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While Detroit hits the gas pedal, Europeans embrace electrification

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Automotive News

While it's unclear how quickly and in what numbers customers will embrace electric cars, BMW board member Klaus Frolich said: "For us, electric mobility is the new normal. ... We will deliver whatever powertrain our customers desire."

The automakers may have to manufacture desire for electrics until car buyers get comfortable with the new offerings.

Absent strong demand, two things are pushing the industry toward electrics. The big one is government policy. All the major markets -- Western Europe, China, the United States -- have combined mandates with subsidies and other incentives that favor electric cars to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Europe and China, both essential markets for the Germans and for Jaguar, seem committed to carry through with policies that tighten the pressure on gas- and diesel-powered vehicles year by year. The Trump administration, however, is reviewing clean-air policies for possible reduction, and the Republican tax cuts, if passed, would remove the $7,500 federal incentive for the purchase of an electric car.

The other push is the emergence of Tesla, which now sells about 100,000 high-end electric cars a year. Tesla's success is used by policymakers to counter arguments that people aren't interested in buying electric cars.

Electric cars may continue to make more inroads among high-end customers. Carmakers like Germany's Audi are banking on it. The luxury car market has softened in recent years, and Scott Keogh, Audi of America's president, said he's convinced that electrified cars will perk up growth for Audi and the luxury segment in general. The brand plans to introduce three all-electric vehicles in 2020.

It's been years since electric cars lagged on the performance front. High-end electric cars sport zero-to-60 times equal to or better than gasoline engines. Tesla says its recently introduced $200,000 Roadster will run that course in 1.9 seconds.

"It's easier to sell in the premium segment," said Matthias Erb, head of engineering and product strategy for Volkswagen, which owns Audi.


But he predicts that as prices come down over the years, VW's upper-middle customers will begin gravitating to e-vehicles in large numbers.

Maybe that's why the Japanese car companies, more tailored to the mass market, won't be offering all-electrics in bulk until 2030. Nissan is showing off its newly designed Leaf at the auto show. Its back end no longer looks like a Leaf, a change that has been met with widespread approval. Honda, Hyundai and Toyota each offer an all-electric version of their compact Clarity, Ioniq and Prius, respectively.

American carmakers are more reserved with their electric offerings. You have to search through the Ford display to find the few electrified models, and the company has no electric concept cars at the show. Ford recently announced it no longer will sell the C-Max plug-in hybrid compact because of a lack of demand.

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