2018-03-09 11:59:03
Wheels: Porsche Positions Itself Against Tesla, on the Road and Beside It

Tesla has practically had the market for pavement-scorching long-range electric vehicles all to itself. But consumers will soon have a lot more choices to compare with the Model S sedan and its sport-utility sibling, the Model X. And those offerings will be coming from established luxury brands that will be able to take advantage of tax breaks, just as they start to run out for the segment’s dominant brand.

And if there’s a target on Tesla’s back, it might be Porsche that has Elon Musk’s company most firmly in its sights.

Porsche has already shown off an all-electric sedan, the Mission E, which is expected to compete with Tesla’s Model S. And at the Geneva International Motor Show on Tuesday, Porsche made a surprise reveal of a crossover concept variant, the Mission E Cross Turismo, which looks very much like a rival to the Model X.

But the German automaker isn’t going to compete with Tesla just on the street by turning out a line of electric cars that it insists will be unmistakably Porsche. It’s also ramping up its answer to Tesla’s Supercharger stations.

Mission E vehicles will be capable of 800-volt charging that offers 248 miles in 15 minutes, a step above the 480-volt Supercharger systems, which supply up to 150 miles of travel in a half-hour. And Porsche wants to provide the technology to top off its Mission E cars, too.

“One of our priorities will be to equip our 189 dealerships with 800-volt DC fast chargers,” said Klaus Zellmer, president and chief executive of Porsche Cars North America. “We have just installed six at our Porsche Experience centers in Atlanta and will roll them out at our experience center in Los Angeles, too.”

As part of its settlement with the California Air Resources Board and the United States Environmental Protection Agency over its diesel emission test cheating, Volkswagen, Porsche’s parent company, is also building a network of 2,800 DC fast chargers by June 2019.

The Cross Turismo introduced on Tuesday is part of the other half of this two-pronged approach. Although it is officially a concept vehicle, it is expected to be an accurate preview of what buyers will see from Porsche after the Mission E vehicles go into production next year. While no pricing has been announced, the sedan version could run close to the existing Panamera, which begins at $85,000, compared with the $74,500 base price of a Tesla Model S 75D.

The Mission E vehicles are hardly alone in jockeying for position in the premium electric market. Last week, Jaguar unveiled the production version of its fully electric I-Pace crossover, which is scheduled to glide into showrooms in the second half of 2018. The Jaguar I-Pace, the carmaker’s first electric vehicle, will start at $69,500 in the United States; a Tesla Model X starts at $79,500.

Audi has announced it will ship its e-tron quattro to European showrooms this fall and to the United States in early 2019. And Volvo plans an all-electric version of its XC40 crossover in 2019.

Porsche, Jaguar, Audi and other long-established carmakers have watched as Tesla has sprinted ahead, but Tesla will soon lose one crucial benefit that the later arrivals may be able to use to close the gap: tax benefits. At some point this year, Tesla will produce its 200,000th car. (General Motors, which makes the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Volt electric vehicles, will most likely reach that mark in 2018, too.) At that milestone, federal tax credits will begin to phase out.

It’s not clear whether the new upscale choices will hurt Tesla or simply expand the segment. Dave Guilford, a managing editor for Crain’s Automotive News, suggested that “it’s probably a little bit of both.”

“You could see when Porsche unveiled the Mission E it was aiming right at Tesla,” he said. “It’s a beautiful car. New entries in the premium segment give it credibility.”

The wagonlike all-wheel-drive Cross Turismo could be a compelling alternative to the Model X. Its 440-kilowatt system uses two permanent synchronous electric motors and a floor-mounted lithium-ion battery pack that Porsche claims will propel the Cross Turismo to 60 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds. It will also employ an air suspension that can add nearly two inches of ground clearance and rear-wheel steering that will help it in the corners. At 15 feet long, the Cross Turismo concept is about four inches shorter than the company’s Macan crossover and 18 inches shorter than a Tesla Model X.

The concept’s interior features a free-standing instrument cluster screen with three circular display graphics. A camera with eye-tracking ability recognizes which graphic the driver is looking at and moves it forward while reducing the size of the others. Porsche executives suggested that the technology was being considered for the production car.

While the Mission E vehicles won’t necessarily boast the same off-the-line performance of the Teslas — a Model S in “Ludicrous Mode” catapults to 60 m.p.h. in about 2.3 seconds — Porsche believes that its decades of racing experience will ensure a better high-performance experience.

For example, when a Tesla is put into Ludicrous Mode, drivers are warned of the possibility of “accelerated wear of the motor, gearbox and battery.” And Teslas will sometimes enter a reduced-power mode under track conditions in order to protect the battery from overheating.

Porsche intends to avoid such limitations, said Albrecht Reimold, a member of the Porsche executive board for production.

“Even when it is electrified, the powertrain remains a distinguishing feature for Porsche,” he said.

The carmaker had plenty of ideas for offering “the typical Porsche DNA” to its electric customers, Mr. Reimold said.

“High continuous output, acceleration reserves and reproducibility with power takeoff are essential features of Porsche electric motors,” he said.

Tesla still boasts many advantages — the free charging for many of its customers through its 440-station charging network is a security blanket for long-distance travelers, and its customers continue to be enthusiastic brand ambassadors — but it has shown some vulnerabilities. Tesla has had trouble meeting its production goals for the Model 3, the most affordable entry in its lineup. There have also been quality issues; Consumer Reports ranked the Model X among the 10 least-reliable vehicles in its survey, and there have been well-documented fit and finish problems.

That has provided an opening not just for the luxury carmakers, but for the rest of the industry to join General Motors and Nissan, which makes the Leaf electric vehicle, in challenging Tesla’s Model 3. Hyundai, for example, has confirmed plans for a fully electric Kona crossover, and Buick is rumored to be gaining a small crossover based on the Chevy Bolt platform.

Tesla may have created a new automotive segment and single-handedly made the electric car cool with blistering performance, high technology and svelte design, but the next few years will bring new competition from the old guard.