Monday, December 8, 2014

No Time For Half Measures

Mercedes and BMW have shown the world their visions for the future of electric mobility with the B-Class Electric Drive and the i3. That future however might be further out still. Both models have received generally positive reviews and a bit of market buzz but somewhat lukewarm sales. As Breaking Bad's Mike Erhmantraut famously said, half measures never work. In this case, both the upconverted B-Class and even the bespoke i3 are nothing more than half measures from Mercedes and BMW. Considering its pricing, the Model S took EV sales to a new continent when it hit Tesla stores two years ago. Perhaps a luxury touch was all that was needed, to ease some of the electric price premium. The truth is that no half measure, half hearted, effort will cut it if you want to duplicate Tesla's success, no matter your badge. After its own half measure effort with the Roadster, Tesla went full in with the model S matching the best of the luxury brands in design, engineering and performance and racking up sales equal to its top three competitors.

Nothing less than fully matching or exceeding Tesla's range and performance will cut it for any electrified model from the established luxury brands*.

The Tesla powered B-Class Electric Drive and the i3 are two of the more impressive (non Tesla) EVs on the market today but they still fall for all of the established EV shortcomings. The B-Class has a punchy electric powertrain and a tiny bit extra range but it's housed in Mercedes' least exciting model. One whose IC version was never good enough for the US. BMW went all in on i3's carbon fiber chassis to create a bespoke and very light model but then gave it styling more expressive than the Leaf's with no extra range. Both models are very reminiscent of how the brands handled hybrids previously. Late to the party and not truly representative of the storied brands' engineering prowess.

Much like Mercedes and BMW, Audi took a very cautious half hearted effort with its hybrids, see the Q5 hybrid. It really does exist! The A3 e-tron plugin looks to be more of the same. However, Audi's cautious approach to EVs might just be coming to an end in a big way. There are strong rumors about Audi creating a Model X fighter with 300 miles of range and a unique design of its own. The brand would be smart to take the long rumored Q8 in that direction. If true, Audi would be the first to assemble the ingredients needed for a legitimate Tesla competitor. An EV built from the start as an EV would be key as Audi isn't going to successfully make one out of an A model that matches an S for performance without costing more than the RS and still delivers Tesla's range. Nor is it going to come up with a conventionally styled sedan or coupe that will be more gorgeous and impactful than existing models without it becoming its flagship. And neither Audi, Bentley nor the market is quite ready for that yet. An EV only crossover coupe can stand on its own in the Audi lineup without really competing with its existing sedans, coupes or SUVs. Likewise, Mercedes will need to search for a segment that can take advantage of its latest gorgeous styling direction and not compete with an existing AMG model. BMW seems to be set up the strongest with its i sub brand, it's still far away as the i8 barely outruns the Model S and it takes a supercar profile and proportions to make the i styling work.


* The Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid is technically the closest Tesla competitor. In its plug in form the Panamera has about half the MPG and a tenth of the range of the Model S, isn't any quicker and is seriously aesthetically challenged in comparison at a significantly higher price.

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