Luxury cars go green, still find buyers
When Johan de Nysschen, President of General Motors’ Cadillac luxury brand, was presenting the CT6, the new flagship luxury sedan, at the New York auto show last week, he boasted about a surprising feature of its 400hp engine. Some of its six cylinders would automatically deactivate when not needed, Mr de Nysschen said, as part of an effort to make the vehicle exceptionally fuel-efficient for its size.
The boast was one of many during launches at the show, the most important for the US’s luxury car market. When introducing the new Lincoln Continental concept car on Monday, Kumar Galhotra, president of Ford’s luxury brand, praised the “smooth, effortless driving experience” of the vehicle’s fuel-efficient eco-boost engine. Last Thursday, Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s chief executive, boasted not only about the fast lap times its new, sporty Maxima had achieved on a test track, but also its 30 miles-per-US-gallon fuel economy.
The choices reflect how carmakers serving the US luxury car market – long a haunt of heavy gas-guzzlers – are coming under increasing pressure to make their vehicles more fuel-efficient.
The pressure comes partly from federal government regulations requiring them to double their fleets’ average fuel economy from 27.5 miles per US gallon in 2012 to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
However, the emphasis on the issue also reflects manufacturers’ increasing determination to sell their vehicles worldwide. In Europe, which has heavily taxed fuel, and China, which has demanding emissions standards, fuel efficiency has been important for longer than in the lightly taxed US.
Even in the US, meanwhile, consumers are starting to discriminate on the basis of fuel economy, according to Stuart Schorr, head of public affairs in the US for the UK’s Jaguar Land Rover.
JLR suffered until recently, Mr Schorr says, because many of its cars were available only with relatively fuel-hungry eight-cylinder engines.
“Consumers are actually starting wanting fuel economy, whether it be for financial reasons or because of gas prices or because the economy was bad,” Schorr says.
The issue, according to Mr Ghosn, is that customers are demanding fuel efficiency, but not to the detriment of other characteristics that they value.
“You cannot tell them, ‘By the way, you want a sports car but I’m not going to offer you a sports car because a sports car is by definition not fuel-efficient. They want a more fuel-efficient sports car,” Ghosn said.
Yet there is no doubt the shift would not be happening at its current speed were it not for the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (Cafe) standards, agreed in 2012. Although the rate has fallen from a high of 25.8 mpg in August last year, the average fuel efficiency of a vehicle sold in the US in February was 25.2 mpg. That figure was still 25 per cent better than the equivalent in October 2007, according to Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan. The academics’ figures are calculated differently from those used to calculate the Cafe standards.
Mr Schorr says that younger purchasers of lower end vehicles such as the Jaguar XE are particularly keen to have an “environmental story” about their car.
“They’re affluent – but they’re upper middle-class affluent,” Mr Schorr says. “They’re not looking to be inefficient – that’s for sure.”
The efficiency improvements are, in any case, producing fewer trade-offs between efficiency and performance than might be expected. Cadillac’s use of aluminium and other lightweight materials has made the CT6 220lbs lighter than if its body had been all steel – a change that Mr de Nysschen welcomes for its effect on the vehicle’s image. He says: “We can use this to address the stories that Cadillac only makes large luxury cars that are terrible to drive.”
The ultimate irony, in fact, may be that the fuel economy rules, which many initially expected to accelerate sales of small, European-sized compact cars, may be having an unintended consequence. They have led to the introduction of performance cars that are easier and cheaper to drive at high speeds.
Mr de Nysschen says the new, lighter Cadillacs will feature a combination of “great driver’s car and great comfort”.
JLR, meanwhile, has cut as much as 700lbs from the weight of its large Range Rover SUV by switching to an all-aluminium body. Smaller engines in lighter vehicles are themselves lighter, Mr Schorr points out, while the vehicles also need smaller, lighter brakes.
“A lighter car feels more nimble,” Mr Schorr says. “It drives better. It handles better.”