Bright Spark

Bright Spark

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There are many real and imagined obstacles to switching to an electric car. In the early days it was all about range. Now, people are worrying more about the charging infrastructure instead. Those are both subjects that have had more than their fair share of attention, but there is another issue that has probably been under-reported as a reason for buyers’ previous reluctance to go electric – the limited choice of vehicle types.

For years the choices were a Zoe, a Leaf or a Tesla Model S. So if your taste or need was for something other than a smallish hatchback or an S-Class-rivalling luxury saloon, you were out of luck. If you preferred a brand other than Nissan or Renault, or didn’t fancy taking a punt on an expensive car made by a company that was completely new to the business, then it was tough luck. If you wanted an SUV, a pick-up truck or an estate car, there was nothing electric for you. And EV development also seemed to ignore some quite mainstream needs like towing.

Well now things are changing quite a bit. Suddenly, there are lots of electric SUVs, and MG can now sell you an estate in the form of the keenly-priced MG5. There’s a good choice of big battery-powered pick-ups in the pipeline from Rivian, Tesla and Ford, while increasing numbers of EVs such as the Tesla Model 3 can tow caravans.

And if you’re one of the diminishing number of car buyers whose needs still cannot be met by any of the EVs currently on the market, I suspect that will change quite quickly. The other day, I encountered a man on Twitter who has produced a spreadsheet that lists forthcoming new EV models. It has a staggering 482 entries. Surely there must be something there for everyone.

All of this new model development must be placing an enormous burden on the car makers’ finances and their ability to manage complexity. Clearly, something has to give, and it looks as though that something is going to be the degree of choice offered in petrol and diesel model ranges.

Not so long ago, BMW and Mercedes-Benz got by with a small handful of basic body shells. These days, I think Mercedes-Benz and BMW each have at least twenty different body shells as they attempt to invade every tiny market niche. I, for one, still can’t really tell the difference between a CLA and the similarly-sized A-Class saloon. BMW recently got rid of some comparable near-duplication when it discontinued the 3-Series Gran Turismo, which was so similar in configuration to its sister under the skin, the more sleekly styled 4-Series Gran Coupé.

A few manufacturers, like Audi and PSA, now part of Stellantis, have already said they aren’t really pursuing new development when it comes to internal combustion engines. This attitude, which sees ICE development as a bit of a dead end, combined the need to downsize and clean up the remaining diesel and petrol engines to make them more efficient as emissions rules get tighter, seems to be leading to less engine choice as well. Once, the premium manufacturers’ engine ranges were full of straight sixes, V6s, V8s, V10s and V12s, each with their own character and distinctive engine note. While these haven’t disappeared from the sportiest high-end models, most BMWs, Mercs and Jags now have quite boring fours – which I think further reduces the attractiveness of the remaining petrol and diesel engined cars compared with going electric.

I think we will see a further pruning of the main carmakers’ ranges in future. And this provides a reminder of one of the biggest challenges the established manufacturers face in the switchover to electric. While a new entrant like Tesla can just concentrate on producing the best possible electric cars, the legacy carmakers need to match Tesla’s efforts, while at the same time managing the complex process of winding down a lot of their existing business in a way that allows them to extract as much value as possible from the huge investments they have made in the past. And that’s going to be tough.

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