An estimated 40 battery-electric vehicles are on display at this week's New York International Auto Show, and contrary to their popular image as slow and stodgy, many of them put an emphasis on performance, including the new Qiantu K50 by Mullen.
With its twin electric motors drawing power from a lithium-ion battery pack, the K50 can punch out 430 horsepower and 560 pound-feet of torque, enough to launch it from 0 to 60 in just 4.3 seconds, with an electronically limited top speed of 112 mph.
Already on sale in China, there is a two-month backlog of orders, said David Michery, founder and CEO of California-based Mullen Technologies, a start-up partnering with Chinese automaker Qiantu Motor to bring the K50 to the U.S. market next year.
When the first generation of electric vehicles came to market at the beginning of the decade, products like the Nissan Leaf put an emphasis on range above everything else, largely limiting the fun-to-drive factor. Tesla changed the equation with its original sedan, the Model S, which could match the acceleration of some of the fastest sports and muscle cars on the market, especially when equipped with optional Ludicrous Mode.
The K50 sits low and wide, with classic supercar proportions, and the partners behind the project are betting there is an emerging and still largely untapped market for high-performance electric cars.
To maximize both range and performance, the K50's development put a premium on what the industry refers to as "lightweighting." The body is made of super-light carbon fiber, the roughly two dozen exterior panels weighing in at just 103 pounds, noted Mullen's chief engineer, Frank McMahon. They're wrapped around an all-aluminum space-frame.
Twin, liquid-cooled electric motors, one on each axle, are connected to a 70 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. The layout allows for what McMahon called "Dynamic Torque Vectoring." By shifting power from front to back, the K50 can enhance its ability to negotiate sharp corners and twisty roads. Its independent double-wishbone suspension further improves maneuverability.
The pack is rated for 230 miles between charges in China, though that figure is expected to come in lower using the U.S. EPA test cycle.
One of the odd details of the K50 is the use of a T-shaped battery pack. That was an approach used early in the decade by manufacturers like General Motors, which had a T-shaped pack in its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. That approach gobbled up interior space and raised the Chevy's center of gravity, working against its handling. McMahon told CNBC that Mullen and Qiantu opted for the approach because it reduced investment costs and also allowed for more flexibility in the K50's overall design.
That said, the partners are working to develop a next-generation platform which, much like the skateboard-like layout used on Tesla's Models S, X and 3, mounts batteries and motors below the load floor. Mullen and Qiantu hope to use that "architecture" on a new SUV McMahon says they plan to debut in 2022.
For the U.S. market, Qiantu will ship a number of key components of the K50 to the U.S. where Mullen will assemble them, much like a kit car. Some parts will be sourced from the States, however, including the battery pack that is currently produced in San Francisco and then shipped to China.
The Chinese version of the K50 will undergo a number of modifications for the U.S. market, many of those focused on meeting American safety regulations. McMahon said Mullen also wants to tighten gaps between carbon fiber panels to meet the expectation of picky U.S. buyers.
The electric drive system on the K50 is paired with an array of advanced technologies including a 15.6-inch touch screen that controls the car's infotainment system and other vehicle functions. There are also a number of high-tech advanced driver assistance systems, including forward collision warning, lane keeping assist and blind-spot detection.
Michery said the start-up expects to price the U.S. version of the K50 at around $149,000 when it reaches showrooms next year.
The initial target is to sell about 1,000 of the sports cars in 2020, the figure rising to 5,000 annually, starting in 2022. Whether it will be able to build that much of a market is far from certain. Despite the rise in demand for the Tesla Model 3 last year, overall sales of battery-electric vehicles barely topped 1% of the American market.
The Qiantu K50 will initially be sold through five California dealerships owned by Mullen Technologies' affiliate, Mullen Auto Sales. The new car company says it is negotiating franchises with other retailers and hopes to open another showroom in Brooklyn, New York, by the time the first K50 is ready for the U.S. market.