Late adapters

Tesla's German competitors get serious

main 0204049804 Bloomberg – Audi e-tron electric car vehicle Tesla rival SUV Geneva car show March 2018
To Musk, with love. Source: Bloomberg

Mercedes-Benz will kick off a series of events on Tuesday to present the German alternative to Tesla’s electric cars. Mercedes will reveal its EQC, an electric SUV, in Sweden. BMW will follow on Sunday with its Inext sedan and Audi will unveil its electric e-tron SUV in Tesla’s backyard, San Francisco, on September 17.

Ever since the revelation of VW’s emissions fraud in 2015 and the rise of Tesla as an electric carmaker, Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler and its rivals BMW and Audi have all made e-cars a top priority. Jointly, German carmakers will spend around €40 billion ($46.5 billion) over the next three years to roll out new electric cars that can compete with Tesla’s Model S, the SUV Model X and the mass-market Model 3. Next year, the companies, including the VW Group, will launch new electric models almost every month.

The stakes are high. Elon Musk’s company last year sold more of his top-of-the-line Model S in Europe than either the Mercedes-Benz S Class or BMW 7 Series, after it had already outpaced the Germans in the US. None of the German producers want to become the Nokia or Kodak of the car industry and face extinction for having overlooked new technology. Moreover, if the German carmakers fail to make their electric cars successful, they could also miss EU targets to reduce their fleets’ CO2 emissions, which would trigger billion-euro fines.

G S14 Teslajaeger UM_HGE-01

Experts doubt whether the German models will really excite customers and match Tesla’s cars. The Silicon Valley-based company builds its cars with a production line specifically designed for electric vehicles. The Germans, on the other hand, will manufacture e-cars on platforms designed for gasoline and diesel-powered autos. “A new, uncompromising product will in all likelihood not be created in this manner,” said Arndt Ellinghorst, an analyst at Evercore ISI. “Germany’s first, real electric cars will be expensive compromises between the old and new world.”

Peter Fuss, automotive expert of consultancy EY was slightly more optimistic: “As opposed to some earlier models these offers are serious contenders. They can conquer a niche market, but they won’t be able to become a hit on the mass market.” Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management in Bergisch Gladbach, was “quite confident” that the Germans could launch their much-awaited attack on Tesla, but said Tesla had a headstart of several years.

The US car pioneer might stay ahead of the pack a while longer: Mercedes-Benz has chosen Stockholm to present its new EQC on Tuesday, but it will take until the summer next year before the EQC actually goes on sale. The car will have a reach of more than 400 kilometers, or 249 miles. Tesla’s smallest Model S can drive 259 miles on a full battery.

BMW will take even more time to bring its new Inext to market. The presentation Sunday in Munich will be a marketing event only. The sedan car will only go into production in 2021, when a new generation of batteries will be ready. The car should have a reach of 700 kilometers (435 miles). BMW will start selling an electric version of its Mini brand in 2019, followed by a fully electric X3 SUV in 2020, but these cars are not seen as the big leap forward.

Audi, the luxury brand of VW Group, will be the first real challenger to Tesla. After revealing its e-tron SUV in San Francisco in two weeks’ time, Audi will start selling the model by the end of the year. The first e-tron rolled off the production line on Monday. The car will still use a conventional SUV chassis and will have a reach of 400 kilometers. Its successor, expected in two years’ time, will be able to drive 500 kilometers. The e-tron will start selling at €80,000 ($92,880) in Germany, compared to $83,000 in the US for its Tesla equivalent, the Model X SUV.

The German electric cars will not cost as little as $35,000 for Tesla’s Model 3, but the Germans want to show they can actually make money by selling e-vehicles. That’s something Tesla hasn’t managed to achieve since its inception 15 years ago.

Franz Hubik is an automotive reporter for Handelsblatt. He previously covered energy. Markus Fasse specializes in aviation and automobile industry news and works from Handelsblatt’s Munich office. To contact the authors: hubik@handelsblatt.com and fasse@handelsblatt.com

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