INTERNATIONAL - It’s not often that the head of a major car company will admit to not being up to speed on the latest, hot industry-wide trend.
Jolyon Nash has no such qualms.
Last week, in Geneva, McLaren Automotive’s director of global sales said he knew “very little” about the Formula E electric-car racing series that many other automotive brands (Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Porsche, Renault, to name a few) have resoundingly backed since it expanded last year.
I asked him what he thought in general about electrified powertrains in global Formula racing. “To be quite frank, whatever thoughts I’ve got will be quite uneducated,” Nash said. “I’m a traditionalist. I love to hear the sound of an engine going around a track. Formula E doesn’t provide that.”
What’s more, the taciturn South African said that while half of McLaren’s fleet will be hybrid in four years’ time, the company will not produce an all-electric car in the foreseeable future. Not even a halo car or a conceptual design exercise.
“We wouldn’t want to produce a car just to demonstrate technology—that is just not us,” Nash said. McLaren typically unveils limited and one-off versions of its cars, like the Senna GTR, rather than extremely futuristic conceptual forms filled with foam.
It was a rare moment of candor from a sales boss apparently unaffected by the keep-up-with-the-Joneses attitude of automakers when it comes to showcasing electric technology. Many hem and haw when asked if and when they’ll make something with an all-electric powertrain; concrete responses are usually affirmative.
In fact, from the most obscure brands—Nio and Remac—to mainstreamers such as Corvette, Mercedes-Maybach, Porsche, Rolls-Royce, and most recently, Ferrari, all have announced plans to make all-electric concepts or are already building them. McLaren stands resolute.
“In the immediate future, no,” Nash said.
While everyone else is racing to show “me, too!” electrics, McLaren remains laser-focused on its relationship with its small, devoted, largely racing-obsessed customer base. These are boy racers and F1 enthusiasts who would balk at any product that sacrifices speed and athleticism in the name of alternative power. (It should be noted that Formula E is growing in popularity, and many other companies besides McLaren have said that participating only strengthens their brands.)
“The [uniquely engaging] experience of driving the McLaren vehicle, which is the reason people buy Mclarens, ultimately has to meet customer expectations—and McLaren is not ready to commit to that for electric,” says Ian Fletcher, the principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit. The current mode of thought, at least for car lovers over the age of 40, is that the quietness of electric cars and the smooth, gear-free acceleration—as opposed to the throaty roar and rumble of a combustion engine—makes for less of an emotional, thrilling driving experience.
Outside the world of racing, last year Rolls-Royce shopped around a working, driving all-electric car only to postpone plans to develop it further after clients it surveyed balked at the sub-par performance. Rolls-Royce chief Torsten Müller-Ötvös recently said the brand would continue to pursue “full-electric. We don’t do any interim steps.”
And Bentley’s new chief executive officer, Adrian Hallmark, said recently that Bentley will explore total electrification in the near future. Its consumers view eco-mindednesses as a status symbol in and of itself, he said this month in Geneva.
McLaren buyers evidently have no such compunction. They are racetrack—not ecologically—minded.
“McLaren would need the ability to get the whole package working the way the customers want,” Fletcher says, noting that one millimeter of slippage in driving performance on an all-electric McLaren car would be catastrophic for a brand established through F1 bloodlines. “For now, the technology has a lot of challenges.”
The hurdle is often weight, especially relevant for supercars such as those McLaren makes. Its 720S and 675LT, for instance, are celebrated for their near-perfect power-to-weight ratio.
Electric batteries weigh substantially more than a regular aluminum combustion engine, which changes the driving dynamics of the vehicle. It’s currently feasible to make an electric car with power-dense batteries, which allow for massive horsepower, or to make an electric car with batteries that provide long driving range, but not to make a car that offers both. Tesla Inc. certainly has come the closest with its exceptional Model S sedan, but a company such as McLaren needs a superior level of supercar performance.
“Until the technology develops sufficiently for both power and range, I think it would be hard to have an exciting supercar that is pure electric,” said Nash, who, incidentally, drives the tiny and electric BMW i3 as his daily commuter. “We haven’t quite got our heads around how that’s going to work.”
Until then, hybrid technology and its ability to pair sheer power (electric batteries) with range (gasoline fuel as backup) will suffice.
McLaren started with the million-dollar, 903-horsepower hybrid P1 in 2013, which joined such contemporaries as Ferrari’s La Ferrari hybrid and Porsche’s 918 Spyder Hybrid. Next year, it will unveil the production version of the BP23, a three-seat, hybrid, super-fast prototype the company hinted at this month in Geneva.
The limited-edition hypercar will undoubtedly cause a splash. Even if it’s “only” a hybrid, it’ll foretell what’s yet to come.
“McLaren is a very nimble company. Even if they’re not planning on moving ahead with all-electric at the moment, they’re on the cutting edge of what’s happening in the electrification sector,” Fletcher says. “And anyway, you can never say never in the auto space. Everyone is hedging their bets.”