Tesla faces twin assault as Mercedes, VW start taking orders for first long-range EVs

Key Points
  • Both Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz began taking orders Thursday for new battery-electric vehicles.
  • The two companies plan to follow up with a wave of additional entries over the next few years.
  • Whether they will prove to be "Tesla killers," is far from certain but the two German manufacturers are each investing billions of euros in their electrification programs.
Elon Musk
Mike Blake | Reuters

It's been a tough month for Tesla, and the challenges the Silicon Valley electric-car maker faces will only accelerate now that two major European automakers are launching sales of their first entries into the long-range EV market.

Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz began taking orders Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, for new battery-electric vehicles, with the two companies each planning to follow up with a wave of additional entries over the next few years. Whether they will prove to be "Tesla killers," as some observers have dubbed them, is far from certain but the two German manufacturers are each investing billions of euros in their electrification programs.

Tesla has new competitor from Audi

"With the Mercedes-Benz EQC, we are entering a new era of mobility," said Britta Seeger, member of the board of management of Daimler responsible for Mercedes-Benz cars sales. "It is part of the growing family of all-electric vehicles at Mercedes-Benz and combines brand-defining features such as quality, safety and comfort."

But one of the keys to success Seeger added, is likely to be longer "range absolutely suitable for everyday use."

The Mercedes Benz EQC.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

The first wave of electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric, could deliver only around 100 miles per charge. Tesla proved an immediate breakout with its Model S sedan yielding more than double that – and its latest version of that sedan is EPA-rated at 370 miles between charges.

The compact Mercedes EQC, essentially an electrified version of its GLC crossover, will get around 270 miles in European trim and even more in the version slated for the U.S. market.

Volkswagen's first long-range entry, the ID.3, lifts a page from Tesla's playbook by offering customers three different battery pack options. The smallest, at 45 kilowatt-hours, is expected to manage around 200 miles, based on European testing, with optional 58 and 77 kWh battery packs rated at around 260 and 340 miles, respectively.

The new VW hatchback hasn't even had its official world premiere — expected to take place at the Frankfurt Motor Show next autumn — and it will be about a year before the first customers can take delivery. But the automaker on Thursday opened up a special website for advance orders. Pricing for the ID.3, which initially will target the European market, will start at 30,000 euros ($34,000). Customers in Europe preordered 10,000 ID.3s in the first 24 hours on the market there, overwhelming the company's website and leading to long wait times online, VW said.

A Volkswagen ID 3 electric car is seen in a glass cage during a press conference in Berlin on May 8, 2019.
ODD ANDERSEN | AFP | Getty Images

The crossover, which will anchor a new sub-brand dubbed Volkswagen ID, will be just the first in a broad array of about 50 long-range electric vehicles the Wolfsburg, Germany-based carmaker plans to bring to the market by mid-decade through its various brands. It has already launched sales of the new Audi e-tron crossover and is preparing to deliver the first Porsche Taycan battery sports cars.

For the U.S., VW will begin its electrified assault next year with a production version of the ID Crozz concept. In January, during a visit to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Volkswagen Chief Executive Officer Herbert Diess said his company will spend $800 million to expand its factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to handle that crossover and another all-electric model, a move that also will create about 1,000 new jobs.

"The supertanker is picking up speed," Volkswagen executives said during a March presentation in Frankfurt. "We are aligning Volkswagen with e-mobility like no other company in our industry."

Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Volkswagen's diesel emissions scandal has already cost it around $30 billion and seen a number of executives jailed or indicted, including former CEO Martin Winterkorn. The company's shifting its focus from the "oil-burners" that long dominated its lineup to focus on electrification.

It has announced plans to spend 9 billion euros, about $10 billion at current exchange rates, on battery cars by 2023. And during his Frankfurt speech, Diess upped his estimate of VW's global EV sales projections from 15 million vehicles to 22 million over the next decade.

These numbers dwarf those of Daimler, but the parent of the Mercedes-Benz and Smart brands is making a similarly aggressive push relative to its size.

"We are going to launch 10 pure battery-electric vehicles until the end of 2022, and we are covering the whole portfolio — from Smart [cars] to big SUVs and big sedans," board member Wilko Stark announced during a news conference at the Paris Motor Show in September.

The Mercedes Benz EQC.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

The new Mercedes EQC will go on sale in Europe first and then follow with an American market launch sometime next year, officials said during last month's New York International Auto Show. The event saw the debut of the EQC Edition 1886, a special launch version referencing the year when the founders of what is now Daimler patented the world's first vehicle to use an internal combustion engine.

The EQC Edition 1886 is promised to deliver 292 miles per charge and, with an output of 402 horsepower and 564 pound-feet of torque, it will launch from 0 to 60 in less than five seconds. Those numbers suggest it will pose a direct challenge to both Tesla's older Model X and upcoming Model Y.

While Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen are just putting their battery-car programs into motion, BMW is preparing its own ramp-up. It currently offers an all-electric city car, the i3, through a special sub-brand, though that model doesn't match the range of what can be thought of as second-generation BEVs.

A new BMW i3 electric car is seen on the assembly line at the BMW factory in Leipzig, Germany.
Getty Images

Future long-range products will more directly target Tesla, as well as Mercedes and VW. The Bavarian automaker recently confirmed plans to migrate to new vehicle platforms that will allow it to offer all-electric versions of virtually every model in its lineup.

Jaguar Land Rover was actually the first European automaker to enter the long-range space, its Jaguar I-Pace last month being named World Car of the Year by an international panel of motoring journalists.

But the wave of new products will soon turn into a tsunami. According to InsideEVs, a website devoted to electrification, 14 new battery cars will land in the U.S. market in 2020, with even more coming to Europe and China — the latter market encouraging the buildup with tough new energy vehicle regulations enacted in late 2017.

Ian Callum and the Jaguar I-Pace accept the award for the 2019 World Car Award at the New York Auto Show in New York on April 17th, 2019.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

The big question is whether consumers will accept the new offerings. A study released by AAA on Thursday found that only about 16% of U.S. motorists surveyed are definitely considering battery power for their next vehicle.

Last year, all forms of battery-based vehicles, including conventional hybrids, plug-ins and battery-electric vehicles, accounted for barely 5% of the American market. But BEV sales, in particular, roughly doubled.

That said, virtually all the growth could be accounted for by Tesla's new Model 3 sedan. Demand for competing long-range offerings like the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Jaguar I-Pace did grow, but at a much slower pace.

Manufacturers such as Mercedes and Volkswagen will have to hope more buyers start to plug in. The good news for them is that AAA found 40 million U.S. motorists would at least consider a BEV in the future, with millennials particularly open. And the long-standing axiom in the auto industry is that the more product available, the bigger the appeal.

Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and lodging to the New York auto show was paid for by an automaker.