When marketing luxury vehicles, electric is no longer a bad word

Feeling good about your car is the new feeling cool about your car

by Hannah Elliott / BLOOMBERG

MANY Bentley customers believe they have obtained their wealth because of luck.

So says Bentley Motors Ltd’s new chairman and CEO Adrian Hallmark during an interview in Geneva.

“I have recognised that a lot of our customers follow a similar thing: They are supersuccessful. And a lot of them think it’s because they’re lucky,” he says. “That’s really important, because they don’t think they’re above human weakness and frailty.”

Such perceived (and believed) good fortune is spurring the world’s millionaires and billionaires to make luxury purchases, based on a system of values such as reduced carbon footprints and sustainability, he adds. According to Hallmark, hybrid and electric cars allow them to express in a novel way, he says.

“There is a new dimension long-term in the purchase decision — the ethical value,” Hallmark says, referring to gleanings from a 2008 internal study Bentley did of the world’s wealthiest people. “Electrification is part of it, and electrification isn’t going away.”

In fact, this new addition to the traditional considerations for buying a luxury car — performance, quality materials and craftsmanship — is manifesting so strongly among the world’s top 1% that it is influencing Bentley’s product planning for the next two decades.

The company debuted its Bentayga Hybrid (main picture), a mid-six-figure SUV that can run 31 miles (50km) on purely electric power, last month at the Geneva Auto Show. (The 5,400lb SUV isn’t exactly an econobox, but the hybrid badge certainly adds a feeling of green-tinged do-goodery — both for drivers and for onlookers who know what it means.)

By 2025, all Bentley cars will offer some version of an electric drivetrain, Hallmark says. That includes its growling 12-cylinder Continental GT line, the latest generation of which is due out before summer.

It may take up to a decade to make an electric version of such a car, but the way Hallmark sees it, Bentley has no choice.

“We already know that the [next version] will be a battery electric vehicle (EV),” he says. “It will have all of those moral and ethical benefits with it. By not going that way, even if we don’t have to, we would be massively underperforming in terms of customer potential.”

The BMW i8 Roadster plug-in hybrid vehicle was among the 1st fully viable, high-performance plug-in hybrid electric cars

Successful — and Enlightened

Of course, the Crewe, England-based brand isn’t the only one to reckon that, in addition to being more efficient, electric power bestows a mark of honour upon its best clients. Top luxury automakers have been producing hybrid and EVs for years, such as Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s i8, Porsche AG’s 918 Spyder Hybrid, and Mercedes-Benz AG’s sold-out Project 1.

We take it for granted that a fair number of wealthy car buyers admire electric power, thanks to the cool cachet of Tesla Inc. But not long ago, electrics were viewed as anathema by serious car people, who favoured traditional air-cooled engines with their guttural roars and grit.

Then Toyota Motor Corp’s Prius introduced the modern electric car to a broad audience. That one, with its awkward angles and gutless drive train, made electric cars feel like medicine we took with eyes closed and a quick swallow.

The few electrics that did get car fanatics excited were rather fragile, million-dollar hypercar one-offs that spent more time in the garage than on the road. These days, wellheeled buyers consider a hybrid or plug-in vehicle a crucial part of a well-rounded garage.

“It is definitely high-performance with sustainability that resonates on a values and ethics level…with affluent and wealthy automotive buyers,” says Milton Pedraza, founder of the Manhattan-based Luxury Institute, which studies trends of the world’s rich.

Witness Porsche’s upcoming Mission E, an electric-powered sedan that the automaker has hyped for years and plans to unveil on the eve of its also much-hyped 70th anniversary. It will probably cost more than the US$90,000 (RM348,635)-plus Panamera, and while its driving range and battery power remains obscured, it will undoubtedly be a car to impress with next year.

Among Porsche’s notoriously rabid fans, it will be the only new model that could divert attention from the usual adulation attending icons such as the brand’s GT3, 911R, or 930. More crucial on a broader scale, if Porsche delivers on its promise, it’ll be the first sedan to challenge Tesla’s Model S in terms of sales volume.

Or take Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd, which has announced it’s turning an entire heritage brand, Lagonda, into an electric powerhouse. The wedge-shaped Lagonda Vision Concept that debuted in Geneva is an all-electric sedan that marks how Aston expects the long-extinct brand to look when it returns.

Aston Martin hasn’t divulged many details about the new car, which, after all, is only a conceptual exercise, but Andy Palmer, president and CEO of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd, says it will get 400 miles on one charge — enough to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco in one sitting, with self-driving capability and zero emissions.

“The Lagonda Vision Concept is our plan for the rebirth of a great brand,” he says. “It’s a new kind of luxury car.”

The upcoming Mission E will be the only new model that could divert attention from the usual adulation attending Porsche’s icons

The New Future

Some of the most prestigious brands are holding off on electric for now. McLaren’s global head of sales, Jolyon Nash, recently said no way, not ever (probably).

Automobili Lamborghini SpA’s chief engineer, Maurizio Reggiani, says it would take quite a lot of persuasion — maybe an act of God — for the brand to make anything electric in the near future. Bugatti Automobiles SAS’s Stephan Winkelmann, who incidentally came from Lamborghini by way of Audi Sport, said “it’s too early to talk about” electrification at Bugatti, though he recognises the potential.

“We are not influencing this discussion, but we take this very seriously,” he says. “It’s something to look into.”

Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst for IHS Markit, takes it all with a grain of salt. Some of the “ethical value” status symbol talk is hopeful thinking and marketing, she says.

After all, car companies have invested billions in electrification; they have a lot riding on their ability to sell the story that a massive, expensive hybrid SUV is cool, not just “ecofriendly”. (Because, let’s be honest, if you wanted to really reduce your carbon footprint, the answer would be to buy a cheap, tiny electric car, or ride a motorcycle — or a bike.)

Still, the automakers are on to something real, she adds, that’s not going away. Young drivers are going to care about sustainable and ethical transportation in the next decade — more than any buying group ever has, especially when it comes to aspirational brands.

“If you look at millennials or the younger generation, there does seem to be more thoughtfulness about what kind of mark you leave on the planet — more so than a decade ago,” Brinley says. “As we move forward in the luxury landscape, for this type of buyer, having one in your garage will be crucial.”

For automakers, at least, it’ll take more than luck to get them there.

The wedge-shaped Lagonda Vision Concept is an all-electric sedan that marks how Aston expects the long-extinct brand to look when it returns