Luxury electric car in a race with Tesla

Lucid takes on the big EV brands with its futuristic Air prototype.
The Lucid Air is projected to hit the road in 2019.
The Lucid Air is projected to hit the road in 2019.

Here, in the motor court of a $76-million Newport Beach estate, climbing into the rear of the Lucid Air for a test ride, we're already sceptical.

Beneath the Jackson Pollock-esque camouflage wrap, the California marque's prototype has the futuristic lozenge shape we've seen in photos, but lacks an interior almost entirely. There are just bare metal panels, no soundproofing, and a vinyl bench seat. The brand's promised luxury is not evident, no rear-seat screens, no deeply reclining chrome, leather, wood and felted wool cocoons meant to give the Air the feel of a first-class jet cabin.

But we're willing to give much of that a pass when the test driver, a WRC racer, pounds the throttle.

Yes, this rolling test-bed is stripped of much of the weight that the finished sedan will carry (this temporary body is made of easy-to-produce and replace carbon fibre panels, not aluminum and steel), but it's also dialled down to half the 1000 horsepower (746kW) the production vehicle will sport from the battery pack integrated into the floor.

When the driver hits the accelerator, we are pinned to our seats. Moreover, with an electric motor and active air dampers at each wheel, and all that weight down in the battery lowering the centre of gravity, the car feels remarkably planted as we slalom down a steep hill that leads to the ocean. Once we turn around and take off back up the hill, we leave behind the scent of smoking rubber.

The Lucid Air may not be ready for production just yet, and given the vagaries of the electric vehicle (EV) startup business, it may never make it there. (It costs upwards of US$1 billion for an established company such as General Motors to develop a new car. Imagine what it takes if you don't yet have a factory, or workers, or a supply chain, or an existing relationship with regulatory agencies, or established technology.) But it has our attention.

If everything goes to plan and the Air hits the road in 2019 as projected, Lucid claims the six-figure sedan (previous reports have pegged its price at up to US$160,000) will rocket like a supercar from zero to 100km/h in 2.5 seconds, range 640km on a single charge, and sport advanced driving assistance capabilities such as radar, lidar and cameras that will make it ready for autonomous operation - wherein the driver is all but irrelevant. It's the dream that the likes of Tesla and other startups, such as Faraday Future (whose billionaire investor Jia Yueting has also invested in Lucid), are all working towards.

There was another, more polished Air prototype at the estate as well, finished in a liquid rhodium colour.

What's not in doubt is our attraction to the Lucid Air's design. The front end is low, with a narrow sneer of micro-lensed LED headlights. The windscreen touches down nearly above the centreline of the front axle, pulling the cab way forward and reducing the size of the prow. The sculpted fuselage body provides an interior the size of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class on a platform the size of a smaller Mercedes-Benz E-Class. This gives the rear passenger compartment capacious accommodations; its novel bubble-topped rear looks like a pergola grafted on to a limousine - it wouldn't look out of place in one of Syd Mead's Space Age illustrations. All that's missing is the metallic jumpsuits.

This is Lucid's gauntlet throw to the only established player in today's luxury EV market: Tesla.

While the interiors of the Tesla Model S and Model X are minimal and refined, they lack any true sense of indulgence.

This may suit Tesla's Early Adopter and Fast Follower psychographic segments, who may prefer to imagine their US$135,000 investment is going purely into advancing technology towards our automotive destiny. But it leaves room for a deeper luxury play, especially for the passengers, regardless of whether autonomous driving ever arrives.

The folks in the back seat can still indulge in their screens and tray tables and massaging features, using the car as a mobile office, a site for consuming streaming entertainment, a place for unwinding and napping.

This is why the Air's seats coddle the way they do, adjusting in every imaginable dimension, and some oddly unimaginable ones.

Climbing into the rolling hero model, we rode the seat like a roller-coaster through its full range of motion, and while it was eminently comfortable, it did feel strange to be levitated and splayed out deep into the rear glass canopy where all we could see was sky.

Then again, were we to relinquish the steering wheel and link our cars together in a cloud-enabled chain, one can imagine a ride becoming akin to terrestrial flight - looking up might be better for one's mental state with a computer driving, so as not to focus on what might go wrong up ahead.

The Air will need every differentiation and unique selling proposition it can muster in 2019, not only because it will be competing with the next-generation vehicles from category leader Tesla, but because established sporting and luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Jaguar, and Aston Martin will all be bringing out their own similarly priced, pure electric luxury sedans and SUVs at or around the same time.

And those companies all have plenty of other revenue streams to fall back on should EVs not immediately find an audience, Lucid does not.

Lucid's chief technology officer, Peter Rawlinson, formerly of Tesla, remains bullish. He dismisses the standard narrative that a luxury EV companywill bleed capital on every vehicle it sells in a subsidised quest for market share - and, as a former Tesla insider, he seems to have perspective.

"It's a myth that EVs lose money," he says.

"It's a very smart play, though. If I dominate that market, wouldn't it benefit me greatly to have my competitors - long-lived brands with decades of experience building cars - believe this is a money-losing prospect?"

- Bloomberg

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