European Automakers Prepare for an Electric Future


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“I’m just not sold on the reliability of the technology at this point,” he said. “Gas prices are pretty low. My car gets good gas mileage. So electric vehicles? No, I’m not interested.”

That type of sentiment presents a big challenge for Europe’s luxury carmakers. Many automakers, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Porsche and Volvo, are scrambling to produce lines of electric, hybrid and plug-in models.

Some of this next wave will be on display at the Geneva auto show, which opens to the public on March 8.

Among the models will be the Jaguar I-Pace, a battery-powered crossover that is something of a cross between a hatchback and a coupe. Jaguar unveiled the production version of the I-Pace last week in Graz, Austria, in a bid to build buzz ahead of the Geneva show.

The car is packed with advanced safety and driver-assist technologies and features two electric motors — one to deliver power to the front wheels and one for the rear axle. Together they are rated at 394 horsepower. The car is expected to go 240 miles on a single battery charge, Jaguar said.

The small vehicle, with its short hood, is also a jarring break from the classic Jaguar look of a low, sleek roof line, long hood and rounded back. “It’s quite distinctive,” Ian Callum, Jaguar’s design director, said at the Graz event. “It’s quite different. It’s quite radical.”

The company is hoping the vehicle will appeal to upscale buyers who want to drive an upscale car that is also environmentally friendly. “It’s electric,” Mr. Callum said. “Guilt-free.”

Volvo is expected to use Geneva to show the V60 station wagon, a plug-in hybrid and one of the models it is adding as part of a plan to add full or partial electric power to every one of its models by 2019.


The Jaguar I-Pace electric crossover, minus the sheet metal.

Volvo and its Chinese owner, Geely, are also developing a new brand of electric cars to be sold under the Polestar name. Details of the brand’s first model, the Polestar 1, will be released at the Geneva show.

Audi is expected to offer showgoers test drives of the E-tron all-electric S.U.V. that is due in showrooms this summer.

Those are only some of the electric models European carmakers have in the works. Daimler AG, the parent of Mercedes-Benz, is spending $11 billion to develop at least 10 new electric models, due on the road by 2022. Mercedes is expected to market them under the brand name EQ. BMW plans to introduce at least 12 electric models between now and 2025, including a self-driving car it is calling iNext. Before then, BMW plans to introduce improved versions of its i3 electric car and i8, an exotic sports car featuring a hybrid powertrain.

While the company will continue offering cars powered by gasoline engines for years to come, BMW expects electric cars and hybrids to make up 25 percent of its sales by 2025.

“At the core of our product offensive is a clear focus on electrification,” Bernhard Kuhnt, chief executive of BMW North America, said in January at the Detroit auto show.

For the last several years, Porsche has offered hybrid versions of its sports cars and high-powered S.U.V.s, but in 2019 it is expected to add the all-electric car Mission-e. To ease worries about recharging the car, Porsche has started to install charging stations at its 189 dealers and at other locations in the United States.

“What we are doing here is creating a new world for Porsche,” said Stefan Weckbach, Porsche’s head of battery electric vehicles.

Carmakers are developing all of these models despite the reluctance of many car buyers. In 2017, fewer than 15,000 battery-electric vehicles were sold in the United States, less than 1 percent of the total market. Only about 10,000 plug-in hybrids were sold.

And manufacturers that have jumped in early have had a bumpy ride. BMW’s i3 has been a slow seller. Last year, BMW sold 6,276 i3s, fewer than the number of 3 Series sedans it typically sells in a single month.

But one word convinces them that they are on the right track: Tesla. It is constantly on the minds of European makers, who fret about losing to the upstart maker of battery-powered luxury cars. Tesla sold more than 100,000 vehicles worldwide last year, making it a serious player in the upper-priced levels of the auto industry.

The United States market is not the reason Europe’s automakers are racing ahead with electric technology, however. The European Union and China are tightening regulations that force automakers to cut tailpipe emissions. For years, many European manufacturers were counting on selling a heavy mix of diesel models to help them meet the stricter targets.

But Volkswagen’s diesel scandal — the company for years equipped diesel cars with software that cheated emissions testing — has chilled sales and the willingness of governments to accept more diesels. Several large German cities have been pushing to ban certain diesel vehicles from their streets, and a landmark court ruing last month cleared the way for them to do so.

Britain and France have said they intend to ban new diesel and gas cars by 2040. China has moved the same way on tailpipe emissions and is shaping regulations to increase sales of electric cars to combat the poor air quality in many of its congested megacities.

Dieter Zetsche, the chairman of Daimler, said it was unclear when the market for electric vehicles would take off, but he was certain it would.

“It’s like a bottle of ketchup,” he said in a conference call in January. “It will come. You just don’t know when and to which extent when you shake it.”

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