Wheels: Tesla Got an Early Lead, but Luxury Electric Rivals Are Racing to Catch Up

Wheels: Tesla Got an Early Lead, but Luxury Electric Rivals Are Racing to Catch Up

- in Automotive

For car shoppers in the market for a luxury electric vehicle, until recently there was just one name around: Tesla.

That company’s near-monopoly in luxury electrics in the United States is about to change. Several months ago, Jaguar introduced its first electric model, the I-Pace sport utility vehicle. Within the next 12 months, rival electrics will be available from Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Volvo.

In addition to Jaguar’s I-Pace, the Audi E-tron S.U.V. can now be reserved and will ship next month. Mercedes’s EQC sport utility vehicle is due in 2020. Porsche’s electric Taycan sports car will arrive at the end of this year; prospective buyers can register now to make a deposit. Volvo’s Polestar 2 five-door fastback will ship in 2020.

And if you can believe the press releases, this herd will be followed next year in the United States by luxury electric offerings from lesser-known companies. Byton will unveil its M-Byte S.U.V. in China at the end of this year and in the States in late 2020. And Rivian expects to begin production of its electric truck and S.U.V. next year; the company recently announced a $700 million investment led by Amazon.

The established carmakers are plotting to dominate the luxury electric field, taking market share away from Tesla. While Tesla owners can be fervent, the vehicles continue to exhibit supposed poor workmanship and endure long repair times. In February, the Model 3 lost its Consumer Reports “recommended” rating because of what the testing organization said were reliability issues.

The market, then, is ripe for the taking, and the major luxury carmakers are eager to swoop in, hoping to trade on their reputations for high performance luxury and reliability.

Despite their headfirst jump into what will soon be a crowded field, there is no definitive proof that the electric market is growing. Tesla still accounts for only a small fraction of all vehicles sold.

Yet Audi, for one, expects that by 2025 it will have 12 all-electric models generating 30 percent of its sales worldwide. By next year, every Jaguar or Land Rover vehicle will have some form of electrification, whether all-electric or hybrid.

The Mercedes-Benz EQC. With a special charger, it can charge from 10 percent to 80 percent in 40 minutes.CreditMark Blinch/Reuters

Audi believes it can succeed because “people want the future,” said Scott Keogh, president of its parent company, Volkswagen of America. “The business is always looking for what’s new.”

He added: “Something’s in the air, and people don’t want to be left behind. We’re building something with a cool factor.”

That cool factor could scare away customers if they’re not prepared for a different ownership experience. For instance, they should expect to spend thousands more for a “Level 2” home charger, because a standard 120-volt wall outlet provides no more than five miles of charge every hour. A Level 2 charger raises that figure to around 20 miles every hour, an amount that manufacturers say is adequate, given that an owner will typically charge a vehicle overnight.

Amazon is working with Audi to install Level 2 chargers; prices range from $1,400 to over $4,000, depending on the age of a home’s electrical panel. An electrician can also tackle this job.

Most commercial pay-as-you-go chargers are also Level 2, meaning that they’re practical only if you can plug in most of the day at work. Electric vehicle owners will get little benefit from plugging into free Level 2 chargers in front of supermarkets and other stores for the short time they’re shopping.

DC Fast Chargers, which can add up to 240 miles of range per hour on today’s models, are few and far between; the closest to my Los Angeles suburb is a 15-minute drive. And a location often has only one or two charge points, which means you might have to wait to use it.

A DC Fast Charger can charge the coming Mercedes EQC to 80 percent from 10 percent in 40 minutes and Audi’s E-tron to 80 percent of its 204-mile range in 30 minutes. Audi will give E-Tron owners the equivalent of 2,000 miles of free charging at Electrify America locations.

The next generation of electric vehicles will charge even faster. A 350-kilowatt DC Fast Charger will be able to charge Porsche’s Taycan to 240 miles in 16 minutes. The company will give Taycan buyers three years of free 30-minute charging at Electrify America locations, some of which will have 350-kilowatt outlets. Porsche dealerships will also have a mix of 50-kilowatt and 350-kilowatt chargers.

While shorter on range than most gasoline-powered vehicles, electric vehicles accelerate rapidly. Audi claims its E-tron will travel from zero to 60 miles an hour in 5.5 seconds, as will Byton’s all-wheel-drive version. Mercedes’s EQC will accelerate from zero to 60 in 4.9 seconds, Jaguar’s I-Pace in 4.5 seconds and Porsche’s Taycan in less than 3.5 seconds.

“The I-Pace gives me everything without compromise,” said David Larsen, director of product planning for Jaguar Land Rover North America. With an electric vehicle, “there’s no gear shift,” he said. “You’d have to go to a Jaguar F-Pace SVR with 550 horsepower to get this performance.”

These vehicles are not cheap. Not including the current $7,500 federal tax credit, starting prices range from $63,000 for Volvo’s Polestar 2 to the mid-$100,000 range for variants of the Taycan. Audi’s E-tron costs between $75,000 and $82,000, and the I-Pace starts at $69,500.

At that price, expect the vehicles to offer the latest technology. The EQC will come with Mercedes’s new all-digital MBUX touch screen. It responds to voice, touch and hand gestures, recognizing whether the driver or passenger is making a request, calculating routes based on available charge and preheating the interior.

The E-tron offers Audi’s updated touch-screen system and is the first vehicle to integrate Amazon’s Alexa voice control system. The screen can display a virtual overhead view of the vehicle, as well as a virtual 360-degree image as if the E-tron were viewed from a distance. Cameras will detect road signs, and a display will keep the driver apprised of what was posted even if the driver missed them. In select cities, the vehicle will indicate when a light will change to green and advise the proper speed to avoid red lights.

Volvo’s Polestar 2 will embed Google Maps and Google Assistant with the vehicle, rather than require that these apps be downloaded on a connected smartphone. Its phone-as-key technology will sense the driver’s approach and unlock the doors.

Byton’s Shared Experience Display is an all-video dashboard that stretches 48 inches across the interior, and it responds to hand gestures. It can show performance, navigation and entertainment features. The vehicle also has a video tablet in the steering wheel and another in the center console.

To help consumers understand what electric vehicles can do, LA CoMotion, an annual conference focusing on the future of transportation and cities, is sponsoring CoMo3000, an electric vehicle rally from New York to Los Angeles that will feature pro, amateur and celebrity drivers.

“We want to dispel the idea of range anxiety, and show that electric vehicles are sexy and fun,” said John Rossant, CoMotion’s founder.

To get ready for their introductions, manufacturers are retraining thousands of sales employees to understand the new electric landscape.

But buyers still need to do their homework. At a recent electric vehicle introduction at a local high-end dealership, two sales employees offered completely different answers as to charging times and the driving range for their new luxury offering.

“Training is continuing, and we’re getting up to speed,” said Loren Angelo, Audi’s vice president for marketing.

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