Manufacturers building plug-in cars for the super rich
The new Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo concept car is displayed during media day at the Paris Auto Show, France, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012. The Paris Auto Show will open its gates to the public from Sept. 29 to Oct. 14. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Published Monday, October 1, 2012 6:12PM EDT
I missed the second annual National Plug In Day a couple of Sundays ago because I was on my way to see the latest Plug In cars at the Paris Auto Show. Plug In Day is sponsored by groups like the Sierra Club which believes that electrifying the transportation sector as much as possible will cut air pollution and help stabilize greenhouse gas emissions by getting us off oil.
I can’t argue with that, but at what cost? I had no sooner landed in Europe than a report by the British House of Commons Transport Committee hit the newspapers which said the U.K. government’s green car subsidy is doing little to help the environment and is simply allowing rich families to buy a second car on the cheap. The report said that Government grants for Plug In cars are doing little more than “subsidising second cars for affluent households.”
In 2011 just 1,052 vehicles got the “Plug In car grant” and so far this year about 1,000 cars have qualified for the £5,000 subsidy for anyone buying an electric car. In addition, a network of more than 1,600 public charging points has been installed across the U.K. to encourage drivers to switch to electric. The report said most families still find the cars too expensive even with the grant and that those using the subsidies are affluent middle-class families who are using it to buy a second car.
There’s no doubt that sales of all-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and range-extended electric cars with gasoline engines built-in like the Chevy Volt have been disappointing. Consumers are put off by the high cost of Plug In cars even with available subsidies whether it’s in Britain, the U.S. or Canada. In fact in the U.K. 75 per cent of purchases made with the Plug In car grants have been fleet sales to businesses rather than to individuals.
One more thing; while the Plug In grants were being attacked by Opposition politicians, an organization called Guide Dogs for the Blind was in the media telling the Government to force manufacturers introduce an artificial engine noise on silent electric cars. “If you can't hear a car and you can’t see a car, how can you safely cross a road?” said David Cowdrey, Guide Dogs' Campaigns Manager. “We don't want quiet vehicles to become the silent killer of the future.”
So that’s the background as I walked into the Paris Auto Show – Europe’s biggest this year. I was interested to see how the European manufacturers would be presenting their Plug In offerings in the face of divided public opinion. I was in for a surprise. Rather than pitching their cars as green solutions to the Sierra Club membership, many of the manufacturers have decided that Plug In means ultra-high performance and premium pricing.
Exhibit A: The 416,500 Euro (approx $525,000 Cdn) Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Coupe Electric Drive, the “most exclusive and dynamic way to drive an electric car,” according to the company. This one has a top speed of 250 km/h with its signature gull wing doors and four powerful electric motors. Mercedes says it is expected to be the fastest and most powerful battery electric car on the road when it goes into limited production in 2013.
Exhibit B: The 100,000 Euro plus BMW i8 plug-in hybrid “new-generation sports car.” The i8 features the extensive use of lightweight carbon fiber. It has a 96kW electric motor powering the front wheels and a 164kW turbocharged three cylinder gasoline engine at the rear. BMW is selling style and performance claiming the car goes from 0 to100km/h in less than five seconds. Fuel economy for a $130,000 car isn’t too bad either: 2.7 litres per 100 kilometres.
Exhibit C: The 100,000 plus Euro Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo. This is a sleek wagon-like Plug In hybrid that looks much better than the current Panamera sedan. Its single electric motor and supercharged 3.0-litre gasoline engine deliver a combined 306kW. The car can be driven in pure electric mode at speeds up to 130 km/h. Pretty good fuel economy for a supercar at 3.5 litres per 100 km.
I guess the point of all this is that the industry hasn’t exactly figured out how to make electric cars popular enough that they can make money on them with government grants or without. It’s clear that the premium brands hope they can sell Plug Ins as the latest and greatest performance feature. Maybe that way they can cover their development costs by charging high prices to rich people while the rest of us wait for Plug In technology to eventually trickle down to us.