As Tesla outsells its German flagship market rivals on home turf, have we reached that much anticipated watershed or are the majors about to nick Elon’s lunch money as he’s about to cash in?
Last week it was reported that European sales of the Tesla Model S outstripped those of the German luxury flagship saloons for the first time, marking an alleged pivot point for the adoption and acceptance of electric vehicles across the region. A watershed moment perhaps or simply sensationalist reporting?
Fair question, because firstly there is some conjecture as to whether the Model S is a direct rival to the S-Class Mercedes and its ilk, especially when Elon Musk himself describes it more as an E-Class and Five Series competitor. Sizewise, Musk is broadly correct, but in terms of price, he most certainly isn’t. But regardless of which segment of the market it’s aimed, for a section of society who have the financial wherewithal to develop what can only be loosely construed as a social conscience, the Model S is for the time being, the only show in town.
It can hardly be lost on anyone that not every affluent Tesla owner is concerned about exhaust emissions, to say nothing of the future of the planet. EV drivers of every stripe also benefit from generous subsidies either at the design phase, the point of manufacture, or in terms of tax breaks at the point of purchase and the waiving of access restrictions to city centres. Tesla, it could be argued, has benefited from all of the above.
Furthermore, sales figures for the limousine sector in Europe are not as dire as recent reports suggest, with an overall rise in 2017 of 13% according to the number-crunchers at Carsalesbase. And while, apart from Audi and Porsche, all the major players saw falls last year, it was the latter’s performance, on the back of the latest Panamera model that has seen the sector outperform 2016’s figures. Intriguingly however, Autocar last week reported that of the Panamera’s 11,000 global sales last year, 50% were for the E-Hybrid version. Make of that what you will.
In the US market, Tesla has also gained sales both on domestic rivals such as Cadillac and on German imports, but the reported 9% uplift for the Model S should be viewed within the wider trend downwards for the limousine sector. As with Europe, all the major players with the exception of Porsche, Genesis and Cadillac posted falls, as large saloon sales come under increasing strain from luxury SUVs and crossovers.
Meanwhile, Tesla’s position as the only pure electric upmarket player looks set to come under unprecedented attack with European carmakers preparing a slew of luxury EVs, the first of which to be revealed this week. Having banked on the shift towards electric drive being both gradual and measured, the widespread and growing backlash against diesel has seen the majors in frantic rearguard action to respond to Elon Musk’s well-timed shot across their respective bows.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this paradigm-shift is the identity of the first of the big-name upmarket brands to show its hand: Jaguar. Not only is this in itself surprising but also as Automotive News reported last week, the car itself is increasingly being viewed across the wider industry as something of a touchstone, not just for Jaguar and JLR but for the way in which electric cars will increasingly be shaped.
Widely lauded for being the first production EV to overtly employ its architecture to inform the car’s visual language, both i-Pace’s proportions, with its minimal overhangs and emphasis on the passenger compartment and its surfacing, which some design commentators have suggested is Jaguar’s finest since the ‘Billy Lyons era mean that JLR are not only about to announce their most important new model ever, but perhaps the first Jaguar-branded car that can be classed as a game changer since the debut of the XJ-series a half-century ago.
What is evident here is that this is a hugely important model for JLR as a whole and for Jaguar as a subsidiary business. For JLR, it represents a huge investment in the future viability of the British-based carmaker and for Jaguar themselves, it’s nothing short of a matter of survival.
Also clear is that despite the errors that have seen Jaguar’s expensively developed XE and XF saloon models both lose over 30% of sales volume in 2017, with commensurate impacts on break-even points and viability, JLR chief, Dr. Ralph Speth has made a clear-sighted and frankly, brave decision to press ahead with electrifying the leaping cat.
Because if electric-drive should (at least theoretically) fit any marque, it’s Jaguar, with its former commitment to quiet running, which saw ultimate expression in the peerless mechanical refinement of the Hassan / Mundy V12 power unit. Coupled to this is the recent news that Jaguar will launch a pure-electric XJ replacement in about a year’s time. Because if indeed the wind direction is shifting irrefutably towards EVs, this once again gives JLR a march on their German rivals.
But unlike Tesla, which has so far at least been able to rely upon the seemingly bottomless pockets of their investors and some generous US government subsidies, JLR appear to be going all-in. With Jaguar, and later this year, Audi entering the fray, life could start getting even more complicated at Palo Alto.
Later this week we will see for ourselves how many brave pills Dr Speth has ingested when the production i-Pace is revealed. But regardless of how closely it resembles its conceptual forebear, it’s clear that as the polarity shifts away from the familiar and safe, everybody – Tesla included, will be entering uncharted waters.