The humble electric or hybrid car may be smart, but in its drive to be sustainable it has a frumpy design and pootles along the road without ever threatening the speed limit. Or so the stereotype would have us believe. Yet today, many electric cars and hybrids are blossoming into desirable and luxurious thoroughbreds.
Take the new Honda NSX. Yes, it can creep silently along the high street, but stamp on the gas and in three seconds it will be travelling at 60mph as it roars towards a top speed of 191mph. “In quiet mode, the hybrid supercar is almost serene, thanks to its electric bias,” says Tamara Warren, a reviewer for www.theverge.com. “But dial up the knob to turbo mode and the healthy growl of the 3.5-litre V6 engine reminds you this is a serious sports car.”
Hybrid cars have conventional engines that deliver impressive performance – although they still have some way to go in terms of energy storage and fuel efficiency. The Honda NSX, for example, reportedly only manages one mile in pure electric mode and clocks up 17mpg.
But electric vehicles are also surprising consumers – in a nice way – with their own improving performance, sumptuous styling and ever-growing battery life. Even tyres are being developed specifically for electric vehicles. Pirelli, for example, is using the latest nanotechnology to create tyres that can withstand the high acceleration of the new power units, while also making less noise when in contact with the road surface. A real benefit when the engine is silent.
Electric vehicles are surprising consumers with their improving performance, sumptuous styling and ever-growing battery life
Luxury leads the way
Electric cars are eco-friendly but many are also supremely driver-friendly. No wonder sales are booming; in the first quarter of this year alone 180,500 were purchased, according to the sales database EV-Volumes. That’s a 42 per cent jump on the same period last year.
The high-end Tesla Model S, which is the best selling electric car model in the world – more than 52,000 were sold in 2015 – can accelerate to 60mph in 2.6 seconds. But that is just the start of the story, because the Tesla comes with such an astonishing array of gizmos that it can be thought of as an innovative technology hub on wheels rather than a method of getting from A to B.
There is adaptive lighting and an advanced air-filtration system that removes allergens and contaminants from the cabin. Along with amazing autopilot functionality, which keeps the car in its lane while the speed is managed by active, traffic-aware cruise control. It can even scan for a parking space, alert you when one is available and parallel park on command.
The Tesla Model S can scan for a parking space, alert you when one is available and parallel park on command
Luxury is in. Although it is still considered something of an upstart start-up, Tesla has just been declared the 10th most valuable carmaker brand in the world, according to the latest BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands study. “Tesla is something completely different as a luxury brand,” says Peter Walshe, Global BrandZ director at specialist agency Millward Brown. “And as we know from our BrandZ results, that difference makes the difference.”
Formula for success
Other premium car manufacturers have taken note. Mercedes-Benz is to debut an all-new battery electric SUV at the Paris Motor Show this October. It is poised to take on Tesla’s Model X as well as new electric SUVs announced by Audi and Jaguar. At the Busan Motor Show even Hyundai revealed plans to add an electric vehicle to its luxury Genesis range.
“In crafting and shaping a new brand for the future, alternative propulsion systems will be the focal point,” declared Manfred Fitzgerald, head of the Genesis range and, tellingly, a former brand director at Lamborghini. “Luxury in the future won’t go without alternative propulsion systems.”
It is no surprise, then, that increasing numbers of prestige carmakers are taking a serious look at Formula E – a Grand Prix series for electric cars – where the pressure to research and develop will feed through to road cars. An efficient and powerful power unit is key. Jaguar is joining the fray this year and Mercedes is in the wings.
Increasing numbers of prestige carmakers are taking a serious look at Formula E – a Grand Prix series for electric cars
“Electric vehicles will absolutely play a role in Jaguar Land Rover's future product portfolio and Formula E will give us a unique opportunity to develop our electrification technologies,” declared Nick Rogers, group engineering director for Jaguar Land Rover.
Better batteries and grip
In addition to developing engine technology, there is a focus on boosting battery life and tyre performance. The stakes are high and the potential returns huge. Take Dyson, the vacuum-cleaner company. It bought Sakti3, a solid-state battery business, for $90m (£63.7m) in a bid to develop the next generation that will see a car’s range stretch to hundreds of miles. The race is on...
Tyres that can cope with the torque and performance of electric engines are also in the spotlight. Pirelli, for example, is working with Tesla and growing its partnerships with other prestige makers to create bespoke tyres for their electric cars. It has 1,400 engineers and more than 5,000 patents on product, process and material-related innovations, but the pioneering use of nanotechnology and the search for the next breakthrough never ends.
The pioneering use of nanotechnology and the search for the next breakthrough never ends
The rise of Tesla shows how vital luxury is to the future car market. It proves people will pay more to go green in an enjoyable way. In the automotive industry the paradigm has shifted: eco-friendliness used to mean cheap and boring, but increasingly it means premium price and luxury.