Italian Automotive Style Icons Struggle to Go Electric

6 Mins read

SANT’AGATA BOLOGNESE, Italy – The boys emerging from a primary school in an Italian village fell silent as the Lamborghini approached, its throaty 12-cylinder engine booming out its presence. As the wedge-shaped beast thundered through the schoolyard, they burst into cheers, clenched their fists, and leaped into the air.

It was a spontaneous expression of emotion that inspired the Italian sports car maker. It motivated those who could afford it to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, to buy one.

But Lamborghini, Ferrari, and a handful of other companies making 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 auto industry is moving inexorably toward battery power, a trend these automakers can’t escape. They are now struggling to design electric sports cars that spark the same passion and command the same prices.

Tesla has already challenged Ferrari and Lamborghini’s claims to be at the forefront of car 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, according to Motor Trend testers.

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

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

Ferrari has offered a plug-in hybrid, the Stradale, since 2019 but will not unveil a fully electric car until 2025. Based in Maranello, Italy, the company explained its plans at an investor event this month. Builds its electric motors and other important components, keeping with its tradition of craftsmanship and exclusivity.

“An electric Ferrari becomes a real Ferrari,” said Benedetto Vigna, the CEO, in an interview before the presentation.

Ferrari also said, in line with tradition, it would borrow technology from its formidable race team. But the company is not participating in Formula E, the answer to Formula 1 for electric cars. Mr. Vigna declined to say if there are any plans to do so.

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

While the general car market is stagnating, the popularity of battery-powered cars is rising worldwide.

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

Electric motors are inherently sotto voce.

“Sound is a key asset for these vehicles,” said Andy Palmer, a former CEO of Aston Martin and now the CEO of Switch Mobility, an electric bus manufacturer. “Will the sports car as we know it survives if you can’t differentiate based on sound?”

The question matters to more than just a few rich. Italian pride and prestige are at stake.

While much of the rest of the Italian auto industry has become almost irrelevant — Fiat’s market share in Europe has fallen to just 4 percent — supercar enthusiasts routinely pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for Ferraris and Lamborghinis, often waiting a year for delivery. . The most exclusive models have price tags in the millions.

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

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

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

Change is evident in the region near Bologna, the rolling landscape known as the Motor Valley. Ferrari and Lamborghini are half an hour’s drive from each other.

Last year Ferrari broke with tradition when it appointed Mr. Vigna as chief executive. Although he is a car enthusiast who snuck away from home for several days at 14 to attend a Formula 1 race, Mr. Vigna had never worked for a car company before. He was previously a high-ranking executive at STMicroelectronics, a semiconductor maker. His appointment signaled the importance of electronics for Ferrari’s future.

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

Mr. Vigna, whose clients at STM have included Apple and Tesla, brings Ferrari deep connections from the tech world. “If I need contacts with a potential partner or supplier, I can easily reach the right level of people,” he said.

The shift to batteries presents Ferrari and Lamborghini with several challenges. A feature of supercars is their extremely low profile, which reduces air resistance. The roof of the car is barely medium-high. The same silhouette is a challenge to achieve with batteries, which are typically located under the passenger compartment.

Another feature is exclusivity. Buyers can easily wait a year for delivery. The cars are collectibles that often increase in value over time. Vintage Ferraris have sold for over $20 million.

But does a Ferrari still feel exclusive when a Tesla is faster? Mr. Vigna argued that a few hundredths of a second in acceleration from 0 to 60 wasn’t everything. He compared driving a Ferrari to drive a roller coaster. It’s not so much the speed as the thrill.

“Ferrari is experienced,” 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 over $500,000 for. They want a feeling of pure power.

A Lamborghini driver sits inches from the road in the low-slung cockpit, aware of any imperfection in the road surface. The huge engine sits just behind the seats and thunders into the passengers’ ears. The steering is precise but stiff and requires intense concentration. It’s a total sensory experience that makes a roundabout in an Italian village feel like a tight corner during the Monaco Grand Prix.

“The car makes you feel like a hero as a driver,” said Rouven Mohr, Lamborghini’s chief technology officer. Mimicking that feeling in an electric car, he said, “is our main job.”

Batteries offer some benefits to supercar designers. Electric cars don’t need long driveshafts and bulky transmissions. Electric motors are much smaller than combustion engines. The components can be arranged to optimize weight distribution and handling.

Each wheel can have its electric motor and be programmed to run at slightly different speeds to maximize handling around a corner. Lamborghini is looking at equipping cars with artificial intelligence to learn a driver’s preferences and driving style and adjust handling and performance accordingly.

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

So far, the exclusive supercar clientele isn’t clamoring for an electric car. “No one has offered them anything to say, ‘Oh, this is even cooler than my current combustion engine,'” said Mr. Mohr.

Other companies are trying, although until now, they are producing electric supercars in very small numbers. Rimac Automobili, a Croatian company whose investors include Porsche, Hyundai, and Goldman Sachs’ private equity unit, has unveiled the Nevera, an electric sports car that the company claims can accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in less than two seconds.

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

Other close competitors move at about the same speed. Aston Martin plans to offer its first all-electric vehicle in Britain in 2025. British McLaren is not expected to provide a model that runs exclusively on batteries until 2028.

Ferrari and Lamborghini are not going to stop making cars with combustion engines. But they are under increasing pressure from regulators to cut fuel consumption, especially in Europe. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a two-seat Lamborghini Aventador coupe averages 18 miles per gallon or half the entire economy of a large pickup. (Aficionados claim that most people only drive their supercars a few thousand miles a year, so fuel economy is low.)

Wealthy younger buyers may not want to be seen in a car this extravagant.

“We’re getting younger customers daily,” said Stephan Winkelmann, Lamborghini’s CEO. They want performance, he said, but also “peace of mind.”

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