As high-end automakers adapt to a new world order, the rules of luxury are being redefined.
Luxury is rarely logical. Across the first century of automotive history, car connoisseurs revered the finery of leather, wood, and intricate 12-cylinder engines in the same way they regarded mechanical watches: with a healthy respect for handmade complication. Traditional car building followed the same principles as the horological world, placing a premium on painstaking craftsmanship. But when a changing world forced new demands on vehicle emissions, the next revolution trickled down from the top. Formula 1 racing introduced gas/electric hybrid powertrains, and the so-called “holy trinity of hypercars” — the Ferrari LaFerrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918 Spyder — followed. If million-dollar ultra-exotics can gain an edge through electrification, surely change isn’t all bad.
We’re now five years into that paradigm shift, and top carmakers are at fever pitch, ready to write the second act of the luxury automobile. Trailblazing EVs helped make a certain South African the richest man in the world, and hot on the heels of that first wave came electrified efforts from a passel of forward-thinking upstarts taken a strong swing at the genre, grabbing headlines with all-electric models boasting boggling stats. Think: 1,900 horsepower (Pininfarina Battista), 520 miles of range (Lucid Air), and 0 to 60 mph in 1.85 seconds (Rimac Nevera). But luxury was never about numbers alone, especially in a space where enthusiasm is defined not only by hardware, but through intangibles. Those who were imprinted at an early age by a certain leather smell or a carmaker’s peculiar identities can relate; fans are quick to point out a brand’s lovable quirks, which make each model as distinct as fingerprints, despite a common goal of getting from A to B.
As high-end marques delve deeper into electrification, they are forced to focus on every touchpoint along the way. Bentley sales and marketing board member Alain Favey cites the charging experience as one of many elements that must be on-brand in order for its hybrids and EVs to succeed. “Our customer expects a luxury charging experience,” he explains, “and it needs to be different from what you get when you drive a premium brand like Mercedes or a volume brand; it cannot be the same as a [Volkswagen] ID-4.”
Bentley PR head Wayne Bruce points out that the brand leverages its owner-only app to gauge customer preferences. One survey revealed that when Bentley’s first hybrid was released (in 2019), only 30 percent of respondents indicated they wanted an electric model. As of five months ago, that number has doubled.
Addressing an electrified future means branding efforts must extend beyond conventional styling and performance and go deep into the realms of software and user interface design: everything from charging portals to onboard route planners and multimedia systems must live up to the expectations of the car’s respective nameplate. With the dream of self-driving cars deferred, manufacturers are also channeling more effort into making their EVs drive the way consumers expect them to, even if propulsion is coming from electrons, not internal combustion. Aggressively leading the electrification charge are performance-oriented and legacy brands alike. The newbies have brands. Ferrari’s first serially produced plug-in hybrid was the nearly 1,000-horsepower SF90 Stradale, marking the first time the prancing horse flagship has swapped fewer cylinders (12 for 8) for a three-motor, battery-assisted drivetrain. The brand doubled down on the upmarket/downsizing theme with the 296 GTB, an 818-horsepower plug-in hybrid that marks the first time a V6 has been packed into a road-going Ferrari-branded model. Maranello’s toe-dip into hybrids prefigures the debut of their first full EV in 2025, which should present their greatest challenge yet in delivering that inimitable Ferrari feeling without the benefit of a screaming internal combustion engine.
Given the criticality of satisfying a core audience whose preferences are quite particular, to say the least, performance-focused carmakers are relying on key brand pillars to ensure the models are as engaging to drive as they ought to be. While Ferrari’s hybrids are already gaining critical acclaim, several other manufacturers are still in the process of R&D’ing their electrified sports cars. Frank van Meel, CEO of BMW’s performance-focused M brand, views the future through the prism of the past. He says the shift from 4- to 6- to 8-cylinder M car engines caused a stir among enthusiasts because the bigger engines were heavier; the advent of turbocharging introduced similar concerns about sound quality and throttle response. As for the first electrified M car, van Meel notes, power and acceleration are less of an issue than the intangibles that make a driver feel at one with the machine.
“The real task is to have that M smile, that M emotion,” he says, describing a certain something that each brand can lean on as a unique feeling associated with the drive. Mercedes-AMG boss Philipp Schiemer recently launched the brand’s first fully electric car, the 751-horsepower AMG EQS, which was based on the tamer, S Class-like EQS sedan. Schiemer reveals that not only will other segments receive the AMG treatment (to be expected), but that their efforts will extend to a standalone AMG electric vehicle in the “not too distant future.
Using hybrid powertrains as a bridge to full electrification is a common tactic, especially among carmakers whose foundations were built on signature powerplants. Lamborghini’s snarling V10 and V12 engines have been the protagonist in their raging bull persona since the brand’s inception. The Sant’Agata carmaker is anticipating a full transition to hybrids by 2024 — a move that should enable them to retain their massive gas engines. Bentley’s Beyond 100 business strategy promises plug-in hybrid versions of all models by 2024, their first full EV in 2025, and an entirely EV-only lineup by 2030. Over a period of 7 years, the tactic will take them from being the world’s top producer of 12-cylinder engines to offering none. Aston Martin is also on board with the hybrid-first approach, having started delivery of their $3 million, 1,160-horsepower Valkyrie last year. While Aston intends to deliver its first battery-electric vehicle in 2025 and electrified options across the lineup by 2026, it is also building a China-only variant of the DBX utilizing a mild-hybrid 6-cylinder. The brand expects 90 percent of the cars sold by 2030 to be plug-in hybrids or pure electrics, and their recent partnership with battery tech firm Britishvolt should complement their technological link to Mercedes-Benz and enable them to move forward in this burgeoning arena.
If the road to electrified luxury can be summed up in one idea, it might be that carmakers are challenged with myriad obstacles as they intend to move toward a common goal, the least of which is preserving and maintaining their core characteristics while they proceed to change nearly everything about their cars.
Each road is individual, and Rolls-Royce’s is no different. Rather than using plug-in hybrids to ease their customers into electrification, the Goodwood brand is leveraging its past to take a quantum leap into the future. In 1900, company co-founder Charles Rolls experienced an early EV and raved about the experience with a qualification, saying, “The electric car is perfectly noiseless and clean, there is no smell or vibration … But for now, I do not anticipate that they will be very serviceable — at least for many years to come.” That time is now, with the Sceptre, Rolls-Royce’s first electric vehicle, expected to start delivery in the fourth quarter of 2023. “The brand will become fully electric step by step, but only if it is uncompromised,” CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös says in a full-circle statement that could only come by sticking to the carmaker’s original ethos. “Now is the time to change the course of the future of luxury.”
This article appeared in our May 2022 issue.