April 13, 2012 at 7:37 AM ET
The next round of the electric car saga promises to be more interesting, or at least, more comfortable, as the Infiniti LE, Cadillac ELR and BMW ActiveE cars arrive in showrooms over the next year or two.
These primo EVs are important because it turns out there are not multitudes of would-be planet-savers desperate to shell out $40,000 for an electric economy car. Sure, there are tax discounts and the like that can take a bite out of that price tag, but the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf cost about twice as much as the Chevrolet Cruze and Nissan Versa upon which they are based.
It is an unlikely financial calculation for budget-minded, economy-car shoppers to choose electric power over gas at today’s prices. But luxury car buyers don’t make their purchase decision based on financial considerations. Green-eyeshade calculations dictate that we all buy off-lease late-model used Honda Civics. Dull silver ones. Where’s the fun in that?
But luxury shoppers are used to laying out big bucks for cars just because they like them. That is why people buy Porsche Boxsters, and not because Consumer Reports calculated that the Boxster has a great return on investment.
Electric cars cannot compete financially with gas cars today. But they do possess a unique appeal, with smooth, quiet and surprisingly powerful acceleration that is perfectly suited to the characteristics of a refined luxury car. Plus there's the whole no-gas thing.
Today, well-to-do drivers who are intrigued by electric power must get out of their leather-swaddled Range Rover or BMW and slide into the icky plastic of a Leaf or Volt. Unlike the economy car shoppers, they can write a check for the purchase price, but they can’t stomach the chintzy appointments or proletarian brand images of the Chevy or the Nissan.
But give them a chance to buy an electric BMW, Cadillac or Infiniti and watch EV sales rev in ritzy ZIP codes. “Leaf customers are very high income,” noted Andy Palmer, executive vice president of global planning for Nissan.
“They are not buying the base car,” he said. “If [the Infiniti LE] were available today they might very well buy this car.”
BMW is hearing from its prospective ActiveE customers that today’s budget models just didn’t measure up to their requirements. “They were reluctant to take delivery of some of the available cars,” reported Rich Steinberg, BMW’s manager of electric vehicle operations. He agrees that today’s EV and hybrid drivers are ideal candidates for luxury EVs. “The demographics and income of hybrid owners today is above average,” he said.
BMW’s ActiveE looks like the company’s familiar 1-Series sedan, so it will inherently carry whatever cachet that model has, plus the appeal of its electric drive.
Infiniti and Cadillac are developing electric-only models with zoomy styling that could serve as an extra attraction. “We think the luxury/sport design of the ELR is an important component and a good blend with extended range electric propulsion technology,” said Cadillac spokesman David Caldwell.
Electric cars offer many drivers something that money can’t usually buy: time. That’s because in many areas EVs are permitted to drive in carpool-only lanes, saving drivers time they would otherwise waste in traffic. This is certainly a benefit for which wealthy consumers will willingly pay.
But they don't necessarily want to suffer in an automotive dud in the process, so look for premium EVs to include power-sucking amenities like killer sound systems rather than the tinny musical torture devices commonly installed in today’s EVs and hybrids.
Infiniti aims to provide a bit more time-saving luxury: freedom from plugging in and unplugging the car every night. The company plans to offer drivers a wireless inductive charger that installs in their garage floor and transfers juice to the Infiniti LE’s battery pack as if by magic. The car will even steer itself into position for charging when it detects the charger. Sounds exotic, but the company says robots in its assembly plants already use the same technology to automatically recharge themselves.