Why Hollywood Might Hold An Important Answer For Car-makers

Why Hollywood Might Hold An Important Answer For Car-makers

When it comes to new cars, Electric Vehicles (EVs) are changing the way people are moved. And it poses a new challenge for some of the world’s biggest automotive brands.

The production of petrol- and diesel-powered cars has begun its slow descent as tighter environmental rules take effect in the world’s major new-car markets. For the auto industry, it’s a case of one door closing and another opening. But connected to them is a third door, which also relates to engines.

Behind door number three is the matter of what engines do; not how they move a car, but how they move people, emotionally.

It’s because engines have long been part of the product-related character that makes many car brands “who they are”.

You can find plenty of examples. Ferrari V12s and V8s create unmistakeable high-rev sounds. Porsche’s flat-six engine has its own signature soundtrack. Hear any of their symphonic induction sounds and exhaust notes and you know straight away you’re listening to a high-end sports car.

Subaru’s boxer-four-cylinder; a BMW straight-six; even a VW Golf GTI; they all exude character, especially for enthusiasts.

Much of what many car brands have become known for – not functionally or historically, but emotionally – how they make us feel – has, in large part, been driven by their engines, whether it’s their layouts, their distinctive sounds, their torque delivery, or even where they’re fitted in certain cars.

Many of these power units are long-standing brand signatures. And with EVs now becoming the norm, it begs a big question:

What happens to the emotional appeal of these car brands when these engines are no longer there?

Let me be clear: EVs are impressive machines. A Tesla Model S Plaid can deliver more than 1,400 Nm of torque. You’ll need a 900 Nm twin-turbo V12 Mercedes-Benz S680 Maybach (at AUD $540,000 ) to get near that kind of thrust from a petrol engine.

EVs also offer a long list of advantages over their ICE (internal combustion engine) counterparts. Quiet running, better NVH (noise, vibration, harshness), fewer moving parts, not to mention the obvious emissions improvements. They can even have packaging benefits, offering flat floors, better cabin space and a lower centre of gravity (CoG) for better handling.

But remove the familiar ICE characteristics from some vehicle makes and models and you remove a chunk of their character. This could be a challenge for various brands – and an opportunity for others.

EVs are beginning to narrow the product-based market gaps between some car brands.

And some volume-oriented new-car makes see it as a chance to quickly catch up to more exclusive marques. For example, are the differences between a Tesla Model 3 Performance and Porsche Taycan Turbo S really enough to warrant the roughly $250K price difference? I own one and I’ve driven the other in testing. They’re both great cars.

But when a luxury car brand launches a new EV and its rated torque, 0-100 km/h acceleration, driving character, performance, recharging time, on-board technologies and list of features are very similar to an equivalent EV from a mass-market brand, it’s immediately obvious they need new product-based brand separators.

Sure, the emotional pull of long-standing brand power can make a difference when it comes to attracting customers, especially those willing to pay higher retail prices. But with the emergence of EV models offering similar performance and equipment from manufacturers at different ends of the brand spectrum – car makes whose ICE-powered models were once almost poles apart – it’s fair to say car makers need more than a badge to distinguish themselves as “better” or “different”.

This is especially the case with first-time new-car buyers, and mainstream shoppers who often aren’t interested in motoring culture and the idea of paying a premium for specific car brands.

So, can other product attributes replace those once communicated by a “trademark” ICE powertrain?

Yes, but with the right approach.

If a premium car brand wants to dial up its luxuriousness, it can do it with attributes such as ride comfort and what’s known as “perceived quality”, such as how a door feels and sounds when it’s closed. For a long-standing sports car company known for its V8 engines, they could can dial up its steering, handling and road-holding attributes to underline its cars’ athletic credentials.

You might think these companies already do this stuff. They do. But the amount of development focus they’ll now need to give these product attributes, and how they market them, are now going to play even bigger roles in achieving and keeping this “product gap”.

This is a critical topic for some brands. What took generations to achieve with product-based brand advantages could disappear quickly, especially if EV technology advancements continually first appear with mainstream manufacturers and not premium brands, a reversal of the “trickle-down” effect we’ve become so used to.

Traditional performance criteria may no longer be relevant when even a $60K EV is achieving supercar levels of acceleration. Performance car brands will need to explore and develop new methods to excite their customers, with torque vectoring, unique driving modes and weight-saving likely to become the new features and metrics that determine their success and popularity.

Also, focusing on the public image of these product attributes is also critical. It’s one of Hollywood’s key mechanisms for creating fame. If an actor takes on the image of someone, they can gradually take on that persona.

Famed author John Updike captured it well when he said “celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.” You can achieve the same with products, including new cars.

Generate enough success emphasising the technology in a new model and an automaker will see regard it as a technology leader, which can then lead the public to the same conclusion about that car, and even the brand.

To a large extent you can do the same with a car’s handling abilities to create product-based sports-car character. A BMW M3 doesn’t look like a Mazda MX-5 but they share the same sporting credentials. The same effects are possible with premium-brand cars and luxury appointments, and even tough utility vehicles. The list goes on.

Any carmaker can develop and emphasise these product attributes. They can even develop them locally in Australia. Along with EV conversions and new-car EV development, it’s one of the things we do for OEM carmakers. It’s a way to achieve product-based brand personality and evidence-based market differentiation that buyers can experience, the very kind that can help fill the personality void left when petrol and diesel engines are replaced by electric drivetrains.

With so many of these long-established product-based gaps between ‘premium’ and ‘mainstream’ car brands narrowing, the need for new product signatures is becoming more apparent for some manufacturers – whether they’re looking to preserve that gap, or they’re looking to further narrow it.

Many tens of billions of dollars are already invested into this new generation of zero-emissions vehicles, some of which are being created by century-old businesses. There’s a lot at stake. And there’s no masking that fact.

Bernie Quinn – Engineering Director, Premcar


About Premcar – Premcar Pty Ltd is a leading Australian vehicle engineering business that specialises in the automotive, defence and aerospace industries. For more than 25 years, global car-makers have made Premcar their go-to partner for the complete design, engineering and manufacture of niche-model new cars, full-scale new-vehicle development programs, and electric vehicle (EV) conversions and manufacturing. As the name behind more than 200,000 new cars and 55,000 new-vehicle engines, Premcar’s body of work is extensive and has delivered technical and sales success for major car brands from Europe, the USA, Japan, China and Australia. Visit premcar.com.


Follow Premcar on Instagram@premcaraustralia

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