It’s a trope that’s been around roughly as long as Elon Musk has been in the car business: When a new electric vehicle is unveiled, it’s dubbed a potential “Tesla killer.”
But from the flaming out of Fisker to present day, Tesla has largely dominated the American electric-vehicle market. Musk has even managed to expand the company’s preeminence over the still small segment despite two new battery-powered luxury SUVs arriving in U.S. showrooms in the last 10 months: Jaguar’s I-Pace and Audi’s e-tron.
Their starts are the latest indications that legacy automakers aren’t assured instant success when they roll out new plug-in models. Tesla’s Model S and X have largely held their own against the two crossovers that offer shorter range and less plentiful public charging infrastructure. Jaguar and Audi also lack the cool factor Musk has cultivated for the Tesla brand by taking an aggressive approach to autonomy and using over-the-air software updates to add games and entertainment features.
“If a customer is choosing the I-Pace over the comparable Tesla, they are making the conscious decision: I don’t want the Tesla,” said Ed Kim, an analyst at the car-market research and consulting firm AutoPacific. “You really have to be someone who doesn’t like Tesla, who doesn’t want the Tesla product, in order to go for this.”
Tesla’s Model X and Model S each boast more than 300 miles of range, and the cheaper Model 3 travels 240 miles between charges. Jaguar’s $69,500 I-Pace is rated at 234 miles, and Audi’s $74,800 e-tron registers 204 miles.
Jaguar’s marketing team spent years laying the groundwork to introduce the I-Pace. In 2016, the brand joined Formula E, an open-wheeled, electric-powered race circuit similar to Formula One.
“We had an electric car in our development plan -- the I-Pace -- at the time,” said James Barclay, Jaguar’s racing director. “We had to create an awareness about the fact that we had an electric car coming to market, firstly, and to showcase why you’d buy a Jaguar electric vehicle over something else.”
Porsche and Mercedes-Benz are also joining Formula E for the 2019-20 season to help generate buzz for the new all-electric models they have coming out. The circuit makes stops in cities including New York, Hong Kong and London, which the brands are banking on as major markets for plug-in cars.
“City centers are where there’s going to be a really good application for electric vehicles,” said Kim McCullough, Jaguar Land Rover’s vice president of marketing for North America. “So having them be able to see something firsthand -- it starts the education process.”
But while Formula E is drawing crowds of urban dwellers and a substantial audience on social media, all that buzz may not necessarily translate into showroom traffic.
“Auto racing really comes as one of the last influencers, in terms of influencing people to buy whatever car they’re looking at,” according to AutoPacific’s Kim. If Jaguar is doing well in Formula E, it couldn’t hurt the I-Pace, he said. “But I don’t think it would have a huge positive impact on awareness of the vehicle.”
Jaguar has sold an average of about 190 I-Pace crossovers a month since U.S. sales began. Tesla, by comparison, was delivering Model Xs at a clip of about 550 a month in its first year on the market, beginning in 2015, according to InsideEVs.com estimates.
The Audi e-tron has been on the market in the U.S. for only four months, but during that time, it has averaged sales of about 745 units, InsideEVs estimates. In July, 3.5% of Audi’s U.S. sales were all-electric, and the company expects that number to climb to 30% by 2025.
“We are confident that we are and will continue to deliver an offering that customers will want to be part of,” Cian O’Brien, the interim president and chief operating officer of Audi of America, said in an email.
After initial efforts to nab electric-car buyers proved challenging, Jaguar has decided to attack Tesla head-on.
The brand is offering Tesla owners a $3,000 discount on the I-Pace for the next month and a half. “This is all about capturing share of voice,” Stuart Schorr, a Jaguar Land Rover spokesman, said in an email. “The EV market is just at its infancy.”
Jaguar is confident that I-Pace sales will improve.
“Consumers, as a result of seeing our race program, do consider us to be a car brand they would consider for their electric car purchase,” said Barclay, the racing director. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and for a premium automotive manufacturer with their first electric vehicle, it takes time in the market.”