Sliding Towards Electric

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Posted by Don Adair on May 8, 2018, 6 a.m.

The big takeaway from December’s Los Angeles Auto Show could not have been clearer if it had been scrawled in neon across the face of the Convention Center.

The electrified future is now!

And nowhere was that point made more emphatically than in the glittery exhibits of the high-end European brands.

Electric car

The Europeans covered the electrified waterfront, from Jaguar’s I-Pace electric crossover to Mercedes-Benz’s GLC F-Cell, a hydrogen fuel-cell concept.

All the big players were there, showing game-changing products, many of them slated for their U.S. debuts by decade’s end.

Of course, more than mere miles separate the L.A. Convention Center and the showrooms of Inland Northwest auto dealers. And the impact of what’s being called the electromobility movement will be felt here in quieter ways.

Electrification has been with us since the 1990s, when Toyota and Honda raced to bring gas-electric hybrids to the U.S. Now, virtually every maker offers at least one hybrid and most have added power cords to the mix, as a new generation of plug-in hybrids emerges.

Normally, acceptance of these new technologies would have progressed organically as costs dropped and buyers came to value their economy, performance and environmental virtues.

But, instead, environmental politics intervened. Beginning in 2020, strict new efficiency standards will limit new car CO2 emissions across the European Union. To remain viable in Europe, automakers have little choice but to electrify.

Volvo moved the conversation to center stage in July, when it announced plans to phase out production of cars fueled solely by gasoline.

On this side of the ocean, General Motors said it would release at least new 20 electrified and fuel-cell vehicles by 2023. In that same time frame, Lincoln plans to offer electrified variants of each of its models.

Electrified powertrains are seen as a way station on the road to full adoption of non-petroleum alternatives. Automakers are investing billions in a rush to develop high-capacity battery systems.

Notably, the electric automaker Tesla returned to the main floor of the L.A. show in December. Tesla sells about 100,000 luxury electric vehicles in the U.S. each year, giving lie to the argument that consumers aren’t interested.

Even mainstream players believe the future favors electrons. “General Motors believes the future is all-electric; a world free of automotive emissions,” GM vice president Mark Reuss said in October.

That future moved a step closer last year, as France and the United Kingdom announced plans to ban sales of fossil fuel-powered cars by 2040.

China, now the world’s largest and fastest-growing automotive market, announced similar intentions without specifying a date-certain. Indeed, a petroleum-free future seems all but a given.

In the meantime, though, luxury shoppers will see growing numbers of energy-efficient alternatives in area showrooms.

Audi’s A3 Sportback e-tron plug-in hybrid won the Women’s Choice “eco-friendly” award in Los Angeles. The little hatchback delivers the expected Audi refinement, as well as sports car-like acceleration, excellent fuel economy and 16 miles of all-electric range.

The e-tron is also a box office success, comprising 13 percent of A3 sales.

Beginning early next year, BMW will offer utilityminded buyers a plug-in hybrid version of its popular X3 crossover.

BMW says it will boost sales of electrified models by 50 percent in the next year. It’s part of an aggressive move to fend off competition “that’s starting to do its own rollout,” said BMW Board of Management member Klaus Froelich.

Those competitors include Mercedes-Benz, which, in addition to its fuel-cell concept, showed the latest versions of a pair of plug-in hybrids, the GLE 550e crossover and C350e sedan, in L.A.

A plug-in hybrid version of its flagship S-class sedan is expected by the end of 2018. By 2020, every M-B model will be available with an electrified powertrain.

Jaguar’s I-Pace is expected in showrooms by the end of 2018. Its twin electric motors will produce 400 horsepower and deliver a projected range of 220 miles.

Even Porsche, that timeless purveyor of go-fast, made the L.A. scene. It showed a plug-in version of its redesigned Panamera sport sedan that’s due in early 2018. The 680-horsepower Turbo S e-hybrid will be the most powerful Panamera and has a 31-mile battery-only range.

Porsche says it will spend $3.5 million developing its e-performance brand of plug-hybrids and EVs over the next five years.

Included in that calculus is a plug-in hybrid version of the iconic 911 sports coupe, perhaps the surest sign yet of the inevitability of the electrification revolution. Doubtless, purists will wail, but Porsche knows there’s no holding back the future.

And you can write that in big neon letters.