NEW YORK CITY — On Thursday morning, I watched Michael Bartsch, vice president of Infiniti Americas, roll out the latest mega-SUV. Called the QX80 Limited (below), it’s the ultimate luxury seven-passenger, with truffle brown semi-aniline leather-appointed seats, leather-wrapped speaker grilles, ash wood trim and branded stainless-steel lighted doorsills.
With a 400-horsepower 5.6-liter direct-injection engine under the hood, you’re going to get a dismal 14 miles per gallon around town, and 20 on the highway. But people are still buying what the New York Times called “giant luxury liners.” Cars like it are one big reason Infiniti set a sales record of 180,000 vehicles worldwide in the last fiscal year.
The company’s SUV line keeps expanding, while its battery car, the wireless charging LE (an upmarket Nissan Leaf), has been postponed indefinitely. “It’s still in concept for now,” a spokeswoman told me.
One of the greenest car companies, Ford, was all about the Mustang this year, since it was 50 years ago the car was introduced at the World’s Fair. The company also brought out the 2015 version of its Focus electric car, let’s just say its debut was quiet. Presentations from BMW and Mercedes put the accent on performance, though both have plenty of green car news. BMW is rolling out the i3 battery electric, the i8 plug-in hybrid, and recently showed both a pair of clean diesels and a green version of the X5. Mercedes will bring a Tesla-engineered B-Class Electric Drive to our shores this summer. Toyota had both the FCV Concept fuel-cell car (above) and the way-out and podlike FV2, which the driver steers by leaning (see the video below):
Frankly, “No Charge to Charge” is quite likely to work as an incentive. Free electricity! Of course, people will still charge mostly at home, but it sure sounds great. Get your free electrons in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, Seattle, Portland (Ore.), Nashville, Phoenix and Washington, D.C.
At the very end of the show, I attended a forum sponsored by the German-American Chamber of Commerce on the future of electric cars, and the good news is that tomorrow looks bright. Chaired by John Voelcker, editor of Green Car Reports, the panel agreed that the market can only grow. Jean-Francois Tremblay of Ernst & Young’s mobility division put it well. “The market is fragile but ramping up,” he said. “EVs may not make financial sense right now, but they absolutely should happen because of the value they bring to society.”
Two German automakers, BMW and Volkswagen, were on the panel (above), and as Voelcker pointed out they take quite different approaches, VW is electrifying its proven Golf for delivery in the fourth quarter, and BMW is introducing that i3, a radically new car with a carbon fiber passenger compartment, an advanced aluminum chassis, and thermo-plastic body panels. One concluded that EV buyers need something entirely new, and the other thinks they want the familiar, but with a very green heart.
Both ideas have merit, but I agree with panelist Chelsea Sexton, who said that buying a car is an emotional experience, and automakers need to understand that better. For instance, it’s absolutely true that most people drive less than 40 miles a day, so the 100-mile (on a good day) range of electric cars should be fine. But “range anxiety” is real, even if it isn’t always rational. The lucky few will allay their fears by buying long-range plug-in hybrids like the very exotic limited-edition Porsche 918 Spyder below.
Let’s skip back to that QX80 Limited. Is it a rational purchase? Hell, no. Most buyers would be much better off in a minivan. But they want the big SUV, at least partly for emotional reasons, and they’re not going to be deterred by arguments to the contrary.
If I was running a car company, then, I’d offer EV buyers a range of battery sizes. If they’re comfortable paying more to allay range anxiety, then why not offer them the choice? Come to think of it, one company already does that — Tesla Motors. And guess what? The overwhelming choice is the bigger battery pack, even though it costs $10,000 more. That’s human nature, folks.
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