Led by Tesla, Luxe Plug-In Cars Are Electrifying Hollywood

 Illustration by: Matthew Billington

This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

There was a time when Hollywood's awareness of electric cars began and ended with Ed Begley Jr. plugging in his prehistoric electric Rabbit at Morton's while the valets gaped. But what was once an eco-activist-actor's lonely crusade is an increasingly plausible choice in a town starting to embrace electric cars as warmly as it does opaque accounting.

The Toyota Prius hybrid, launched in the U.S. in 2000, made an alt-fuel car broadly acceptable in Hollywood -- everybody from Michael Douglas to Natalie Portman drove one. But it took the all-electric Tesla Model S, with its Aston Martin-meets-Maserati styling, 200-miles-plus range, stellar build quality (the harrumphing Consumer Reports awarded the Model S its highest score ever to a vehicle) and a rock star CEO, Elon Musk, to turn the electric car from a reverse-chic affectation into an aspirational status trope.

"The Tesla gave people a high-end car that fueled their status and prestige needs," says Chris Paine, director of the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, who drives a Tesla Roadster. "For the electric car, it was an awesome jump forward."

The $70,000 Model S -- the name is winking one-upmanship of another iconic car, the Ford Model T -- rocketed from 2,000 cars sold nationally in 2012 to 20,000 in a single year and was the third most popular luxury vehicle -- gas or electric -- sold in California in 2013, behind the BMW 5 and Mercedes E-Class. (Musk avows deliveries will nearly double in 2014, to 35,000.) In one fell stroke, the Model S made the plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) category, dominated by small, selfless models such as Nissan's Leaf, into a viable option for Hollywood players such as Ben Affleck and James Cameron, who until the Model S might have dropped their 70 large on a Mercedes S-Class or BMW 7.

Thanks partly to the halo effect imparted by Musk and Tesla, PEVs -- including plug-in-hybrids that can be driven for about 30 miles on battery power alone -- are catching on faster than hybrids did when they were introduced. Last year, sales nearly doubled to 96,000 worldwide and are predicted to capture 3 percent of the global market for automobiles by 2020. California's mandate that an ever-increasing percentage of autos sold in the state must produce zero emissions also is bringing more PEVs to market, even if some are so-called compliance cars, such as the Fiat 500e, sold only in California (and states with similar mandates), often at a loss, in numbers sufficient to meet the minimum sales quotas required by law.

The left-field success of the Model S seriously rattled the cages of luxury stalwarts Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Audi, even though BMW sells more cars in a month than Tesla sold all last year. The perception that a California upstart could steal the technological and status mojo from a company like Mercedes, which unflinchingly spent $1 billion revamping its flagship S-Class, did not go over well in Stuttgart.

Small wonder, then, that Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Cadillac have in the past year fielded luxury PEVs of their own. Musk, who stunned the industry when he made Tesla's patents available for free earlier this year, welcomes the competition, as he believes more players will expedite his vision of making electric cars as ubiquitous as those powered by gasoline. "Elon got everybody to bring their best game to the electric car," says Paine.

Analysts say that, for all the work in infrastructure and technology that lies ahead, today's marketplace is vastly different than that depicted in Who Killed the Electric Car?, which chronicled GM's disabling or destroying every example of its beloved EV1, an early electric built from 1996 to 1999, when the leases expired.

Today, GM manufactures the best- selling PEV to date, the Chevrolet Volt, with sales of 41,050 through 2013, as well a luxury plug-in hybrid, the Cadillac ELR. Tesla is committed to constructing a $5 billion "gigafactory" to build lithium-ion batteries in sufficient numbers to launch its Model 3 sedan and ramp up production of its Model X SUV later this year.

And a robust recharging infrastructure like Tesla's network of Supercharging stations, which the company forecasts will cover 98 percent of the U.S. by 2015, will go a long way to easing range anxiety, the main reason consumers remain leery of electric cars. The consensus is that the industry is on the cusp of a historic shift in how automobiles are manufactured, designed and driven. Tesla is in the lead -- for now.

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TOP LUXE PLUG-IN CARS

TESLA MODEL S

PRICE $69,900

RANGE 208 to 265 miles

The car that started the upscaling of the electric car category is still the best overall electric on the market, nailing virtually every metric of quality, from its breakthrough performance (twice the range of other electrics) to its chic styling. Crucially for an electric car, there is a vast and expanding network of fast Supercharger stations. Auto website Edmunds.com, however, reported glitches major and minor during 17 months driving an early-build Model S (Musk acknowledged that some early Teslas suffered quality issues). Trading up to Tesla's 85 kW model boosts range from an EPA-estimated 208 miles to 265 and gets you free charging at Supercharger stations, a $2,500 option in the 65 kW base model, which can be charged at slower public stations using a provided adapter. If price isn't a consideration -- options like a $2,500 sunroof quickly drive the Model S's sticker past $100,000 -- this is still the luxury plug-in to beat. Tesla will launch the Model X SUV next year and the Model 3 in 2017, a bid to build a high-volume electric priced under $40,000.

BMW i8

PRICE $136,625

RANGE 22 miles, electric; 310 miles total

In 2007, when Tesla introduced its first car, the now-discontinued Roadster, BMW went all-in on Project i, a strategy to future-proof the brand by building eco-friendly, alternative-fuel cars. The i8, the second car to emerge from Project i, is meant to convey everything the self-effacing i3 does not: This is a seriously sexy vehicle with a menacing facia, upward-opening scissor doors and a slippery silhouette that makes the fetching Model S look stodgy by comparison. Consider the i8 the world's first tree-hugging supercar; it scoots happily around town for about 25 miles in pure electric e-drive but morphs into an Ultimate Driving Machine when the 230 hp, 1.5 liter turbocharged gasoline engine that powers the rear wheels engages. The i8 stays true to its eco mission statement, getting the equivalent of 112 mpg, but isn't at all conflicted about pure performance: Top speed is 155 mph with a blistering zero-60 time of 4.3 seconds. BMW will build only 1,500 i8s this year, allowing it to claim the ultimate in Hollywood status symbolism: envy-inducing scarcity.

BMW i3

PRICE $41,350

RANGE 81 to 150 miles

When Tesla CEO Elon Musk was asked what he thought of BMW's i3, he burst out laughing. "I think there is room to improve on the i3 and I hope that they do," Musk managed. The i3 has been polarizing opinion since it went on sale in the U.S in May, mostly in regard to its is-it-ugly-or-avant-garde styling. Toylike in photos, the i3 is much more impressive in person, where its asymmetrical profile and center-opening "suicide" doors give it the air of the cosmopolitan city car BMW envisioned. The i3 is arguably a more technologically and ecologically ambitious car than the Model S. BMW designed the i3 -- and its sister, the i8 sports coupe -- around a carbon fiber cabin that saves weight and extends battery range. The remarkably capacious interior is fitted with sustainable materials such as the blonde eucalyptus dash. And an optional 2-cylinder gasoline engine produces supplemental electricity that doubles range. With Tesla's comparably priced Model 3 at least two years away, BMW may have the last laugh over Musk: In April it increased i3 production by 43 percent and could sell 20,000 this year, double initial projections.

MERCEDES B-CLASS ELECTRIC DRIVE

PRICE $41,450

RANGE 87 miles

The B-Class is the electrified version of Mercedes' gas- powered hatchback (which is sold outside the U.S.). Unlike the BMW i3, with which it directly competes, the Mercedes is not a radical, clean-sheet design but a repurposed conventional car, which would seem to work against it. Compared to the BMW, the Mercedes is 1,000 pounds heavier and, aside from discreet badging, looks identical to a regular B. What sets it apart from the i3 is an electric drive train supplied by Tesla, thanks to Mercedes' 2009 investment in the company. The result is a car that by some estimations outperforms its gas-powered source material, with typically crisp electric-car torque and steady-rolling handling thanks to a low center of gravity courtesy of Tesla's battery pack, tucked into a cavity beneath the cabin. The interior is standard-issue Benz -- which is to say lots of leather, burled wood trim and the usual luxury-car trimmings jettisoned in the i3's Zen-like eco-cabin. If you're a repeat Benz customer and ready to sample electrified driving, the B-Class might just be your ride.

PORSCHE PANAMERA S E-HYBRID

PRICE $99,975

RANGE 20 miles, electric; 540 miles total

Give Porsche props -- it was the first traditional luxury automaker to take a whack at the plug-in market, converting the existing Panamera S hybrid into the S E-hybrid last year. It's also the most Tesla-like plug-in on the market in terms of body style and panache -- a four-door fastback with seating for four (the Model S seats five) with a few discreet bits of trim, like the electric green brake calipers that connote its stealth eco-status. But comparisons to the Tesla end there. The Panamera traces its bloodlines to Porsche's peerless 911 Carrera, and unsurprisingly is capable of 167 mph when the 3.0 liter supercharged V6 joins the 70-kilowatt electric motor. Yet it manages a respectable combined mileage of 50 miles per gallon, same as the Prius hybrid, which is thousands of pounds lighter. The Panamera can be charged in 2.5 hours using the supplied charger, but one of the car's great features is that the gasoline engine can be used to recharge the battery on the fly in about 20 miles of regular driving, a great convenience.

CADILLAC ELR

PRICE $76,000

RANGE 37 miles electric; 340 miles total

The ELR has suffered since its introduction in January with comparisons to Chevrolet's Volt, with which it shares a modified power train though it stickers for nearly twice as much. The standard line is that the ELR is a gussied-up Volt and that Cadillac should have launched the ELR first to give the car's underlying technology the sheen of exclusivity before unleashing it on the hoi polloi. Not to mention that, for the same price, one could own a Tesla that travels more than 200 miles on a single charge compared to the ELR's 35 miles in electric mode. Cadillac has resorted to massive dealer incentives to move the ELR -- this in addition to the $7,500 federal tax credit and state tax credits. But Cadillac never meant for the ELR to be a volume car, and despite the persistent Volt comparisons, it is a far more refined machine. Stunning inside and out, theELR is the most fully realized vision of Cadillac's faceted styling, which helped revive the brand. The interior is on par with the best of Mercedes and Porsche, and, like the BMW i8, offers the luxury of scarcity; there just aren't that many ELRs on the road.

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