McLaren pours cold water on idea of all-electric models
Sales chief says while half of the supercar maker’s fleet will be hybrid in four years’ time, the company will not produce an all-electric car in the foreseeable future
It’s not often that the head of a major car company will admit to not being up to speed on the latest, hot industry-wide trend.
Jolyon Nash has no such qualms.
Last week, in Geneva, McLaren Automotive’s director of global sales said he knew “very little” about the Formula E electric-car racing series that many other automotive brands (Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Porsche, Renault, to name a few) have resoundingly backed since it expanded last year.
Asked what he thought in general about electrified powertrains in global Formula racing. “To be quite frank, whatever thoughts I’ve got will be quite uneducated,” Mr Nash said. “I’m a traditionalist. I love to hear the sound of an engine going around a track. Formula E doesn’t provide that.”
What’s more, the taciturn South African said that while half of McLaren’s fleet will be hybrid in four years’ time, the company will not produce an all-electric car in the foreseeable future. Not even a halo car or a conceptual design exercise, according to Bloomberg.
“We wouldn’t want to produce a car just to demonstrate technology - that is just not us,” says Mr Nash. McLaren typically unveils limited and one-off versions of its cars, such as the Senna GTR, rather than extremely futuristic conceptual forms filled with foam.
It was a rare moment of candor from a sales boss apparently unaffected by the keep-up-with-the-Joneses attitude of car makers when it comes to showcasing electric and hybrid technology. Many hem and haw when asked if and when they’ll make something with an all-electric powertrain; concrete responses are usually affirmative.
In fact, from the most obscure brands - Nio and Remac - to mainstreamers such as Corvette, Mercedes-Maybach, Porsche, Rolls-Royce, and most recently, Ferrari, all have announced plans to make all-electric concepts or are already building them. Among mass producers, the scramble for alt power is even more pronounced.
Ford Motor plans to topple Toyota Motor to become the US hybrid king and will take a shot at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’s Jeep brand with a series of new 4x4 within the next few years.
The car maker will build gas-electric versions of all of its most popular vehicles by 2021, including the F-150 pick-up, Escape crossover and Mustang muscle car. Five new 4x4s will hit showrooms within the next two years, including a small, rugged off-roader aimed at the popular Jeep Wrangler.
“By 2021, we expect to surpass Toyota to be No 1” in hybrids, Jim Farley, Ford’s president of global markets and a former Toyota executive, says at the car maker’s cavernous design dome. “To do that, you have to offer it on every one of your mainstream products.”
Chief executive Jim Hackett, brought in last May to turn the company around, characterised the need to overhaul Ford’s line-up and prepare for the electrified and autonomous age as an existential issue.
In seemingly direct opposition to Mr Nah's position on all-electric, he says: “Being frozen in the past is really a death sentence.
“We’re looking at things we never would have imagined 10 years ago.”
Audi, meanwhile, plans to invest €40 billion (Dh180.63bn) over the next five years as the luxury car brand expands its line-up and accelerates a shift into electric vehicles in a bid to regain lost ground against BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Audi, the world’s third-largest maker of luxury vehicles, will introduce more than 20 models this year, including its first electric car, reviving an expansion that was undermined by its role in parent Volkswagen’s diesel scandal. Audi set aside €387 million last year to cover recall costs and legal risks stemming from rigged diesel engines it developed.
To push deeper into electric cars, Audi will flank the E-Tron battery-powered 4x4, which reaches dealers later this year priced starting at €80,000 in Germany, with an E-Tron Sportback coupe in 2019 and a four-door GT version as early as 2020. Overall, Audi plans to roll out more than 20 electrified models by 2025, including hybrid variants. More than 10 of these cars will be fully electric. The German manufacturer expects purely and partly battery-powered vehicles to eventually account for about one-third of sales.
“We want to play a leading role in the massive disruption in our industry,” says chief executive Rupert Stadler Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt. Bolstered by a new efficiency plan, “we’re making Audi fit for this mission.”
McLaren stands resolute on eschewing the purely green energy route, although it is likely to launch a new hybrid next year.
“In the immediate future, no,” Mr Nash says.
While everyone else is racing to show “me, too!” electrics, McLaren remains laser-focused on its relationship with its small, devoted, largely racing-obsessed customer base. These are boy racers and F1 enthusiasts who would baulk at any product that sacrifices speed and athleticism in the name of alternative power. (It should be noted that Formula E is growing in popularity, and many other companies besides McLaren have said that participating only strengthens their brands.)
“The [uniquely engaging] experience of driving the McLaren vehicle, which is the reason people buy McLarens, ultimately has to meet customer expectations - and McLaren is not ready to commit to that for electric,” says Ian Fletcher, the principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit. The current mode of thought, at least for car lovers over the age of 40, is that the quietness of electric cars and the smooth, gear-free acceleration - as opposed to the throaty roar and rumble of a combustion engine - makes for less of an emotional, thrilling driving experience.
Outside the world of racing, last year Rolls-Royce shopped around a working, driving all-electric car. Rolls-Royce chief Torsten Müller-Ötvös recently said the brand would continue to pursue “full-electric. We don’t do any interim steps.”
Arno Husselmann, general manager of Abu Dhabi Motors told The National this month that the dealership received the company's first electric Phantom prototype and it is set to start offering battery powered models in the near future. In the longer term, he says, the entire range will probably be electric and he points out that the vehicles are particularly well suited to battery power as their size means there is plentiful space for a large power pack without recourse to significant style changes.
And Bentley’s new chief executive, Adrian Hallmark, said this month in Geneva that Bentley will explore total electrification in the near future. Its consumers view eco-mindednesses as a status symbol in and of itself, according to Bloomberg.
McLaren buyers evidently have no such compunction. They are racetrack - not ecologically - minded.
“McLaren would need the ability to get the whole package working the way the customers want,” Mr Fletcher says, noting that one millimetre of slippage in driving performance on an all-electric McLaren car would be catastrophic for a brand established through F1 bloodlines. “For now, the technology has a lot of challenges.”
The hurdle is often weight, especially relevant for supercars such as those McLaren makes. Its 720S and 675LT, for instance, are celebrated for their near-perfect power-to-weight ratio.
Electric batteries weigh substantially more than a regular aluminium combustion engine, which changes the driving dynamics of the vehicle. It’s currently feasible to make an electric car with power-dense batteries, which allow for enormous horsepower, or to make an electric car with batteries that provide long driving range, but not to make a car that offers both. Tesla certainly has come the closest with its exceptional Model S saloon, but a company such as McLaren needs a superior level of supercar performance.
“Until the technology develops sufficiently for both power and range, I think it would be hard to have an exciting supercar that is pure electric,” says Mr Nash, who, incidentally, drives the tiny and electric BMW i3 as his daily commuter. “We haven’t quite got our heads around how that’s going to work.”
Until then, hybrid technology and its ability to pair sheer power (electric batteries) with range (petrol as back-up) will suffice.
McLaren started with the million-dollar, 903-horsepower hybrid P1 in 2013, which joined such contemporaries as Ferrari’s La Ferrari hybrid and Porsche’s 918 Spyder Hybrid. Next year, it will unveil the production version of the BP23, a three-seat, hybrid, super-fast prototype the company hinted at this month in Geneva.
The limited-edition hypercar will undoubtedly cause a splash. Even if it’s “only” a hybrid, it’ll foretell what’s yet to come.
“McLaren is a very nimble company. Even if they’re not planning on moving ahead with all-electric at the moment, they’re on the cutting edge of what’s happening in the electrification sector,” Mr Fletcher says. “And anyway, you can never say never in the auto space. Everyone is hedging their bets.”
Updated: March 18, 2018 03:26 PM