Asia's luxury brands charge into EVs

In 2012, Infiniti unveiled the LE Concept, shown, making it among the first of the Asian luxury brands to float an EV concept car.

DETROIT — German automakers made waves at last fall’s Paris auto show with plans to chase Tesla with their own electric luxury cars. Now, the Asian brands are considering the move.

Lexus, Genesis, Acura and Infiniti say they are weighing electric vehicle offerings — in some cases to meet emissions rules, in others because zippy, futuristic EV cachet enhances their luxury buzz.

None of the premium brands displayed an EV or concept at the Detroit auto show last week, but executives on hand said their companies were in varying stages of putting one on the road.

South Korean luxury upstart Genesis is the most aggressive. The Hyundai spinoff brand aims to roll out as many as three EV models by 2025, with the first arriving around 2020.

Additional EV nameplates will arrive at around three-year intervals, said Lee Ki-sang, senior vice president at Hyundai Motor Group’s Eco Technology Center. The Genesis entries will be dedicated stand-alone EVs on a new electric-only platform being developed, he said.

“In Genesis, we absolutely need that kind of luxury electric vehicle,” Lee said.

The goal, he said, is a flagship Genesis EV that can outperform the best from Tesla and others.

One motivation is the need for Genesis to meet increasingly stringent emissions rules. While Genesis can average its fuel economy figures with Hyundai for fleet figures in some markets, such as the United States, the brand needs to stand on its own in other markets, Lee said.

Manfred Fitzgerald, Genesis

“Swift adoption’

Then there is the image issue. Upscale customers increasingly see the eco-friendly, sporty performance of electric drivetrains as part and parcel of premium prestige. Tesla’s luxury play trades largely on its exhilarating electric drive, complete with its ultrafast Ludicrous mode.

“Anybody who has driven an electrified vehicle knows that it has definitely some excitement in it,” global Genesis boss Manfred Fitzgerald said. He acknowledged lingering hurdles of range and cost but added, “Once those are taken away, I think you will see a swift adoption.”

Mercedes-Benz is among the luxury brands leading that swift adoption. At the Paris show in September, the German marque said it would launch 10 new EVs by 2025 under an EQ subbrand in a bid to become the global leader in EV technology. Other top-tier European brands boarding the EV train include Audi, Porsche and BMW. Aston Martin plans to launch an all-electric RapidE sports car, and Jaguar aims to start selling an EV crossover sometime next year.

Asian luxury brands have been slow to follow, but EVs are finally on their radar.

Infiniti was among the first to float an EV concept car, in 2012, leveraging the electric drivetrain system developed for the Nissan Leaf EV by parent company Nissan Motor Co. But Infiniti put those EV ambitions on hold just a year later to focus on rebuilding its core models.

“Innovative and unique’

Last month, however, Infiniti President Roland Krueger said his company was once again considering “very concrete” concepts for an EV, though he declined to give details.

Acura already has the top of its range electrified, with a hybrid NSX sports car and a hybrid option for its RLX flagship sedan. John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co., said Acura also is looking at pure EVs “from an overall brand standpoint.”

Acura General Manager Jon Ikeda said there are no serious plans at the moment. But he said EVs are intriguing for Acura because “anything innovative and unique is what we’re looking for.”

Lexus’ product epiphany came during the EV-obsessed Paris show, said Jeff Bracken, general manager of Lexus International.

“Subsequent to that show,” he said, “we began conversations with our product planners.”

The shift is especially remarkable for a unit of Toyota Motor Corp., a longtime EV skeptic. But attitudes are changing at the parent company, too.

Last month, Toyota formed a special division to develop the company’s next-generation of electric cars. Toyota has said the upcoming EVs initially will target markets where regulations require them, such as China.

Toyota pulled the plug on its EV program in 2014, when it killed the eQ minicar and said it would stop building an electric version of its RAV4 crossover with Tesla.

Bracken said nothing was decided at Lexus but added: “I think we’d have our head buried in the sand if we didn’t thoroughly study all electric.”

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