Icons of Italian automotive style struggle to go electric

SANT’AGATA BOLOGNESE, Italy (AP) — Children leaving an elementary school in an Italian town fell silent as the Lamborghini approached, its throaty 12-cylinder engine announcing its presence. Then, as the wedge-shaped beast roared through the schoolyard, they broke into cheers, shaking their fists and leaping into the air.

It was a spontaneous expression of the excitement that inspires the Italian sports car manufacturer and motivates those who can afford it to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars, in some cases millions, to get their hands on 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 auto industry is moving inexorably toward battery power, a trend these automakers can’t escape. Now they are wrestling with how to design electric sports cars that inspire the same passion and command the same prices.

Tesla has already challenged the claims of 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, according to Motor Trend testers.

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

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

Ferrari has offered a plug-in hybrid, the Stradale, since 2019 but won’t introduce a fully electric car until 2025. The Maranello, Italy-based company outlined its plans at an investor event this month, saying it builds electric motors and other key components itself, maintaining its tradition of craftsmanship and exclusivity.

“An electric Ferrari will be a true Ferrari,” said Benedetto Vigna, the chief executive, in an interview before the unveiling.

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

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

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

Electric motors are inherently sotto voce.

“Sound is a major asset for these vehicles,” said Andy Palmer, the former chief executive of Aston Martin and now chief executive of Switch Mobility, a manufacturer of electric buses. “Does the sports car as we know it still exist if you can’t differentiate based on sound?”

The question is of interest to more than just a wealthy few. 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 devotees routinely 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.

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

Ferrari and Lamborghini are also very profitable. Ferrari, which is publicly traded but controlled by Italy’s powerful 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 in pre-tax profit to Volkswagen’s results 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 sales returns are unusually high for the auto industry, which has notoriously thin profit margins.

The change is evident in the region near Bologna, a rolling countryside known as the Motor Valley. Ferrari and Lamborghini are separated by half an hour by car.

Last year, Ferrari broke with tradition when it named Vigna chief executive. Although he is a car enthusiast who, at the age of 14, ran away from his house for several days to attend a Formula 1 race, Mr. Vigna had never worked in an automobile company. He was previously a high-ranking executive at STMicroelectronics, a semiconductor manufacturer. His appointment marked the importance of electronics for the future of Ferrari.

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

Mr. Vigna, whose clients at STM included Apple and Tesla, brings deep connections to the world of technology to Ferrari. “If I need some contacts 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. A characteristic of supercars is their extremely low profile, which reduces wind resistance. The roof of the car barely reaches the waist. The same silhouette is a challenge to achieve with the batteries, which are usually located under the passenger compartment.

Another feature is exclusivity. Buyers can easily wait a year for delivery. Cars are collector’s items that often increase in value over time. Vintage Ferraris have sold for more than $20 million.

But does a Ferrari still feel exclusive when a Tesla is faster? Mr. Vigna argued that a few hundredths of a second difference in acceleration from 0 to 60 was not the beginning and the end. He compared driving a Ferrari to riding 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 driving. That’s not why buyers of a Lamborghini Aventador or Ferrari SF90 Spider pay more than $500,000. They want a feeling of pure power.

A Lamborghini driver sits inches from the road in the low cab, aware of every imperfection in the pavement. The huge engine is right behind the seats, booming in the ears of the passengers. Steering is precise but stiff, requiring intense concentration. It’s a total sensory experience that makes a roundabout in an Italian village feel like a hairpin bend at the Monaco Grand Prix.

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

Batteries offer some advantages to supercar designers. Electric cars don’t need long driveshafts or 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 operate at slightly different speeds to maximize handling in a corner. Lamborghini is looking to equip cars with artificial intelligence that learns the driver’s preferences and driving style, and adjusts handling and performance accordingly.

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

Until now, the exclusive clientele of supercars is not clamoring for an electric car. “Nobody has offered them something where they’re like, ‘Oh, this is even cooler than my current car with a combustion engine,’” said Mr. Mohr.

Other companies are trying, though so far they are producing electric supercars in very small numbers. Rimac Automobili, a Croatian firm whose investors include Porsche, Hyundai and the private equity unit of Goldman Sachs, unveiled the Nevera, an 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 China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, sells an electric model, the Evija. That and Fridge have price tags well above $2 million. Lotus, whose other models cost much less than Ferraris or Lamborghinis, has said it will sell only electric cars from 2028. (Fun fact: Lotus supplied key components for Tesla’s first production model, the Roadster.)

Other nearby competitors move 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 purely battery-powered model until 2028.

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

Younger, wealthier buyers may not want to be seen in a car that’s so extravagant.

“Every day we have younger customers,” said Stephan Winkelmann, chief executive of Lamborghini. They want performance, he said, but also “peace of mind.”

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