DETROIT – Forget about saving the planet.
Automakers from Ford to Tesla are building a new generation of electric vehicles that is faster and more powerful than almost anything else on the road. After spending billions on eco-friendly, all-electric cars that resulted in lackluster sales, automakers are shifting their target market from earthy environmentalists to gearheads and thrill seekers looking for speed.
For a decade, EVs have primarily been produced to meet government fuel economy standards with more eco-friendly alternatives to fossil fuels. But as automakers attempt to bring EVs into the mainstream and compete against industry-leader Tesla, they're touting the performance of EVs more than their environmental benefits.
No one's talking about the fact that the new, all-electric Porsche Taycan delivers the equivalent of 90 miles per gallon in the city. Car reviewers, instead, are raving about the 750 horsepower the Turbo S model can make.
"I look at a lot of design and positioning of these new EVs and it feels very familiar. It feels very Tesla-like," said Karl Brauer, Cox Automotive executive publisher. "Tesla was a good example of if you can do more than just claim you're going to save the planet with EVs … then you actually get a much bigger fan base to build up and a much higher sales volume too."
The greatest performance benefit of EVs over internal combustion engines is their instantaneous torque, which significantly increases acceleration. EVs don't have engines that need to rev up, which increases short-range performance metrics such as the time it takes to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour. Tesla's high-end Model S performance sedan produces about 762 horsepower and can get to 60 mph in 2.4 seconds.
The shift in tone for EVs is at the heart of next week's Los Angeles Auto Show, which has traditionally been known as the "green car" show due to its amount of hybrid and EV debuts.
Audi, Ford Motor, Porsche, and Volkswagen are among the brands expected to debut all-electric vehicles geared more toward enthusiasts than tree huggers. Others such as Lincoln and Karma Automotive also are expected to tout the performance of new plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
"I think performance is a good way to go to break through the clutter right now," said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit.
Sales of EVs remain far below previous expectations, despite state and federal incentives and additional models being released. IHS reports EV sales were only 1.2%, or about 207,600, of the 17.3 million vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2018. Nearly 80% of new EVs registered in the U.S. last year were Tesla vehicles, according IHS.
For the first nine months of this year, EV sales inched up to account for 1.4% of the U.S. market, according to IHS.
"We explored the green efficiency niche and now you want to get more people involved, we're looking at a performance niche," Brinley said. "Ultimately, it has to be even more than that to get to a mainstream buyer. We're not quite there yet."
IHS Markit forecasts EVs will account for 9% of U.S. sales by 2026, despite the number of EV models on the market increasing from nearly 20 to more than 120 during that time frame.
Many credit Tesla for the change in conversation around EVs as performance vehicles. While "traditional" automakers have focused on building EVs to meet stricter government fuel economy regulations over the last decade, the Silicon Valley car manufacturer created a culture of technology and performance around the relatively young technology.
When General Motors released the Chevrolet Bolt, its subcompact hatchback EV for the masses in 2016, Tesla introduced the Model S P100D with "Ludicrous Mode." The new Tesla model, depending on testing, competes or beats acceleration and 0-60 times of some of the most expensive supercars in the world.
"They're seeing the success Tesla has had with well-styled, performance EVs versus kind of purely functional and Earth-friendly EVs like the [Nissan] Leaf and Bolt," Brauer said. "They're all going to try and expand the dimensions of appeal that an EV offers."
Even Tesla's mass-market Model 3, depending on the model, can achieve 0-60 mph of between 3.2 seconds and 5.6 seconds. That compares the Chevrolet Bolt at 6.5 seconds or BMW i3 at just under 7 seconds.
One of the most highly-anticipated debuts of the LA Auto Show is the global unveiling of Ford Motor's "Mustang-inspired" SUV, which is expected to be called the "Mach-E."
The name as well as the affiliation to Ford's iconic Mustang pony car is setting the bar high for the automaker's second-attempt at an EV in the past decade. The first was a version of its Focus compact sedan, which debuted in 2011 to meet government mandates. Ford sold less than 10,000 units in seven years.
The expected Mach E name is a play on the Mustang Mach 1, a renowned performance model of the iconic pony car.
"It plays right into the history of Tesla's kind of success. Not just to make an EV but to make a compelling, engaging SUV that makes you want to drive it not just to save the planet but because it's fun to drive and it looks good," Brauer said.
Another global debut at the show is Volkswagen's ID. Space Vizzion, an EV concept that it's calling the "crossover of tomorrow." Based on a teaser image, the vehicle will be a sporty crossover/wagon, which VW says will preview a new production model in late-2021.
"So far, with our ID. family, we have shown what is possible with electric vehicles in each known car category," Klaus Bischoff, head of Volkswagen design, said in a release. "With the ID. SPACE VIZZION we create a new, fully electric segment."
Other expected additions to the EV performance segment at the show include the Audi e-tron Sportback and a base model of the well-received Porsche Taycan, which can achieve 0-60 mph in 2.6 seconds. California-based Karma also will debut a high-performance variant of its Revero GT plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.