Can conspicuous luxury ever be a force for good, in a world dogged by economic austerity and worries over pollution and climate change?

That’s the question being vigorously tackled, head-on, by a pair of upstarts to the luxury automobile scene. The twin-stroke assault by Tesla and Fisker, on the primacy of high-octane gas-guzzling in the luxury automobile sector, aims to flip its accepted notions on their head. Whereas low mileage, fuel-hungry engines have been a badge of honor for top-of-the-range car owners, electric drive-trains hold out the prospect of a different aspirational grail – fusing the yin of exhilarating road performance to the yang of down-to-earth (and planet-saving) fuel economics.
The notion that the switch to electric vehicles (EV’s) can be driven from the top, down, may just be the saving grace for the sector. While solid mid-range EV models – such as Nissan’s Leaf, Ford’s Focus Electric and GM’s Volt – have been slowly and steadily (perhaps a little too steadily) chipping away at the mainstream market, top-shelf products from Tesla and Fisker have entered the public consciousness in an entirely different manner. To put it bluntly, the Tesla Model S and Fisker Karma are sex-on-wheels. And in the world of automobiles, luxury or otherwise, sex sells.
Luxury EV’s – the designer’s white board
The starting point of that visceral appeal is the raw power that electric motors can channel from battery to wheel. Tesla’s Model S hooks 416 of horsepower to the accelerator pedal, whereas the Karma puts twin 201-hp motors at its drivers disposal. Even fatter electric-hp numbers are on their way to the road, too, courtesy of established players like Porsche and Ferrari. But it’s not just those loud numbers that are doing the talking for luxury EV’s; it’s the suppleness of the power delivery that has had auto-journalists panting. And electric drive-trains are opening up the automobile chassis to a flexibility of form that combustion-engined designers envy.
So the potential for a re-shaping of the luxury car sector – maybe even the changing of its game – is there. And given the aspirational nature of the consumer market that car sales flourish in, the setting a new green standard for status-symbol cars could well light the touch-paper for EV’s – and perhaps see them exploding into the mainstream. In the meantime, if you happened to have the $60,000 to $100,000 entry fee needed to slip into one of these shiny new lux-EV’s, what kind of electric-driving experience can you expect?
Model S – electric from the ground up
Well, let’s start with the Tesla Model S. This all-electric affair has won awards and plaudits by the boot-full over the last year. And glance along its low liquid lines suggests part of the reason. Thanks to being engineered from the ground up as an electric car, the designers had total latitude with the form. They took that freedom to summon up the world’s lowest drag factor for any car on the market.
That efficiency, combined with the top model’s 85 kWh lithium-ion battery pack, give the Model S a mileage rating of 95 MPGe (gasoline-equivalent, though it doesn’t touch a drop of the stuff). That means it can do 100 miles on just $4 electric fuel. And it pushes its range to 265 miles, and dead-battery worries to the edge of the horizon.
The electric road-trip
But Tesla have a strategy to completely blow all-electric range anxiety out of the water –  and have paired the Model S to a custom network of fast chargers. The company has strung these proprietary 90 kW 440V Tesla Supercharger units along the major routes of both east and west coasts. They can ‘super-charge’ the Model S up to half-power (about 130 miles) in just 30 minutes, making the all-electric road trip a reality. Best of all, these chargers are being upgraded to source electricity from solar power.
Such luxury-levels of on-road performance are carried through to the interactive driving experience Tesla have furnished the Model S with. The hub of that is the 17” infotainment touch-pad reclining down the center of the dash. This pad integrates a host of driving functions, including charging and range information, navigational maps, status displays and media information. This can all be controlled through buttons on the driving wheel, and with a recent upgrade, voice activated controls.
Karma Fisker – the James Bond hybrid
The Fisker Karma takes a very different stance to Tesla on how electric-drives will play out on the roads, in the near-term at least. In essence the Karma is a plug-in hybrid – just an exceptionally powerful one, that looks like it’s driven off the 007 movie set, and which can hit 60mph in 6.3 seconds. The drive is, however, 100% electric, with it being entirely battery-driven for the first 50 miles; after that a gasoline-generator kicks in, to produce the electrical power to zip this sporty-looking car along.
No range anxiety here, then. But that does mean that the Karma is less impressive on the mileage side of the equation, being rated only 52MPGe by the EPA (for combined city/highway driving). That is still a league away from the sub-15 MPG experienced by gas cars in its class, like the Maserati Quattroportes, however. While its gas-powered switch over offers total reassurance when traveling at distances, drivers are likely to rely on the 20 kWh lithium-ion battery most of the time for more typical short spurts. That battery, however, charges up at a somewhat turgid 6 hours, even through a Level 2 240V connector.
The ultimate sun-roof
An interesting twist on battery charging is provided by the Karma’s integrated solar PV roof. While this only supplies a tiny fraction of the energy consumed by nipping around town, it keeps the 12 V battery, which drives the air-conditioning and interior devices, nicely topped up, putting less strain on the main battery. And it does add a cool blue sheen to the car’s immense and powerful good looks. Another notch upon the cool-o-meter comes courtesy of the buzzing spaceship noises the car makes when moving at less than 30mph – possibly a request from Fisker’s marketing department, as it apparently is a real head-turner.
So will there be a place in the hearts of the capaciously wallet-ed classes for electric cars like the Model S or Karma? Conventional marketing analysts seem doubtful that there’s room for two more entrants, into an already crowded luxury car market. But possibly they’re missing out on couple of factors that may help break the mold – and earn success – for these top-end EV’s.
The China Factor
First, the buyers of cars in this class are seduced not just by racy-stylings, but by the potential for racy rides. Electric-motors are already proving themselves capable of outperforming gasoline engines – and they are only at the start of their technical learning curve. Add that to the superior handling of better-balanced EV frames, and the possibility for EV’s to blow their gas-powered brethren off the road looks likely to ramp up. That will matter to a significant part of the luxury market.
The other factor is China. China is an increasingly important market for all classes of automobiles, but especially for those at the luxury-end of the scale. So far China’s better off citizens have shown little inclination for going electric. But China’s dirty coal and gasoline-fueled cities are not going to stay smog-clogged for much longer. After the terrible fug of pollution that has choked Beijing this winter, the political pressure for action to clean the air is rising.
It seems entirely plausible, in this new climate, that zero-emission lux-EV’s, such as the Tesla Model S and the Fisker Karma, will do very well riding the coat-tails of China’s elite –  newly keen to be seen to be clean and green.
Martin is a freelance writer from the UK, who specializes in writing on the strategic impact of environmental issues. After a 10-year sojourn as an analyst at Brady plc –  a Cambridge-based provider of services to commodity investment banking professionals – Martin set himself up as self-employed writer at the beginning of 2010. Since then he has written for a number of environmental websites and companies, and has been one of the principle journalists for green news website, The Earth Times.