Geneva electrifies: From econoboxes to Aston Martin hypercar, EVs dominate Europe's biggest auto show

Key Points
  • Automakers debuted dozens of electric cars at the Geneva Motor Show, which ends Sunday.
  • Ferrari launched its F8 Tributo model with a conventional twin-turbo V-8 engine, but has plans to develop hybrid models.
  • Aston Martin also rolled out an  all-electric concept car in Geneva that teases its crossover that will be offered next year through its alternative Lagonda brand.
Ferrari's Pininfarina Battista
Company handout

Churning out an astounding 1,900 horsepower, Ferrari's Pininfarina Battista is one of the most powerful automobiles ever produced. It also happens to be all electric, one of a score of battery-based vehicles debuting at this week's Geneva Motor Show, which runs through Sunday.

While "electrification," whether hybrid, plug-in or all-electric, has yet to make a serious dent in the global automotive market from a sales standpoint, carmakers are moving to adopt the technology at a rapid rate. Nowhere has that been more apparent than at this year's Swiss car show, the biggest of the season for Europe and a harbinger of products that will be rolling out globally in the coming year.

Audi's plug-in hybrid electric vehicles lineup
Company handout

"It seems like Geneva is bringing out a lot of new electrified vehicles," said Stephanie Brinley, principle auto analyst with IHS Markit. "If you look at the plans various automakers have outlined for the next couple years, that's no surprise."

Almost every brand, large or small, is getting into the battery game, and a number of them have made plans to go 100 percent electric. For some, like BMW and Volvo, that means they will offer battery-based powertrain options for all their vehicles by early in the coming decade. Others, like General Motors, contend they are on a path that will lead them to eventually offer only fully electric products, eliminating internal combustion engines entirely.

Volkswagen Streetmate
Company handout

This year's Geneva Motor Show illustrates the breadth at which electrification is taking hold. A tour of the Palexpo convention center finds battery-based products of every form, down to the two e- scooters, the Streetmate and Cityskater rolled out by Volkswagen.

Mercedes Concept EQV
Company handout

Mazda weighed in during the show's Tuesday media preview with the new CX30 crossover. Facing ever more stringent mileage and emissions standards, automakers are exploring their options. The little Japanese maker is the first to commercialize a breakthrough powertrain technology known as homogeneous charge compression ignition, or HCCI. Think of it as a diesel running on gasoline. But to make the new Skyactiv-X engine in the CX30 even more efficient, the crossover has also adopted "mild hybrid" technology, with a small electric motor paired to a 24-volt lithium-ion battery.

Honda, meanwhile, is taking aim at the European market with the Honda e, a prototype version of the pint-sized city car. The three-door hatchback, with an all-electric range of 125 miles, is expected to go on sale on the continent later this year.

Imagine by Kia
Company handout

Kia also rolled out a concept vehicle, the Imagine. While there are no production plans, the sleek, five-door CUV is expected to influence the design of the next generation of pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, the Korean carmaker is developing, with its underlying platform to be shared with sibling brand Hyundai.

"Today's drivers understandably have many questions about electric cars," said Gregory Guillaume, Kia's vice president of design. Car buyers are worried about how far electric cars can drive on a single charge, the availability of recharging stations and whether they are just as fun to drive as gas-powered engines. "We knew that the best way to answer those questions and address those concerns was by approaching electrification purely from an emotional point of view."

Nissan's new IMQ concept is serving much the same purpose at the Geneva Motor Show, and picking up on the design and technology cues of the IMs prototype the automaker revealed two months ago at the North American International Auto Show.

The Nissan IMs electric sports sedan at the 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
Paul Eisenstein/CNBC

Nissan was the first automaker to launch production of a mainstream battery electric vehicle, or BEV. The Leaf debuted in 2011 and this month became the first all-electric model to generate global sales of more than 400,000. A new version, the Leaf Plus, is just going into production and offers an extended range update that will allow motorists to travel up to 226 miles per charge. The automaker plans to have "eight models electrified or fully electric" available by 2020, North American CEO Denis LeVot told CNBC in January.

Hispano Suiza Carmen
Company handout

The Geneva show highlights the varying forms of battery propulsion that manufacturers are turning to:

  • Mild hybrids, like the new Mazda CX30 use extremely small and low-voltage battery packs that do things like letting the vehicle shut off its gas engine, rather than idling, and giving a quick boost when it starts to accelerate.
  • Conventional hybrids, like the Toyota Prius and the new Aston Martin AM-RB 003, use slightly larger, higher-voltage batteries that can start the car rolling without the help of the gas engine, while also boosting performance at higher speeds. Some allow all-electric driving for up to a mile or two. They recharge by recapturing energy normally lost during braking or coasting.
  • Plug-in hybrids, such as the Alfa Romeo Tonale debuting in Geneva, can operate in all-electric mode at highway speeds and for distances that may range up to 50 miles. Then, their gasoline engines kick in, allowing the vehicles to keep going. Like conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrid EVs have regenerative brakes to boost range, but they normally plug in to recharge their batteries;
  • Battery electric vehicles, or BEVs, rely solely on their onboard batteries. The first wave offered marginal range of around 100 miles, but 200 miles is the new norm and some, like the Audi e-tron Q4 debuting in Geneva, are pushing to 300 miles or more. Even as range is growing, pricing has begun coming down on mainstream models.
The new Audi E-Tron unveiled. 
Meghan Reeder | CNBC

While there are more and more "affordable" long-range BEVs pushing down towards $30,000, most of these all-electric products are still outside of mainstream territory. Many automakers are focusing on luxury segments where price is less of a factor for potential buyers, according to Scott Keogh, the CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America.

VW plans to have at least 50 BEVs in its line-up by 2025, including mainstream models like the Seat el-Born, a concept version shown in Geneva by its Spanish-based economy brand. But the automaker will put a premium on high-line offerings. Its Audi brand has already launched its first all-electric model, the e-tron crossover, and it revealed a sports car version, the e-tron GT at the Los Angeles Auto Show last November.

Alfa Romeo Tonale PHEV Concept car
Company handout

Audi's third BEV, the Q4 crossover, will hit the road in 2021 and will share an all-new, underlying platform with VW's Porsche brand — which is bringing its own battery-electric sports car, the Taycan, to market this year. Porsche plans to have three BEVs by 2021 and already offers several hybrids and PHEVs.

Dubbed the premium platform electric, or PPE, the all-new platform Audi and Porsche are developing follows a formula first brought to market by Tesla. Looking a bit like a skateboard, it mounts the battery pack and motors under the load floor. That approach frees up space normally devoted to an internal combustion engine to passengers and cargo. It also lowers the center of gravity, improving handling.

Hispano Suiza Carmen
Company handout

Now, add the fact that electric motors develop maximum torque the moment they start spinning – rather than having to rev up like a gas or diesel engine – and you have a performance formula that many high-line buyers are finding irresistible.

"You can give Tesla a lot of credibility for changing the mindset when they introduced their 'ludicrous mode,'" said analyst Brinley. The Tesla Model S with ludicrous mode can hit 60 in just 2.3 seconds, or faster than a Porsche 911.

On your walk around the Geneva Motor Show you'd be hard-pressed to avoid all the luxury and high-performance models using some form of electrification. The list includes several topping 1,000 horsepower, such as the gas-electric McLaren Speedtail and Aston Martin AM-RB 003. The latter "hypercar" borrows its hybrid system from the technology developed for its Formula One race car.

Imagine by Kia
Company handout

The new Alfa Romeo Tonale will offer a variety of conventional and electrified powertrains when it comes to market. Significantly, Alfa sees plug-in hybrids as the top of its performance ladder, according to brand boss Tim Kuniskis.

On the all-electric side, there's not just the Pininfarina Battista but the 1,005 horsepower Carmen, a retro-futuristic sports car that marks the revival of one of the classic "golden era" brands, Hispano Suiza. And, while not delivering quite the horsepower numbers of its hypercar, Aston Martin will go all-electric with another entry debuting in Geneva. Though officially dubbed a "concept," its all-terrain show car teases the crossover that will be offered next year through its alternative Lagonda brand. That marque hasn't been used on a new model in decades and, going forward, Lagonda will produce only BEVs.

As for Ferrari, the F8 Tributo model it is launching in Geneva uses a conventional twin-turbo V-8 for power. But company officials have confirmed they are developing their own new platform for future hybrid products.

As many battery-based models as there are on display at this year's Geneva Motor Show, the count will only grow going forward, industry observers anticipate.

Aston Martin AM-RB 003
Company handout