Image rules! If battery vehicles get tagged as expensive, slow or the opposite of fun, we're in trouble. It's time for a makeover in the form of a charismatic plug-in hot rod. The Tesla Model S will do.
CHECK IT OUT: Everyone's interested in the Tesla Model S. (Photo: Tesla)
Electric cars need a hit. The Nissan Leaf is cool, and the Leaf is (despite what Green Illusions author Ozzie Zehner is saying about it) a climate-change fighter, and it’s practical to boot. What it lacks is sexy styling (it looks kinda like a Versa) and the type of head-jerking performance that, like it or not, gets people into showrooms. And in June, Leaf sales took a hit. Was it the lack of a “wow” factor? The 535 units sold means sales went up a tick compared to 510 in May, but sales were down 69 percent compared to the 1,708 sold in June 2011. Sales are supposed to be going up, not down.
The picture is brighter for plug-in hybrids, since the 1,760 Volt sales in June were triple that of the same month in 2011. For 2012 so far, 8,817 Volts have been sold, and the car is moving off lots faster than the Corvette. Some 100-mile Leaf drivers have traded in their cars for 300-mile-plus Volts, citing the all-important range anxiety. In June, Toyota sold more plug-in Priuses (695) than Nissan sold Leafs. John Gartner, an auto analyst with Pike Research, told me, “We expect that plug-in hybrids will continue to outsell battery electric vehicles in the U.S. by a factor of 1.4 to 1 through 2015.”
This morning, a Nissan Leaf pulled up beside me in the library parking lot. The owner said she liked her new car (painted that ubiquitous light blue color) “a lot.” I sent her in to take out the library’s copy of my book, "High Voltage," though obviously I’d rather she bought it. Her UCLA engineering license plate frame gave away that she’s an early adopter — one of the small but vocal group who has so far made up the car’s constituency. But there aren't that many of them, and it's possible that their EV buying has already peaked — with 30,000 plug-in cars on the road. That’s no game changer, since Americans own 250 million vehicles.
Electric cars, with their high price of entry, reduced range, battery pack replacement issues and novel recharging practices are, at least so far, proving a tough sell. President Obama’s 1 million plug-in cars by 2015 plan is looking like a mirage. Let me submit, however, that this is a snapshot in time. The situation, and the public’s view of EVs, could change dramatically with one big-hit EV. The Tesla Model S, which is making reporters gush in a way I haven’t seen in years, could well be that image changer.
John Gartner says, “I agree that if a battery-electric sold well in the U.S. and received positive reviews, that it would increase interest in them. The market has so far been centered on the Volt and the Prius plug-in hybrid.”
Although it’s half the price of Tesla’s $109,000 Roadster, the Model S is still an expensive car, with prices starting at $57,400 (before the $7,500 federal income tax credit). The Model S isn’t going to explode in the mass market like, say, the Mustang, New Beetle or PT Cruiser. Tesla’s projection of 20,000 in 2013 is a stretch, though the 5,000 claimed for this year is probably doable. But the S will get on the cover of AutoWeek and Car and Driver, and build buzz. It’s got a bit of Elon Musk’s Space X stardust on it.
The Fisker Karma has some of the same qualities, but its story is more clouded by teething problems at this point.
I know I’m putting a lot of weight on the Model S’ slender door pillars. But this is the car that the Wall Street Journal’s Dan Neil said is “hard-core amazing” and “goes like the very stink of hell.” And Frank Markus of Motor Trend said, after driving the car and touring the factory, that he is “pretty favorably impressed. Range anxiety may be a thing of the past. Tesla has built a destination car for car people, not just electric vehicle people.” Here's Markus behind the wheel, on videotape:
These guys aren’t likely to gush over any other electric car. The Model S is in a unique niche right now, and it probably helps that the peripatetic CEO often comes along for the test rides. Things look relatively bright for the brand, but let’s go to John Voelcker of Green Car Reports for the necessary note of caution:
The Tesla Model S has the potential to be by far the sexiest, most capable plug-in vehicle in the world if Tesla gets it launched without a hitch. And it’s no more expensive than some similarly sized BMWs and Benzes, so it’s ‘affordable’ in that sense. But it’s way too early to declare that to be the case, since no one’s actually test-driven one properly, there could be quality glitches (e.g. Fisker Karma screen freezes, battery replacements, etc.) and other unforeseen issues, or the car might not actually deliver in real-world usage what it promises.
And Voelcker adds that it’s probably too early to get the average car buyer excited about electrics, considering that “the cars are still very expensive, so you have to buy one for other reasons. In 2016, with second-generation Volts and Leafs and cheaper Teslas (assuming Tesla Motors survives), maybe that’s a better time.”
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