That leadership is coming under pressure led by Volkswagen and its army of brands. The competition is sharpening its electric car engineering, and seeking technology improvements to match and overtake Tesla. Teslas are not threatened by mass market brands yet, but that might happen in the medium term if the company decides to expand into a cheaper price bracket. At least in the short-term it looks as though impressive range will set it apart from the opposition.
The Model 3’s overall market leadership is surprising, given it is much pricier than the number 2 VW ID.3, and sometimes 3 times the price of the little Renault Zoe.
According to Schmidt Automotive Research, in the first 7 months of 2021 Tesla sold 66,683 Model 3s, almost twice as many as the 2nd place VW ID.3’s 35,481 and 27,881 Renault Zoes. You could argue that the VW Group and all its brands is already in the lead when you add in ID.4 SUV sales of 27,881, the little VW eUp’s 20,906, and various Skodas, SEAT’s, Audis and Porsches. Over the next 5 years, VW will spend about $55 billion electrifying its cars and SUVs across all its brands.
Official range claims for some electric cars are beginning to look as dubious as those claimed by manufacturers for internal combustion engine (ICE) powered vehicles.
I’ve recently spent some days with a Tesla Model 3 Long Range Dual Motor (£53,390 including taxes-$73,200, before subsidy) and it didn’t take long to find out why it is so popular. Tesla claims range of 360 miles using the WLTP (Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure) official data and my home charger managed a regular 341 miles. That’s about 100 miles more than competitors like the 90 kWh Jaguar I-Pace’s (£76,045-$104,200 after subsidy) 248 miles or the 95 kWh Audi- E-tron’s (89,470-$122,600 after) 180 miles. Tesla won’t reveal the size of its battery but it’s believed to be 82 kWh.
The Tesla’s highway cruising performance – an estimated 30.2% range penalty when cruising at legal maximum 0f 70 mph in Britain – was a little better than the I-Pace’s 32.8% and compared with the E-tron’s 23%. This gave the Tesla a theoretical highway range of 239 miles compared with the I-Pace’s 167.7 miles and the E-tron’s 138.7 miles. So no contest there, and adequate for most long journeys, except perhaps the long-range summer blast south for the sun. The Tesla’s regenerative braking performance suggests the face-value range would be met and occasionally exceeded in urban, rural, and city driving. And all these high-powered battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have wonderful on-road ability, with exciting acceleration and eerily quiet with it.
The official WLTP data is meant to offer Europeans guidance on a vehicle’s range, and recent studies have show this is often inadequate and occasionally outrageously so. According to “What Car?” magazine, 10 BEVs it tested missed the range claim by an average 15%, including a 29% miss by the Fiat 500e and 20% by the Ford Mustang Mach-e. My data collected over 12 months of BEV testing showed a barely noticeable WLTP data error of 4.8% for the Kia Soul (£37,295-$51,100 before), but 25.3% for the Audi E-tron, 23.8% for the 58 kWh VW ID.3 (£39,500-$54,100 before) and a stonking shortfall of 32% for the Mini E (£29,900-$41,000 before).
And just because you manage to get close to the WLTP range claim for the amount of miles you can theoretically cram into a battery, the on-road performance can fall short. For instance, Polestar claims 292 miles for its 78 kWh “2” (£49,900-$68,400 before) and in my test it filled to 270 miles, a shortfall of only 6.7%. But at highway cruising speeds it shed miles at an alarming rate of 59% of the promised range and wasn’t much better in urban, rural, city driving. Polestar was asked to explain this but remained silent. The 62 kWh Nissan Leaf (£37,820-$51,800 after) claimed 239 miles and gave a respectable 226 miles, off 5.4%, but on the highway it shed the offered range at a 54.8% rate. The 50 kWh Vauxhall Corsa E (£30,875-$42,200 after) claimed 209 miles, gave 154.5, then dumped it at a 52.6% rate on the highway.
This WLTP controversy has echoes of a previous ICE saga, when range claims were often exaggerated by up to 30% and sometimes even more. The industry replied saying, yes, guilty as charged, but the point of the data was to help buyers compare ranges across all models. This gave the customer perfectly comparable, but wrong, data. The BEV revolution promises more of the same, aggravated by the fact many reviewers don’t have home chargers to test claims.
Felipe Munoz, global automotive analyst at JATO Dynamics, said Tesla has a clear lead in Europe but other traditional carmakers are raising their games.
“European manufacturers are making electric vehicles more appealing and more affordable, although they’re still not affordable enough, they are not competitive enough, but they are improving,” Munoz said.
He said Tesla’s success with the Model 3 was despite the fact it was a hatchback in a market that wanted SUVs above all else, but the upcoming Model Y SUV should help.
“Tesla’s technology makes it superior and in terms of knowhow and expertise, they’ve been making electric cars for more than a decade and they know more than the rest, at least up until now. Also, in in terms of awareness and position, most people think Tesla when they think electric, they don’t think VW,” Munoz said.
Will Tesla be so secure a year from now?
VW is relentlessly building up its electric vehicle range as its ID.4 SUV gathers momentum. BMW plans 4 new electric cars in the next 2 years including an electric 7- and 5-Series and Xi compact SUV. Other Europeans are following suit as they seek to explore and improve battery technology, and meanwhile CEO Elon Musk has dropped hints Tesla might move downmarket and make a smaller vehicle for the European market.
Koketso Tsoai, auto analyst with Fitch Solutions, said Tesla’s long-term product plans aren’t clear.
“It’s very difficult to see a clear view on the sort of models it will introduce, particularly the rumors of a lower end Tesla. It’s really hard to tell if lower end models will make it to the market any time soon,” Tsoai said.
“Meanwhile VW is very well positioned to take a huge share of the electric car market, especially from Tesla,” Tsoai.
According to JATO Dynamics’ Munoz, pressure is building from below, with VW taking the lead.
“Stellantis is doing a good job building up its electric presence, led by the Fiat 500e its best-selling EV, while Renault-Nissan seems to be faltering,” Munoz said.
Stellantis brands include mass market names like Peugeot, Citroen, Vauxhall, Opel and Fiat, and a rarer presence with Alfa Romeo, DS and Maserati.
“European brands have been slower to take up electric vehicles but VW, with its SUV offensive will become leader in Europe at least in the short-term,” Munoz said.
Tesla Model 3 Long Range Dual Motor
2 electric motors – front 162 hp, rear 272 hp
Battery – 82 kWh? (Tesla doesn’t disclose this detail)
Energy consumption – 4.2 miles per kWh
Claimed range – 360 miles (WLTP)
WintonsWorld Test – 341 miles
Gearbox – automatic
Drive – all-wheels
Acceleration – 0-60 mph – 4.2 seconds
Top Speed – 145 mph
£53,390 including taxes ($73,200) and before subsidies