We hear it all the time. Behind closed doors, we even talk nervously about it. The idea that as vehicles become electric, brands will lose what makes them unique. That every vehicle will feel exactly the same without the separation that comes with choices like an inline-six instead of a V8. And that the only difference for the driver will be the logo on the steering wheel they're sitting behind.
For some brands, it can feel like the powertrain experience is an afterthought. For others, it's a key part of what makes the brand.
We spoke with both BMW and Kia, brands on opposite ends of the automotive spectrum, to ask how important the powertrain experience was to each, and to find out what they were doing to tune their EVs to help give their vehicles a unique feel. The answers, to rehash a cliché, surprised us.
Kia Canada's Director of Strategic Planning David Sherrard said that powertrain feel was important for Kia, though it's a brand usually thought of as targeting value over dynamics.
"Think of the 3.3-litre twin-turbo [V6] in the Stinger. We have a turbocharged engine in the K5 GT, and we've got dual-clutch transmissions that can shift really quickly and provide a really dynamic experience. All of them are designed to kind of create an emotional connection with customers," Sherrard said.
"The key to everything that we do is the fact that customers should feel inspired when they're interacting with our products," he added. "Powertrain, of course, is a core component to that and we're always making sure that we have the right kind of features to create that emotional connection with our customers."
With gasoline engines, it feels intuitive that there are more ways to alter each engine to suit a particular feel. High-revs, low-end torque, V6 versus four-cylinder, turbocharging, and even how quickly the gearbox can act. With the mystery that is an electric motor lurking low in the vehicle, we asked if Kia had the same level of adaptability to make each of its vehicles feel a certain (and different) way.
"You have an ability to adapt what kind of power delivery is required or expected for that chosen vehicle," said Sherrard. "You have drive modes that can be built into vehicles that can adapt how quickly they accelerate, how they turn in, and what kind of road feel you have from within them."
"So, where you may not have the number of mechanical components that you can swap in and out and vary, you have a lot of flexibility with the overall design of the vehicle. The software of the vehicle. To make it what you want it to be or what it needs to be to really be true to what that vehicle is in its segments and where it's competing."
Sherrard said he believes that vehicle powertrain feel will still be very much a strong part of each car or crossover, not to the brand as a whole. His example is the e-GMP architecture that underpins Kia's EV6 as well as the Genesis GV60 and Hyundai Ioniq 5. While Sherrard says each uses the same battery, chassis, and electrical system architecture, the scalability of the system allows "a lot of opportunity to provide different dynamics to the vehicle in question depending on what you need it to be for that segment."
We've driven all three of those Hyundai Group EVs in short succession, and each one does offer a different experience with throttle response and even power delivery, at least in normal driving. In full-acceleration driving, the line can be more blurred.
Sherrard said that an electric future could continue to provide exciting vehicles, making them even more exciting than current gas offerings. "We can stretch the wheelbase, shrink the wheelbase, have motors on the front of the vehicle, the rear of the vehicle, each wheel, all kinds of flexibility with what that powertrain can turn into."
BMW has shown powertrain to be a key part of its driving experience for decades. Offering high-revving inline-sixes, V10s, and even V12 engines. The company, though, is taking a very different approach for its electric vehicles.
"BMW BEV powertrains are not supposed to be an emulation of any [internal combustion] powertrains," the company replied via email. Instead, "the target approach is a balanced and precise feel aiming at perceptible potential even in the low-end-torque area."
The German automaker said that it is "high system efficiency" that is driving its EV powertrains. Instead of sonorous internal combustion, it will be precision, control, and integration that are its signature. "With the development experience and expertise gained from previous generations of EVs and the resulting deep mechatronic understanding of the interaction of every part of the powertrain, from the high voltage battery along with every piece of tech down to the wheel – the integration of the BMW powertrain package makes the difference."
"The BMW BEV powertrain is tuned to be precise and intuitive, fitting appropriately to the driver’s intention in a given moment (via throttle pedal and MyModes/recuperation settings."
The company pointed to the i4 M50, which I called "as much of a driver's car as anything to wear a 4 Series badge to date" during a First Drive last year. BMW added that it is the car's "precise distribution of the drive torque," all 586 lb-ft of it, that gives the car its driving dynamics.
A stability control system linked directly into the all-wheel drive actuators gives pinpoint precision control of exactly how much power the electric motors are delivering, and even integration of the charging unit with the drive electronics all contribute.
It's counterintuitive, but BMW makes a valid point. As drivers, it's easy to think of feel in terms of smooth sixes or V8 screams, but it has always been the exceptional control through the throttle and direct-acting responses from BMW that brings us back for more. Electronic powertrains can make the vehicle even more direct than gas ever could. They allow for what BMW called "maximum directness" if the driver wants, but also "effortless and intelligent driving" when it's not time for maximum fun.
Kia said that "we're confident that we've got the right lineup to make sure that EVs remain an exciting and compelling alternative." BMW added that "in BEVs there are actually fewer limitations to ensuring an individual and intuitive driving behaviour." Importantly, BMW continued that you can have "total smoothness" regardless of how much power or dynamic might you're summoning.
So, there is room for character in the world of the electric vehicle. We might just need to re-examine what that word means as we embrace the high-performance future.