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Autos

EVs have a sales problem. One possible solution: Make them bigger

Mercedes-Benz EQC
The Volkswagen ‘Space Vision’ electric concept car on display at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show.
(MARK RALSTON / AFP / Getty Images)

Automakers have a sales challenge: How can they persuade U.S. car buyers, addicted to gas-guzzling SUVs, to start buying electric vehicles in quantity?

Their solution is on display at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, which opens to the public today: Build battery electric SUVs.

Despite rollbacks in U.S. emissions requirements and the presence of global climate change deniers in the current U.S. administration, a growing number of the world’s carmakers will arrive at the 10-day automotive marathon sporting SUVS and smaller crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs, that are either pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) or plug-in hybrids (PHEVs).

This is no anomaly, and isn’t a matter of carmakers building “compliance cars” to satisfy emissions standards. These are production cars, in starkly increasing numbers. Next year, they’ll be bringing far more of them.

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“It’s been a dribble, or a trickle, but now it’s turning into a flood,” said Eric Lyman, an analyst for the automotive information and pricing service TrueCar.

Most dramatic among the new arrivals, for most attendees, will be Ford Motor Co.’s Mustang Mach-E, a battery electric crossover based on the automotive DNA of the company’s top-selling sports car.

Powered by an electric motor that produces 459 horsepower and 612 pound-feet of torque in the top-end version, and capable of going zero to 60 miles per hour in less than four seconds and traveling up to 300 miles per charge, the Mach-E is likely to capture a lot of auto-show attention.

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It will have plenty of company, and plenty of competition for buyers.

Mercedes-Benz will promote its new EQC, a handsome four-door, all-wheel-drive SUV that will offer 400 horsepower and an estimated range of more than 200 miles per charge.

It’s no accident that Mercedes’ first all-electric vehicle for the U.S. market is in the SUV format.

“This is a very hot segment, and everyone loves this kind of car,” said Jim Edwards, product manager for EQC. “So this is the right size car and the right time to move forward.”

Data compiled by TrueCar show that while automakers offered only four pure battery electric utility vehicles in their combined 2018 lineups, and only eight for 2019, they will have 16 such vehicles for 2020. That number will rise to 30 for the 2021 model year, and 44 for 2022.

Furthermore, according to TrueCar, battery-powered SUVs will be crowding out similarly powered sedans, a body style that auto buyers increasingly ignore. The percentage of SUVs in that category has already risen to about 24%, Lyman said, and the sport utilities will represent 60% of the battery-powered vehicle offerings for 2021.

“EVs have had a problem with profitability, because those small quirky cars just haven’t caught on,” Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell said. “Automakers want to target a larger volume, so trying to build a small SUV, which is the most popular consumer segment, into a BEV or a hybrid is what most automakers are doing.”

Many other battery-powered SUVs and CUVs are on the way.

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Volvo’s XC40 Recharge — “Our first pure electric SUV,” a Volvo website says — will be available late next year as a 2021 model year car. Featuring a 400-horsepower motor and a 200-plus-mile range, Volvo representatives said, the XC40 Recharge will retail at “under $48,000 after federal tax credit.”

Volvo’s all-electric performance division Polestar also has its first cars coming, though they will not be at the auto show. The Polestar 2 is a battery electric semi-SUV — a luxury four-door sedan with all-weather and off-road capabilities — that reportedly will be coming to market by the middle of 2020. The Polestar 3, a company representative said, will be a true SUV and will be unveiled in 2021.

Tesla Inc. has just started building a factory in China with plans to start churning out Model 3s by the end of the year.

Those two European nameplates will join the Audi e-Tron, an all-electric SUV introduced as a 2019 model year car that is reportedly to be accompanied in 2020 by an SUV-like Sportback version. Audi representatives said a plug-in hybrid version of the Q5 SUV is also coming to market, with plug-in hybrid A7s and A8s to follow shortly.

Also on the horizon is something from Volkswagen. The company — not long ago being raked over the coals and paying heavy fines for faking emissions on its “clean diesel” vehicles — will attend the auto show with a nonproduction model of its battery-electric ID Space Vizzion concept vehicle. This sleek vehicle, VW announced, “combines the aerodynamic design of a Gran Turismo with the spaciousness and versatility of an SUV,” and will have a range estimated at 300 miles.

The Volks folks have also confirmed they will bring to market sometime in 2020 a production version of an all-electric crossover known as ID Crozz. VW describes it as “a long-range electric CUV.”

In addition to the SUV and CUV offerings, there will also be electric trucks.

Tesla unveiled its Cybertruck in Hawthorne Thursday night. Tesla representatives did not respond to questions regarding the vehicle’s participation in this year’s auto show. Some analysts think the Model Y sport utility vehicle isn’t far behind.

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Electric start-up Rivian, which wowed attendees at the 2018 L.A. Auto Show, has confirmed that it will begin production in mid-2020 on both its all-electric RS1 four-door pickup truck and RS2 seven-passenger SUV. (An auto show spokesperson said Rivian elected not to have a presence at this year’s event.)

Bollinger Motors has returned to L.A. after a one-year absence, and the company is showing its boxy, Hummer-esque, all-electric B1 SUV and its B2 pickup truck. Bollinger representative Valentine Oldham said both off-road-optimized vehicles will go into production next year for 2021 delivery.

Tesla has expanded its preeminence over the electric-vehicle market despite the arrival of two new battery-powered luxury SUVs in U.S. showrooms, Jaguar’s I-Pace and Audi’s e-tron.

Many manufacturers that seem to be on the verge of moving into the battery electric range will be coming to L.A. with almost-BEVs. Caldwell and others said these plug-in hybrids are a way for automakers to bridge the gap between the familiar technology of internal combustion vehicles and the futuristic technology, for some, of pure electric vehicles.

  • Honda will debut its CR-V Hybrid, the first plug-in version of that CUV. (The company will also have its all-electric Clarity sedan on display.)
  • Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will show a concept version of its Alfa Romeo Tonale, a plug-in hybrid reportedly scheduled for production as a 2021 vehicle.
  • BMW will debut plug-in hybrid versions of its X3 SUV and its X33 sedan to add to its current X5 hybrid SUV offering.
  • BMW’s Thomas Plucinsky said a new architecture that will allow every car in the BMW line to be ordered in combustion-engine, plug-in hybrid or pure electric versions is under development for the 2021 model year. The first car out of the blocks featuring the battery electric system will be the i4, Plucinsky said.
  • Kia will unveil a refreshed version of its Niro hybrid SUV, though the improvements for 2020 are mostly cosmetic. (The Korean car company’s new Seltos SUV, for 2021, will be introduced only in a gas-powered version.)
  • The plug-in hybrid category will also include Hyundai’s Vision T, a concept version of which will be presented at the L.A. Auto Show. This plug-in, which bears physical resemblance to both the Mustang Mach-E and the Porsche Cayenne, may or may not become a production vehicle, but it demonstrates Hyundai’s intentions to be a bigger player in the electrified SUV market. (The company will also show off a new version of its Ioniq Electric, with improved horsepower and range figures.)
  • Porsche will add more electrification to its Cayenne line, in the form of a new Turbo S E-Hybrid Coupe version of the popular SUV.

With its new all-electric Taycan sports car heading to market and making its L.A. debut at the auto show, can a battery electric Macan or Cayenne be far behind?

Porsche executives declined to comment. But in announcing this year’s lineup the German sports car company said it would also be exhibiting a new electric race car set to compete in upcoming Formula E competitions. Porsche said its Porsche 99X Electric will “serve as a development platform for future all-electric production road cars.”


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