The year’s hottest new cars just got cold as ice

Some of the most anticipated vehicles of 2020 were built for pre-coronavirus times. Now that no one is buying, that spells trouble for automakers

By HANNAH ELLIOTT & KYLE STOCK

AT LEAST three years and about US$1 billion (RM4.35 billion). That’s roughly what it takes to make a new vehicle, from drafting table to dealerships.

Car companies live and die by that long-range gamble — but every once in a while, the bet coincides with an economic disaster. The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant recession may be the worst time to launch a car since, well, since we’ve had cars. Selling a Model A was a tough task during the Great Depression, but at least dealerships were open and some assembly lines still humming.

The global auto industry of 2020 is witnessing an unprecedented, near-instantaneous drop in demand as potential customers steer clear of car lots and dealers close up shop to comply with public health mandates. Volkswagen AG (VW), Honda Motor Co Ltd, Hyundai Motor Co and Mazda Motor Corp each reported a more than 40% decline in US sales last month. For the year, S&P Global Ratings expects global auto sales to plummet almost 15%.

For sales of the most anticipated cars of 2020, the timing couldn’t be worse. In a normal economy, the first few months for any shiny new machine are relative magic. Overeager customers clamour for the fanciest, most profitable versions and dealers seldom have to offer discounts or incentives. Now, every sale (done online or over the phone) will be considered a coup.

What’s more, the newest machines aren’t just grocery getters — they’re the result of product decisions made during one of the industry’s hottest streaks — the fruits of bull market research and development. Many are bold bids for incremental business, niche cars

that might not have received a green light in a shakier economy. Among them are a few futuristic electric vehicles, which suddenly must contend with some of the lowest gas prices on record. Others are six-figure speed machines that were banking on Wall Street bonuses and swelling stock markets, neither of which seem likely in 2020.

What follows are some of most needle-moving whips rolled out in years — all for a pre-coronavirus world. With would-be buyers now focused on the grave crisis at hand, this is less a preview of automaker glory than a wistful look at what might have been.

SUVs

The much-anticipated new Land Rover Defender launches this year with the historic brand’s manufacturing sites shuttered. While the vehicle’s release remains on schedule, the first media test drives planned for April were predictably cancelled.

The good news for the British automaker though is that the off-road rig, a stalwart of British royalty for four decades, got a fair amount of publicity last year: The Defender’s official debut took place at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show and it has been making the rounds on Instagram ever since.

Along with the Defender, the reborn Ford Bronco is one of the most hyped vehicles in years. In 1996, Ford Motor Co parked the Bronco name (which dates back to the mid- 1960s) after OJ Simpson provided the worst kind of publicity.

In subsequent years, the seminal SUV became a design icon and collector’s item as Jeep took over ownership of the off-road adventure market. We were supposed to see the new Bronco on April 2, but its debut has been delayed.

In North America alone, the pandemic is destroying US$12 billion in potential sales each week, while scrapping 331,000 vehicles that would otherwise have come off of assembly lines, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. Still, US automakers like Ford hope the second half of 2020 will allow them to make up some lost ground.

Crosstown rival Chevrolet has turned to Trailblazer, a nameplate that’s been defunct in the US since 2009, to carry its newest, small, crossover SUV. With an optional three-cylinder engine and a sticker price below US$20,000, the little rig is aimed at young, outdoorsy folk. Chevrolet, however, already has three smallish SUVs to sell.

Moreover, Kia Motors Corp is aiming for the just-right-size SUV market with its new Seltos, another middle child in a big family.

The Seltos began selling in the US in February, before the coronavirus shutdowns began in earnest. For now, the machine is coming from factories in Korea, which are still running.

Aston Martin is still hoping to deliver its 1st SUV, the DBX, in late summer

Aston Martin Lagonda Global Holdings plc’s make-or-break DBX, another latecomer to the luxury SUV game, is the first of its kind from the 107-year-old brand. The automaker first showed the 542hp DBX at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2019; media drives were planned for May. Those have been postponed and production at all the company’s manufacturing sites halted.

Meanwhile, Aston Martin doesn’t have enough working capital and still desperately needs the SUV to deliver drivers. The global crisis and its effect on demand may leave the company in a very bad place. Spokesman Nathan Hoyt says the vehicle’s US launch remains on track for the second half of the year (2H20).

In the more opulent tier, the upcoming Mercedes Maybach GLS 600 SUV will compete against Bentley’s Bentayga and Rolls-Royce’s Cullinan. It has a V8 engine that churns out 550hp and 538 lb-ft of torque, plus a 48V “EQ Boost” system that helps smooth out all that power.

The machine was scheduled to go on sale in the US in 2H20. But with Mercedes manufacturing at a standstill, it’s too early to say if that will remain the case, says a Mercedes representative.

EVs

When it comes to futuristic electric vehicles (EVs) designed for an US$80-a-barrel world, Tesla Inc products remain at the forefront, though the company has remained tightlipped about timing, given current events. The all-electric flatbed Cybertruck that almost broke the Internet when it debuted last year is one hanging in the balance. The Blade Runner-style vehicle boasts driving range estimates of up to 500 miles (805km) and a zero-to-60mph sprint of 2.9 seconds.

Production is tentatively slated to begin in 2021 and Tesla is already taking deposits, but all this could change. Though initially unwilling, Elon Musk eventually shut down his California factories last month.

The all-electric flatbed Cybertruck that almost broke the Internet when it debuted last year is one hanging in the balance (Pic: tesla.com)

That shutdown also applies to Tesla’s Model Y, a compact electric SUV the company started delivering to customers in March, but has yet to be seen in the wild in significant numbers.

Rivian Automotive Inc set out to do for SUVs and trucks what Tesla had done for electric sedans. It promises its R1S will be able to travel 400 miles on a single charge, drive through 3ft of water and zip up to 60mph in three seconds, all with Costco- capable cargo space. Rivian was planning to deliver its first SUV late this year; at the moment, its facilities are shuttered, including the former Mitsubishi Motors Corp plant in central Illinois, where it was mapping out assembly lines.

Ford has also been hustling to finish its Mustang Mach-E, an all-new, all-EV whose November debut won broad praise for checking three critical boxes: Good looks, long-range and performance specs that best petrol-powered pony cars.

Now, dozens of early versions are cycling among the homes of Ford engineers, who disinfect each before continuing work. Pre-coronavirus, Ford said that the number of deposits for the machine was sizeable, with a greater than expected share from drivers who had never owned a Ford.

An additional electric offering has experienced unlikely progress: Against all odds, the fastback Polestar 2, Polestar’s second vehicle and first all-electric car, started production on March 23 at Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co Ltd’s plant in Luqiao, China.

First unveiled in February 2019 as a fierce potential rival to Tesla, the Polestar 2 produces 408hp and 487 lb-ft of torque, with an estimated range of 292 miles. It remains unclear, though, how many units will be produced or when deliveries might begin.

Last month, BMW “e-revealed” the BMW i4 Concept, which had been slated to premier at the since-cancelled Geneva Auto Show. The company has yet to show the production version, but it’s expected to be an all-electric sedan that uses an 80KWh battery to get 530hp and 372 miles of driving range.

Despite the current closure of BMW production plants, the i4 is expected to start selling toward the end of 2021. Says spokesman Thomas Plucinsky: “We don’t anticipate any delays.”

Sports Cars

Spurred by a heady stock market, super expensive, super fast sports cars were enjoying a moment until March arrived. Porsche AG had big plans to roll out the 640hp, muscle-y 911 Turbo S version of its franchise machine with group media drives.

Instead, the company delivered the 640hp machines one by one via fleet drivers prepped on disinfection and social distancing. Porsche’s German manufacturing plants in Zuffenhausen and Leipzig have been silent since March 21, and Porsche Experience Centres in Los Angeles and Atlanta, where the Porsche-curious take test drives and track lessons, sit empty.

The US$225,000 Ferrari Roma supercar debuted in November in, of course, Rome. But a total Ferrari SpA production halt on March 14 included production of the 611hp, V8 Roma, which was supposed to roll into dealerships toward the end of the year.

Ferrari hopes to eventually make up for the lost production with additional shifts. “No material impacts on deliveries and waiting list are foreseen at the moment,” a spokesperson says.

Lotus is designing and developing the Evija, its 1st vehicle in more than a decade, largely by video conference (Pic: Bloomberg)

Over in England, the US$1.7 million McLaren Elva supercar packs a punch: 804hp on a V8 engine and rear-wheel drive. It’ll do zero to 124mph in just 6.7 seconds, which makes it faster than its sibling, the track-suited Senna. McLaren Automotive had planned to build just 399 of them, each one customised through the company’s special-ops MSO division and delivered at the end of 2020.

“We will continue with all possible design and engineering activities that we can at this stage,” says Roger Ormisher, VP of communications at McLaren. The carmaker will “then finalise physical development once staff are back at McLaren Technology Centre, with the plan to deliver Elva into production as close as we can to fourth quarter of 2020”.

Finally, Lotus Cars Ltd is trying to piece together its first new vehicle in more than a decade. The machine, dubbed Evija, is stunning — and costs US$2.1 million.

Shaped like a spaceship with trimmed sides and massive wheels, it boasts nearly 2,000hp generated from four electric motors, as well as a zero to 60mph sprint of fewer than three seconds.

Only 130 will be built by the legendary UK automaker. As for when they will be built, that will be determined later. Production has halted at Lotus’ Norwich headquarters, while engineers continue tweaking designs from home.

“The vehicle development process is as it was — just not in the offices,” says Rob Borrett, a company spokesman. Supercar architects, it turns out, are just like the rest of us. They Zoom. — Bloomberg