Any Colour As Long As It’s Green

Jonathan Bell on the eco-friendly and increasingly good-looking future of motoring — think Bugatti, not buggy

It was the moment that drove the credit crunch home to the chief executives of Jaguar, Audi, Bentley and DaimlerBenz. Sir Victor Blank, chairman of British bank Lloyds TSB, arrived at rescue talks in London at the height of the global banking crisis behind the wheel of a tiny electric G-Wiz, the polar opposite of the slab-flanked, chrome-laden banker’s express.

Blank’s choice of wheels was praised, in headlines and photographs and on comment pages, as a shrewd move in belt-tightening times. It was the perfect illustration of a new value system that is upending the auto industry’s traditional approach to luxury.

Eco-friendly motoring has not, until now, been a luxury pursuit. Save for the Lexus range of hybrids, which use half-electric/half-petrol engines, fancy cars have remained largely an old-school, sooty fossil-fuelled business. But, as Sir Victor showed, green motoring is here — even for those wealthy enough to buy up a bank or two before lunch. And it’s not just the G-Wiz or the Toyota’s popular Prius. The Chevrolet Volt, launched at October’s Paris Motor Show, is a car that carries exceptional expectations.

Observers say the stylish, conventional saloon, powered by batteries that are topped up by a small combustion engine, is the first product of a truly 21st-century motor industry. They believe it will jump-start the American car industry, hastening the shift from SUVs to smaller saloons and ushering in an era of fuel efficiency. Chevrolet’s Frank Weber, the German-born leader of the Volt programme, says the car is a response to the ‘megatrend’ of environmentalism. ‘You could see this coming on the horizon from years ago, yet people are very lazy and don’t want to give up comfort, performance and looks,’ he says. ‘Well, now they don’t have to.’

Soon, almost every major manufacturer will have a hybrid in its ranks, with many brands rolling out full-on electric vehicles (EVs), all the better to bring down fleet CO2 emission averages. The EU has set an ambitious target of an average of 130g/km by 2012, a figure impossible for many manufacturers to attain in their current state.

What do the new mass-market technologies mean for the traditional luxury market? Can technology keep limousines on an even keel, or will small be beautiful, overturning the century-old role of the powerful, grand automobile as an object of status and desire?
Despite the bold moves of men like Sir Victor, many consider the golf-buggy image of the electric car to be an unwelcome link with the links, a dull-but-worthy hair-shirt option that precludes comfort and fun while exuding a faint whiff of piety.

But it’s clear that the aesthetics and image of the small green car are being re-appraised. Take a walk through the more upscale parts of London, Paris and Milan and you see the change. The popularity of the G-Wiz electric car in the thickest of urban environments has forced many car manufacturers to reassess what customers want from eco-friendly transportation.

As Sir Victor demonstrated, a G-Wiz is an ideal form of urban tender, undocked from a mansion in Mayfair or the Corso Venezia for a quick run into the financial district, unencumbered by parking fines or congestion charges. Although the car itself is something of an aesthetic joke, its practicality transcends image. In the same vein, Tata’s bargain-basement Nano is sure to be imported from India as a form of radical chic, the automotive equivalent of dressing down, akin to the tatty old Land Rover propped up on a Knightsbridge curb.

It makes far more sense for a zero- or low-emission vehicle to be small, lightweight and nimble. Good design is just the icing on the cake. DaimlerChrysler’s Smart followed this principle over a decade ago — although all-electric versions are still thin on the ground. Similarly, cars such as the Toyota iQ are redefining compact car packaging, squeezing four seats into a stubby vehicle that draws design inspiration from consumer electronics rather than conventional car design.

In stark contrast, the luxury manufacturers continue to play it straight, with the biggest brands pushing themselves even further upmarket, imitating the fashion industry. They are following a business strategy set out by Tom Ford, former creative guru at Gucci and now at the helm of his own eponymous luxury goods label.

‘Because of the increase of wealth in this world,’ he says, ‘it is possible to have a new business model where you can reach a very healthy scale of business catering only to a smaller percentage of people — people with, let’s be real, a lot of money.’

Mindful that the bonus-driven showroom bonanzas that have spewed tons of freshly minted metal out of city dealerships each year are on the wane, car companies are chasing the small pool of ultra-high-net-worth individuals. Bugatti has made a convincing case for the market for the €1 million-plus automobile. Its Veyron is not only the automotive status symbol of the times, it is also, implausibly, selling. Lamborghini will soon park on Bugatti’s manicured forecourt its answer to the Veyron: the Reventón, a fighter-plane-inspired update of the Murciélago.

Aston Martin is applying the final brushed aluminium trim to the One-77, a mighty grand tourer that’s claimed to be the truest — and most expensive — expression of the brand’s values. Others wait in the wings, most notably Mercedes-Benz’s as-yet-unnamed gull-winged supercar, expected to shred its first tread in around 2010.

What no one has yet stepped forward with, however, is a seven-figure, zero-emission supercar. For now, niche manufacturing means extreme power, a final baroque flourish for the internal combustion engine, conscience be damned.

What happens next? First, I think, a cultural shift; then an economic one. A throbbing V12 won’t remain the acme of desire for ever. Even now, the major investment players in the Middle East are starting to look beyond oil-based automotive entertainment. The recent injection of $65 million into Fisker Automotive by the Qatar Investment Authority is just the beginning. Fisker, the Californian electric car start-up co-founded by former Aston Martin designer Henrik Fisker, has just finished developing the Karma.

With Fisker boldly claiming that ‘initial production is anticipated to be 15,000 vehicles a year, with pricing to start around $80,000’, the car is pitched at neither the super-wealthy nor the average automotive commuter. Instead, it occupies a design-led middle ground.

It exploits the low stance afforded by a battery pack and electric motors — as opposed to the clunky, deep and space-inefficient internal combustion engine — to create a four-door that is both low and sleek. The Karma’s styling is creating a buzz, even if the car is not yet available to buy.

That’s not the case at Tesla Motors. Perhaps the perfect example of a Business 2.0 company, Tesla is staffed and chaired by Silicon Valley alumni, most notably chairman Elon Musk, co-founder of Paypal, and lead investors Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google. The digital dollar has given the company deep pockets, helping it carry the can for a largely untested technology (and some unseemly infighting with Fisker).

Tesla’s Roadster is an undeniably fine work. Fast and compact, it promises to be the 21st-century equivalent of the sprightly British sportscar, a genre that transfixed America in the 1950s and ’60s. With a four-door model also in the works, it’s one of the companies hoping to carry conventional automotive glamour into the new era.

There are other early adopters to watch. French manufacturer Venturi is developing the high-performance Volage for 2012, but before that it is launching an electric sportscar that will have to overcome a name even worse than the Ford Probe: it’s called the Fétish. Really.

In the UK, a small Midlands engineering company is hoping to ride Tesla’s coat-tails while retaining something of the quality, character and refinement associated with a classic British machine. The Lightning Car Company launched its GT, a huge, handsome two-seater, at the 2008 British International Motor Show. The makers promise 700hp from four electric motors.

‘The reason we’ve done the GT is that electric driving is usually a compromise, both in looks and performance,’ explains Lightning’s Fiona Gaiger. ‘We thought we had to make the electric car sexy.’ The GT will start at around £120,000 — DB9 money.

Traditional luxury won’t evaporate overnight. Ingrained value systems take generations to shake off. Perhaps the hybrid halfway house will buy the conventional limousine and supercar another decade of life, as swift electrics like the Lightning GT and Fisker Karma emerge to take their place. But could the big car eventually die out altogether?

Companies such as Better Place are proposing a radical shift in approach, with cheap, subsidised electric cars operating on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ model akin to the mobile phone industry. The electric infrastructure would be the revenue stream, replacing the petrol station.

Ultimately, all logical roads point to downsizing. The upshot is that the microcar market is wide open, a new territory unsullied by negative associations and ripe for new brands to take root, be they low-end or ultra-luxurious. There are promising signs, notably McLaren designer, Gordon Murray’s T25 commuter car concept, BMW’s long-rumoured revival of the Isetta name, projected small city cars from Audi, VW and Fiat, and design studies such as the Pininfarina Nido and Nissan Nuvu concepts.

They all suggest that small-scale sophistication is the way forward. All have the potential to be the Beetle of their era, the automotive equivalent of the iPhone, a category killer that forces the rest of the industry to reconsider its approach.

So should hybrids and EVs help us cut back on existing excesses, or should they help create a whole new typology of transportation? For once, the route to a clearer conscience is straightforward; staying small and supporting innovation is best way to make a strong statement. After all, luxury is a state of mind, not a matter of scale.