Electric saloons and crossovers were big – seriously big – news at the Geneva Motor Show.
Jaguar had the big production car story with the I-Pace. Which is perhaps why Audi felt the need to send a couple of prototypes of its rival e-tron shuttling around the showground, wrapped in disguise graphics.
Porsche showed a reasonably realistic vision of its second Mission E model, and told Top Gear a lot more detail about the first Mission E, which launches next year.
VW showed a big saloon concept, the ID Vizzion, which will go into production in 2021. By which time VW will have have tacked on a steering wheel.
BMW, meanwhile, had nothing to show but announced it will put into production the i4. That’s the real-world version of last autumn’s Vision i Dynamics concept car, itself a realistic derivation of the fantastical BMW 100th anniversary concept. (OK, time to ‘fess up, we called it the i5 when we first wrote about it.)
Aston Martin unveiled the Lagonda too. While we know they’re serious about Lagonda and about EVs, this particular concept is pretty far-fetched. It’s designed around solid-state batteries, a technology that’s not even in the prototype stage yet. At least not in vehicles, only in the lab.
Hyundai had a production electric Kona, available with two battery sizes, the biggest able to store 64kWh for 300-odd miles of real-world range. There was even a SsangYong EV, a crossover due in 2019. As with the Kona, there’s a similar version with an engine, the new Korando due later this year.
Among carmakers building both electric and combustion cars, there is one striking difference. Do they scratch-design the EVs, or do they share platforms with their conventional petrol, diesel and hybrid cars?
BMW has a platform-sharing approach. The i4 uses an adapted version of the architecture that serves everything from the next-gen 3 Series to the upcoming X7, including the current 5 and 7 Series. I asked BMW boss Harald Krüger why they don’t have a dedicated electric platform, which is what Jaguar, Audi, Mercedes, Porsche – and of course Tesla – have settled on.
The reason, he said, is flexibility. “Who can predict future electric market share?” So if EVs stiff out, BMW won’t be over-committed. Not only that, but also the opposite, says Krüger. “Even if EV grows fast we can react fast and build them on the existing combustion-car production lines. If you have dedicated EVs, what do you do with the old combustion-car plants?”
OK, but what if building a dedicated EV platform results in a better EV? Krüger simply tells me to look at the i4 concept, and asks if I see any problem with the looks, performance or range.
Porsche says electric cars would be additional sales, not substitutes, like when people buy a Cayenne as well as, not instead of, a 911
But Audi’s R&D chief, Peter Mertens disagrees. “The e-tron has an architecture called PPE, or Premium Platform Electric. It’s dedicated to electric and won’t be used for combustion cars or even plug-in hybrids. We have a Chinese wall between the two. They are so different as to proportions, packaging, weight distribution.”
Which is all very well, but until 2016 Mertens had the same R&D role at Volvo. And there he was responsible for the CMA platform, which sits under the new XC40. That one was designed to accommodate a full-EV version.
Jaguar has seized the advantages of a bespoke EV platform. The I-Pace’s proportions are radically different from the other Jag SUVs. Jaguar design chief Ian Callum likens it to the shift in sports cars from front to mid engines.
Absent a bulky engine at the front, its design pushes the driver forward, allowing more cabin space, and the long wheelbase leaves room for a bigger battery. Compare that with the long-bonnet BMW Vision i Dynamics.
What about the lack of flexibility and extra risk BMW’s Krüger talks of? The Jaguar is built under contract by Magna in Austria, so to an extent Jaguar has off-loaded the risk to Magna. It’s Magna who makes the E-Pace, too, as well as two BMWs and the Mercedes G-Class, so it manages to be a pretty flexible shop.
But Audi’s Mertens acknowledges the risk that BMW’s Krüger is talking about. “Yes, it does give us less flexibility in production. We have made a bold commitment.” The e-tron is to be made in a re-fitted Audi factory in Brussels. Mertens says Audi expects 15 per cent of its cars will be full-electric by 2025.
Porsche is pretty solidly committed too. That’s an understatement. It is investing €6 billion (£5.5bn) on electric R&D and production and the world’s highest-power charger network. Those things will zap up a Mission E from zero to 80 per cent charge in an astonishing 15 minutes.
Porsche has found space in its historic Zuffenhausen plant to install a dedicated new production line for the Mission E. I asked Porsche’s Sales and Marketing chief Detlev von Platen about his sales expectation. “There have been thousands of studies into the takeup of EVs and they have got thousands of answers. But €6 billion says we will be bold.”
That Mission E production line is geared for 20,000 cars a year, including other versions like the Cross Turismo, shown as a concept in Geneva. For reference, Porsche sold 250,000 cars and crossovers last year. Von Platen says the electric cars would be additional not substitutes, like when people buy a Cayenne as well as, not instead of, a 911.
Porsche is also developing leasing schemes where an owner pays a monthly fee and can swap between several Porsche models. That means if an EV wouldn’t work for, say, a holiday to a remote place, they would swap into a Cayenne or Panamera for the occasion.
Porsche’s R&D chief Michael Steiner says the Mission E uses a dedicated Porsche platform. The battery has cut-outs in the footwells so the passengers sit lower than other electric cars, to get a low roof line and the centre of gravity right down. Odd then that they jacked it up for the Mission E Cross Turismo concept, but the first production Mission E will be low as a snake’s belly.
Steiner confirms that Porsche is additionally working on the PPE platform with Audi. That’s the one used by the Audi e-tron, and its battery is a simple sandwich shape.
So Porsche will launch a second full-electric line. There will be the Mission E family, and, later a whole other electric crossover lineup on the PPE platform. That’s another part of the €6bn then. Will it be too similar to the Audi? “No-one questions that the Macan is a Porsche, even though it is related to an Audi.”
What does Steiner think of the possibility of a flexible platform that would also allow petrol versions? “You would have to compromise. You would have to make room for the engine, and for batteries.”
Those things are very different shapes. He says with solid-state batteries it would be easier, because those batteries might be half the size and weight of lithium ion. But even so, “Porsche does not like compromise.” Tell that to BMW then…