Italian car styling icons fight to go electric

SANT’AGATA BOLOGNESE, Italy — Primary school boys in an Italian village fell silent as the Lamborghini approached, its raucous 12-cylind...


SANT’AGATA BOLOGNESE, Italy — Primary school boys in an Italian village fell silent as the Lamborghini approached, its raucous 12-cylinder engine trumpeting its presence. Then, as the wedge-shaped beast rumbled through the schoolyard, they burst into cheers, waving their fists and leaping into the air.

It was a spontaneous expression of the emotion the Italian sports car maker inspires and motivates those who can afford it to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars, in some cases millions, to get one.

But Lamborghini, Ferrari and a handful of other companies that make so-called supercars – a loosely defined category of vehicles that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and offer race car-level performance – face an existential threat. The automotive industry is moving inexorably towards batteries, a trend that these manufacturers cannot escape. They are now wondering how to design electric sports cars that will inspire the same passion and cost the same prices.

Tesla has previously challenged claims by Ferrari and Lamborghini to be at the forefront of automotive design. Tesla pioneered electric vehicles, and its Model S Plaid can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in just over two seconds, faster than any Ferrari or Lamborghini, testers from Engine trend.

“For supercar manufacturers, the question is, can they also be super leading the world in electrification?” said Karl-Thomas Neumann, former chief executive of German automaker Opel, who sits on the board of OneD Battery Sciences, a California-based provider of electric car technology.

“If you just build a supercar and put a Ferrari logo on it, that’s not enough,” Mr Neumann said. And the company is “far behind” in the electric car game, he added.

Ferrari has offered a plug-in hybrid, the Stradale, since 2019, but won’t unveil a fully electric car until 2025. The company, based in Maranello, Italy, explained its plans at an investor event this month, claiming that it would build electric motors and other key components itself, in keeping with its tradition of craftsmanship and exclusivity.

“An electric Ferrari will be a real Ferrari,” CEO Benedetto Vigna said in an interview ahead of the presentation.

Ferrari also said that, in keeping with tradition, it would borrow technology from its formidable racing team. But the company is not in competition in Formula E, the answer to Formula 1 for electric cars. Mr. Vigna declined to say whether there were any plans to do so.

Lamborghini, which is owned by Volkswagen and based in the village of Sant’Agata Bolognese, will offer its first plug-in hybrid in 2023 and a fully electric car in the second half of the decade.

The mystique of Italian supercars is deeply tied to the sound and power of internal combustion engines. It is believed that the famous Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan once said that a 12-cylinder Ferrari engine achieves “a harmony that no maestro could play”.

Electric motors are inherently sotto voce.

“Sound is a huge asset to these vehicles,” said Andy Palmer, former chief executive of Aston Martin, now chief executive of Switch Mobility, an electric bus maker. “Does the sports car as we know it continue to exist if you are not able to differentiate yourself based on sound?”

The question interests more than a few wealthy people. Italian pride and prestige are at stake.

While much of the rest of Italy’s car industry has become almost irrelevant – Fiat’s market share in Europe has fallen to just 4% – supercar enthusiasts regularly shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for Ferraris and Lamborghinis and often wait a year for delivery. The most exclusive models have price tags in the millions.

Both brands represent Italy’s industrial prowess, often overshadowed by its political dysfunction.

Ferrari and Lamborghini are also very profitable. Ferrari, which is listed on the stock exchange but controlled by the powerful Italian Agnelli family, reported a net profit of 240 million euros, or $250 million, in the first three months of 2022 on sales of $1.2 billion.

Lamborghini contributed 180 million euros of pre-tax profit to Volkswagen’s net profit in the first quarter on sales of 592 million euros. Last year, Ferrari sold 11,000 cars, while Lamborghini sold 8,300. The two companies’ double-digit sales returns are unusually high for the auto industry, which has notoriously thin profit margins.

The change is apparent in the region near Bologna, the rolling countryside known as Motor Valley. Ferrari and Lamborghini are half an hour away from each other.

Last year, Ferrari broke with tradition by appointing Mr. Vigna as managing director. Despite being a car enthusiast who, aged 14, escaped his home for several days to watch a Formula 1 race, Mr Vigna had never worked in a car company. He was previously a senior executive at STMicroelectronics, a semiconductor manufacturer. His appointment underscored the importance of electronics to Ferrari’s future.

“We needed a CEO with a deep understanding of the technologies that are changing not just the automotive industry but the entire world,” John Elkann, Agnelli family scion and Ferrari chairman, told investors this month. .

Mr. Vigna, whose clients at STM included Apple and Tesla, brings deep ties to the world of technology to Ferrari. “If I need contact with a potential partner or supplier, it’s easy for me to reach the right level of people,” he said.

The switch to batteries presents Ferrari and Lamborghini with several challenges. One of the characteristics of supercars is their extremely low profile, which reduces wind resistance. The roof of the car is barely waist high. The same silhouette is a challenge to achieve with batteries, which are usually located under the cabin.

Another feature is exclusivity. Buyers can easily wait a year for delivery. Cars are collectibles that often increase in value over time. vintage ferrari sold for over $20 million.

But does a Ferrari still feel exclusive when a Tesla is faster? Mr. Vigna argued that a difference of a few hundredths of a second in acceleration from 0 to 60 was not the be-all and end-all. He compared driving a Ferrari to a roller coaster. It’s not so much the speed as the feel.

“Ferrari is experience,” he said.

Electric cars are known for their smooth acceleration and quiet ride. That’s not what buyers of a Lamborghini Aventador or Ferrari SF90 Spider pay up to $500,000. They want a feeling of raw power.

A Lamborghini driver sits inches from the road in the low-slung cockpit, aware of every imperfection in the pavement. The massive engine is right behind the seats, thundering into passengers’ ears. The steering is precise but stiff, requiring intense concentration. It’s a total sensory experience that makes a roundabout in an Italian village look like a sharp bend at the Monaco Grand Prix.

“The car gives you the feeling that you, as a driver, are a hero,” said Rouven Mohr, chief technology officer of Lamborghini. Recreating that feeling in an electric car, he said, “is our main task.”

Batteries offer certain advantages to supercar designers. Electric cars don’t need long drive shafts and bulky transmissions. Electric motors are much smaller than internal combustion engines. Components can be arranged to optimize weight distribution and handling.

Each wheel can have its own electric motor and be programmed to run at slightly different speeds to maximize maneuverability around a curve. Lamborghini plans to equip cars with artificial intelligence that would learn the driver’s preferences and driving style, and adjust handling and performance accordingly.

“The car understands what you want,” Mr. Mohr said.

So far, the supercar-exclusive clientele is not clamoring for an electric car. “No one has come up with something for them where they say, ‘Oh, that’s even cooler than my current combustion engine car,'” Mr Mohr said.

Other companies are trying, although so far they produce electric supercars in very small numbers. Rimac Automobili, a Croatian company whose investors include Porsche, Hyundai and the private equity unit of Goldman Sachs, unveiled the neveraan electric sports car that the company says can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than two seconds.

Lotus Cars, a British manufacturer controlled by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group of China, is selling an electric model, the Evija. That and the Nevera have prices well over $2 million. Lotus, whose other models cost far less than Ferraris or Lamborghinis, said it will only sell electric cars from 2028. (Fun fact: Lotus supplied key components for the first production model of Tesla, the Roadster.)

Other close competitors are moving at roughly the same speed. In Britain, Aston Martin plans to offer its first all-electric vehicle in 2025. McLaren, also British, is not expected to offer a model powered solely by batteries until 2028.

Ferrari and Lamborghini don’t plan to stop making cars with internal combustion engines. But they are under increasing pressure from regulators to reduce their fuel consumption, particularly in Europe. A two-seat Lamborghini Aventador coupe averages 11 miles per gallon, half the fuel economy of a full-size pickup truck, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (Aficionados say most people only drive their supercars a few thousand miles a year, so fuel consumption is low.)

Wealthy young buyers may not want to be seen in such an extravagant car.

“We are attracting younger customers every day,” said Stephan Winkelmann, chief executive of Lamborghini. They want performance, he says, but also “peace of mind”.

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