The Germans have been waiting and planning for just the right moment to explode into the gasoline-electric hybrid market. The time is now and they mean business. That was the overwhelming takeaway from the biennial Frankfurt Motor Show.
Hybrids, hybrids, hybrids everywhere. Full-on electric cars, too. But rather than roll out strictly homely or purely practical transportation appliances, the German car companies are sexing up electrified vehicles. Leading car companies such as the Volkswagen Group – including its Audi, Porsche and VW brands – along with BMW and Mercedes-Benz are plugging into the plug-in world of personal transportation with a top-to-bottom approach.
Top-to-bottom? At the top are the halo cars, monstrously powerful performance machines that are unattainable for most people. They cast the shadow of desirability over plug-in cars, giving them credibility with opinion-makers and early adopters – and those qualities are expected to drive sales of all electrified vehicles in precisely the same way the Audi R8 helped Audi define itself as a break-out premium brand.
Take the deliciously low-slung, 700-horsepower Audi Sport Quattro plug-in hybrid concept unveiled at this year's motor show. If, as expected, it goes into production in 2015, we're led to believe the price tag of Audi's impending technological flagship will come in around $150,000.
It will have permanent quattro all-wheel-drive, of course, and will be powered by a 4.0-litre, twin-turbo V-8 (560-hp) gasoline engine paired with an electric motor. Combined output: 700 hp. Acceleration: 0-100 km/h in 3.7 seconds. Yet fuel economy is rated at a miserly 2.5 litres/100 km and the car can travel on battery power alone for up to 50 km.
Then there is the $845,000 (U.S.) Porsche 918 Spyder high-performance, plug-in hybrid sports car. In Frankfurt, it looked every bit the exotic, road-eating beast that it is. With a combined output of 887 hp, the 918 Spyder will race from 0-100 km/h in 2.8 seconds; yet according to Porsche, the car will have fuel consumption of between 3.0 and 3.3 litres/100 km.
Deliveries start in the new year and the order bank is filling up. When all 918 being built are gone, that will be it. Talk about a halo battery car.
"With this exclusive super sports car, Porsche is pushing the limit of what's technically possible," said Matthias Mueller, head of the Porsche brand, adding that sports cars obviously have a great electrified future.
The 918 Spyder is such a breathtaking bit of design and engineering that, well, the newest Carrera 911 Turbo (560 hp) also being introduced at this show seemed almost incidental.
BMW was also on board with precisely this sort of 918 Spyder idea. "We believe in electro-mobility and will bring it to the road," said Robertson.
Proof? The Munich-based car company introduced the production version of the i8 plug-in hybrid sports car that will go on sale next year with an announced price in the United States of $135,925. Ian Robertson, who heads sales and marketing, pointed out that his company's supercar will use just 2.5 litres/100 km, just like the Audi Sport Quattro. How good is that? The Toyota Prius plug-in – combined output of 134 hp – is rated at 3.0 litres/100 km.
Toyota, of course, made gasoline-electric hybrid cars mainstream and for the masses. That's a strategy that has led to global Prius sales of five million and counting. The Prius truly is an amazingly reliable hatchback and, overall, an excellent transportation tool. Sexy it's not, however. And it seems clear in light of Frankfurt that the Germans are coming to the plug-in race convinced that success starts at the top with halo plug-ins, then trickles down to more the attainable models in the showroom.
Sex has always sold in the car business and it seems the Germans believe sexy electrified cars have sleek designs and breathtaking performance. The Germans want consumers to see electrified cars as objects of desire and to lust for them.
This is in sharp contrast to Toyota's Prius approach, or that of Nissan with its battery-powered Leaf or even General Motors with its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid – all practical and functional and relatively affordable hatchbacks that have spearheaded each auto maker's electrified effort.
But in Frankfurt we saw that the German strategy is to attack the growing plug-in and hybrid market with vehicles that are anything but the automotive equivalent of Birkenstock sandals. And, to stir buyers, the Germans are not making an appeal to conscience and sensibility, but instead rolling out the i8, and the Audi Quattro Sport and the 918 Spyder, as well as Mercedes-Benz's €416,500 ($573,000) SLS AMG Coupe Electric Drive. Combined, these super electrified cars are intended to de-stigmatize electric vehicles – to make them cool for everyone not a card-carrying member of the Green Party.
The German makers who dominated this year's Frankfurt show like never before had other news to share at a show with almost 1,100 manufacturers and suppliers on hand. The super electrics honestly accounted for a small number of the 159 world premieres. But they dominated the conversation by demonstrating that efficiency and performance are not mutually exclusive in the car business.
"The one thing doesn't rule out the other," Axel Strotbek, Audi's chief financial officer, told Bloomberg. His point was shared by his peers, all arguing that desirable sports cars with the fuel consumption of a tiny grocery getter will transform how consumers view electrified vehicles. Of course, other car company executives pointed out that the Germans are coming a little late to the electrified car party.
"Volkswagen said plug-ins were lunacy in 2010," Nissan executive vice-president Andy Palmer told the Financial Times, noting that, as far back as 2007, Nissan was touting a bold EV plan. Today, Nissan is the world's biggest seller of electric vehicles, having sold more than 75,000 Leaf battery cars.
Noting that VW here in Frankfurt said it plans to have 14 hybrid and electric vehicles on sale by 2014 – including the electric Golf unveiled at the show – Palmer was a little bemused by VW's change of heart on electrics. "Fast forward to 2013," added Palmer. "VW wants to be the world's biggest manufacturer of them. We were right."
Later, at a joint press conference to talk about collaboration with Daimler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche, Nissan-Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn said his company welcomes "Germany joining the (electrified) club. The more companies that buy into electric, the better."
The Germans have certainly put their money and prestige on the table. But they differ from Nissan, Toyota, GM, Ford and others all heavily committed to electrified vehicles in one critical way: Instead of entering the market with a sensible sales pitch, the Germans plan to zap consumers with the notion that electrics have sex appeal. Just as important, the rich German car makers all have the financial resources to push this idea with super cars and let the EV love trickle down to runabouts.
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