight have barely transformed into desirable cars from the design and performance perspective. Outside of their efficiency-focused aerodynamic garbs these kinds of cars haven’t attempted offering buyers any form of excitement. Should buyers of these cars settle for a compromised ownership experience if their green-credentials are to be supported and better understood. Won’t the two ever meet?

Tesla: the game changer

A little over a decade ago, Tesla Motors took on the challenge of transforming this image. Their electric cars have demonstrated that you can go green and make your neighbours go green too…with envy that is. Globally other car manufacturers have felt the need to follow suit for multiple reasons — tighter emissions regulations, rising price of oil and interestingly rising public opinion in favour of electrics.

Tesla was the first car manufacturer to make the electric vehicle desirable, and break clean into the difficult to please luxury car buyer segment. In 2008, they launched their first car, Roadster, a two-seater battery electric sports car. It was the first highway legal serial production all-electric and the first to offer a range of 320kms per charge.

Of course, Tesla then went on to launch two other cars — a full-size sedan Model S, and a crossover sports utility vehicle Model X. Sometime this year, an affordable sedan – the Model 3 – will join its portfolio of electrics. Ironically, none of the buyers for every subsequent new Tesla seems to be very interested in its range per charge. They are far more interested in the design, the features, its 0-100 kmph timing and how plush the interiors are —basically all the stuff that buyers of normal luxury cars are interested in. Range anxiety is a waning worry, and that is why more and more car brands are joining the electrics bandwagon confidently.

Range anxiety is not troubling buyers of electrics that much any more because of two reasons. The first is because buyers have factored in the inherent limitations of electrics and have already, or are willing to, weave their mobility needs around it. The second reason is the more practical, usable range per charge that many of the current electrics are able to offer. Of course, this range extension has been helped by the consistently rising number of charging stations; but parallel to the development of new electric vehicles, research into new battery technology has also been increasing. In India, we are as yet trying to play catch up, but in the so-called developed markets and interestingly even China, research into new electric car development is setting a blistering pace.

Emergence of the Chinese

The market share of electric cars and plug-in hybrids has only just crossed one per cent of the total passenger car market in 2016. So, the depth and spread of the market is still very low. China outpaced the US to become the biggest market for electrics globally in 2015. In absolute terms, these two markets represented more than half of the new car registrations annually.

India is amongst the fastest growing markets for electrics and plug-in hybrids, but the base of cars is extremely low. Electrics and plug-ins here will continue to be bunched together at the lower end of the price spectrum. Maybe, just maybe, the Tesla Model 3’s arrival could inspire more buyers at the top-end also to consider electrics favourably.

But the big change that is rolling into the automobile market globally is how luxury car-makers are now sold on the market for electrics. And that is good news for all because with the market for luxury cars being price inelastic, it is possible to have fatter R&D budgets, which then leads to innovations that can eventually trickle down to affordable cars too.

Changing scenario

Though, nearly a century ago, some of the first automobiles from Europe were battery operated, luxury car-makers from the region have been slower to join the electrics bandwagon during the last two decades. They haven’t been able to wean themselves away from the decades old dependence on oil and the investment in technologies related to the internal combustion engine. During the past few years, however, many of them have announced plans to go electric.

BMW was one of the first to set up a whole new division to focus on sustainable electric mobility. BMW i has since already launched two models — the i3 and the i8 sportscar. Mercedes-Benz joined the plug-in group by setting up its own division last year to develop and launch a targeted 10 electrics by the year 2025. To be called Mercedes-Benz EQ, the family of electric vehicles will be based on one modular platform. The first of the electrics could be an entry-level sport utility vehicle with an estimated driving range of 500kms and can also be charged using wall sockets and induction chargers. Called Generation EQ, the concept version of this electric was showcased at the Paris Motor Show last year and at the Geneva Motor Show this year. Porsche, the other German luxury car brand, has also announced that it is working on an all-electric, which will still have the DNA of the brand.

Super luxury brands like Roll-Royce have only obliquely indicated that they may consider an electric future. But at this year’s Geneva Show, the other big British super luxury brand Bentley put up a stunning new electric concept called EXP12 Speed 6E. The two-door roadster hardly looked like an electric and Bentley claims it will perform like a real super sports car. Bentley is claiming that the EXP 12 Speed 6E will eventually be a signature mix of the company’s famous handcrafted luxury and electric sustainable mobility. The company has claimed that it will also offer the performance of a sports car and a driving range of a grand tourer.

Drab, affordable hybrids and electrics of the past might have seemed to represent indulgences of a people suffering from middle-class morality. However, for the members of the mile-high club whose taste in super luxury cars remains unaffected by economics, the expectations from an electric remain unchanged. The new luxury car brands that have joined the wave are certainly hoping to cash in on that trend with EVs that would look smashing. Thankfully, like Bentley Motor’s Chairman and CEO pointed out at Geneva “EVs don’t have to look like refrigerators”.

(This article was published on March 28, 2017)

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