Should the trickle-down theory apply to electric vehicles?
The question nagged more with each reveal I attended at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show press preview, and each manufacturer’s stand I visited.
The first EVs to hit the market seem caught in no man’s land; too expensive (and, with battery-only versions, lacking in range) for the mass market, but too small and plebeian for those with buckets of cash to lavish on a car — or two, or three.
The pool of early adopters willing and able to pay the EV premium is shallow. But could the growing and high-profit-margin premium segment keep EVs alive until technology improves and prices drop enough for the mass market to buy in?
Upscale EVs dominated the preview, and their pitches focused far more on style, performance and luxury than fuel savings and environmental benefits. The consistent message: You’ll love these cars and they’ll enhance your image — oh, and by the way, under the seats you’ll find a lithium-ion battery pack.
With the conspicuous exception of Mitsubishi, which didn’t display its struggling iMiEV EV, promised plug-in-hybrid Outlander — or anything else — in Detroit, the major EVs from the likes of Honda, Toyota, Ford, GM, Nissan, Fiat and Smart are on display.
(Nissan, by the way, made the lone splash in conventional hybrids with its aggressively styled Resonance small SUV concept.)
Show visitors, until Jan. 27, can inspect them all, and be driven — sedately — in several production models around an indoor track. Chances are they’ll be impressed because almost every EV works brilliantly. But sales are what it’s about and the current crop makes barely a ripple.
In economics, the trickle-down theory is a cruel hoax, but it might work for EVs; particularly battery-only but even plug-in hybrids, which report substantial percentage sales increases but on tiny absolute numbers.
Exhibit A in Detroit is Cadillac’s ELR, based on the Chevrolet Volt platform and plug-in hybrid powertrain — 1.4-litre gasoline engine, 16.5-kilowatt-hour battery pack and slightly more powerful electric motor — but far beyond in style, opulence and promised performance. GM claims the vehicle’s features, from hand-stitched premium leather to paddle-shift control of regenerative braking, and exclusivity will make it a “treasure.”
Pricing isn’t announced but will matter little to those with the potential to buy this stunner.
The same holds for Volkswagen’s CrossBlue diesel plug-in hybrid concept midsize SUV, also unveiled in Detroit. It’s more staid than the ELR but almost as posh, and with so many battery clusters and driving-mode buttons that those behind the wheel might think they’re running the space station.
Ditto for the Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive concept and Tesla’s production Model S and prototype X, all seen previously but still generating press-preview buzz. Not to mention BMW’s i3 concept city car, which will be offered in about a year as purely electric or with a small range-extending gasoline engine and, the company hopes, will entice well-heeled commuters from their BMW 7s and Mercedes S-Class sedans.
Tesla is explicit about this. George Blankenship, its vice-president of sales, previously worked at Apple and described how hordes would leave empty-handed after drooling over new gadgets they couldn’t afford. Then, costs would plummet and sales soar.
That, he says, is Tesla’s hope for its Generation 3; a smaller, lighter car to follow Model X whenever technology advances permit equal performance and, perhaps, a 50 per cent price drop.
As I wrote this, a story arrived from the U.K. that, based largely on the Smart EV’s arrival, asks: “Could 2013 be the year of the ‘affordable’ electric car?” But even that minimal two-seater will devour most of $30,000, including taxes.
My question from Detroit stands.
Columns & Advice
Everything you need to know about purchasing, maintaining and driving your car.
Become a member
Register now to access all features including:
- Save and ask friends to review vehicles
- Exclusive rebates & offers from local dealers
- Premium content, reviews and tools
All for free!
Already a member?
Registration 2 of 2
Welcome to Wheels!
As a final step we've sent a confirmation to your email address as a security measure. Please click the link in the email to complete your registration.
Terms of services
DISCLAIMER OF WARRANTIES AND LIMITATION OF LIABILITY
TO THE FULLEST EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW, TORONTO STAR IS PROVIDING THE TORONTO STAR WEBSITES ON AN "AS IS" AND â€œAS AVAILABLEâ€ BASIS AND MAKES NO WARRANTIES OR REPRESENTATIONS, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING WITHOUT LIMITATION THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, IN ANY CONNECTION WITH THE TORONTO STAR WEBSITES, THEIR CONTENTS, OR ANY WEB SITE OR CONTENTS WITH WHICH IT IS LINKED. TORONTO STAR DOES NOT WARRANT THAT THE FUNCTION OF THE TORONTO STAR WEBSITES OR THEIR CONTENTS WILL BE UNINTERRUPTED OR ERROR FREE, THAT DEFECTS WILL BE CORRECTED, OR THAT THE TORONTO STAR WEBSITES OR THE SERVERS THAT MAKE IT AVAILABLE ARE FREE OF VIRUSES OR OTHER HARMFUL COMPONENTS.
TO THE FULLEST EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, NEGLIGENCE, SHALL TORONTO STAR BE LIABLE FOR ANY LOSS OF USE, LOSS OF DATA, LOSS OF INCOME OR PROFIT, LOSS OF OR DAMAGE TO PROPERTY, OR FOR ANY DAMAGES OF ANY KIND OR CHARACTER (INCLUDING WITHOUT LIMITATION ANY COMPENSATORY, INCIDENTAL, DIRECT, INDIRECT, SPECIAL, PUNITIVE, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES), EVEN IF TORONTO STAR HAS BEEN ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES OR LOSSES, ARISING OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH THE USE OF THE TORONTO STAR WEBSITES, THEIR CONTENTS, OR ANY WEBSITE OR CONTENTS WITH WHICH IT IS LINKED. IN NO EVENT SHALL TORONTO STARâ€™S TOTAL LIABILITY FOR ALL DAMAGES, LOSSES, AND CAUSES OF ACTION, WHETHER IN CONTRACT, TORT (INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, NEGLIGENCE), OR OTHERWISE, EXCEED THE AMOUNT PAID BY YOU FOR ACCESSING THIS SITE.X