The spin is that, once these slumbering Atlases get off the mat, their global heft and know-how will let them flood showrooms with electric vehicles — and narrow the gap with Tesla, which claimed 936,000 sales worldwide in 2021.
Yet it is two California startups that have just begun delivering the past year’s most significant new EVs, the Lucid Air and the Rivian R1T pickup. And a comparison test of Lucid’s sedan against the 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS — the first all-electric sedan from the company that essentially invented the automobile in the late 19th century — favours a divergent view: A century-plus of experience in building internal-combustion cars doesn’t necessarily mean squat. Not when automobiles are being digitised and revolutionised, and new generations of drivers aren’t always impressed by old names and ways.
As for which company holds the more relevant institutional knowledge, consider Lucid’s founder, Peter Rawlinson: He was the engineering brains behind Tesla’s world-changing Model S.
The record-smashing 520-mile driving range he has coaxed out of the Air is only Exhibit A for his company’s superior in-house tech and all-in electric approach. Mercedes, which intends to sell a lineup of EQ-badged models alongside similarly styled gasoline versions, must serve two sets of customers, while keeping regulators at bay. It must develop a new car business meant to put its old one out of business. That’s a tough nut to loosen for the smartest legacy makers.
For traditional automakers, Rawlinson said, the care and feeding of gasoline cash cows does create some dichotomy. That said, electric ambivalence is rapidly being swept away.
“You’ve got a clarity of purpose in being a purely electric car company,” he acknowledged. “Yet there are hardly any leaders of traditional car companies today who would argue that electric is anything but the future.”
Like Volkswagen and its ID.4, Mercedes has played up the EQS as one of the most important cars in its storied history. Mercedes may yet crack the EV code, but the EQS seems destined to be a footnote.
The EQS drives beautifully, as you’d expect of any six-figure Mercedes, from wizardly rear-wheel steering to what must be the quietest cabin of any EV yet. But too much EQS tech is showboating gadgetry that might be applied to any gasoline car, like its overwrought 56-inch Hyperscreen display and ambient lighting that pours from every crevice, in 64 selectable colours. What’s missing is any innovation that advances electric driving.
First impressions don’t help. The EQS’ inelegant styling adheres to that most played-out of EV tropes: the ovum-shaped transportation pod, blown up to Benzian proportions. Mercedes posits the EQS as an alternative to its S-Class flagship; yet taller adults find their noggins squashed in a cramped back seat, and there’s no storage “frunk” as in many engine-free EVs. The Lucid is 11 inches shorter, yet easily fits lanky rear-seat riders, and brings the industry’s largest frunk.
Mercedes says the EQS is the world’s most aerodynamic production car. But Lucid’s Air is virtually as slippery, and manages to look great. Despite its aero profile, the EQS has a range maxing out at 350 miles, per its government rating. The Lucid’s most efficient version can go about 50% farther, enough for about 2 1/2 more hours of highway driving.
Put up against Mercedes’ dynastic heritage and scale, Lucid is an obscure underdog. Yet this blank-slate company has advanced EV tech where it counts: No electric has gone farther on a charge. And no EV has charged faster, adding up to 300 miles in 20 minutes on a 350-kilowatt charger. (The Benz’s fastest charging rate is 200 kilowatts.)
“We just got 500 miles of range at 70 mph — how did we do that?” Rawlinson said, referring to a real-world, highway-speed range test conducted by InsideEVs.com. “We did it by taking a ground-up review of what was possible from an EV.”
Among models tested at the same 70-mph clip, the compact Tesla Model 3 was a distant second at 310 miles, followed by Tesla’s Model S at 300 miles and the Porsche Taycan at 297. InsideEVs has yet to test the Mercedes, although my mileage suggested the Benz can meet or exceed its 350-mile official rating.
A traditional automaker might have set a 400-mile target, achieved it and moved on, Rawlinson said.
“We actually thought 400 miles would be pretty good, but we just found more and more tech,” he added. “We’ve finally replaced range anxiety with range confidence.”
Lucid is also primed to sell many more Airs in America this year — as many as 20,000 from a new Arizona factory — than the EQS. Mercedes sold 443 EQS cars in the United States in the fourth quarter, although that initial trickle might ramp up; the company won’t reveal how many will reach American showrooms this year.
Lucid intends to follow up with a Gravity SUV next year, the first in a planned lineup-and-factory expansion to achieve a 500,000-vehicle annual capacity by 2030. Rawlinson acknowledges the hurdles ahead for any company hoping to replicate Tesla’s (so far) unparalleled rise. But he noted how many sceptics assumed Tesla would fail spectacularly in 2009, when he joined the company.
“We started Model S with six engineers, which is unheard-of,” he said. “And it’s important for a chief engineer to be truly empowered to call the shots.”
The Air’s tour de force is Rawlinson’s signature drive unit. The V-8 engine in a new Corvette makes 495 horsepower. With an eight-speed transmission, the powertrain weighs more than 800 pounds. Lucid’s powder keg — including an electric motor, single-speed transmission and inverter — spools up to 650 horsepower and weighs 163 pounds. The entire unit fits in an airline carry-on bag. And it nearly triples the power density, or horsepower per pound, of Tesla’s best.
For the German competition, I drove an EQS 580 with 516 horsepower and a 4.1-second dash to 60 mph. This EQS (from $120,105, or $135,300 with options) felt swift — until the Lucid Air Dream Performance whisked me away with 1,111 ridiculous horsepower from its dual motors. The number reads like a misprint, and feels like tripping out a Cessna’s door without a parachute. That included a free fall down the shoulders of Storm King Mountain on US Route 9W, the wintry narrows of the Hudson River going blurry below.
The Lucid weighs 5,200 pounds, thanks in part to 6,600 cylindrical battery cells. Yet with that battery ballast, it still feels tethered to the road, with a heady blend of comfort and control. Regenerative brakes are tuned like a Stradivarius; even rushes into corners rarely require touching the brake pedal, only a well-timed lift off the accelerator.
A Porsche Taycan, driven on the same roads, reiterated its status as the market’s purest-handling EV. But the Lucid is never short on thrills, and is more spacious inside.
Sixty mph arrives in 2.5 seconds, testing shows. A quarter-mile takes 9.9 seconds, at which point the Lucid is traveling 144 mph. That’s a few ticks behind a tri-motor $131,000 Model S Plaid — with Lucid’s own, more powerful tri-motor version in the works — but as quick as a seven-figure, 1,000-horsepower Bugatti Veyron. Where that Veyron quaffed unleaded at 10 mpg, the Lucid returns the energy-use equivalent of up to 131 mpg. That’s also 38% more efficient than the Benz, at 95 mpge.
That efficiency, for which Rawlinson is becoming synonymous, also saves downtime. Because the Lucid can squeeze 4.6 miles from every battery kilowatt-hour — if one drives like Auntie Prius — every minute on the plug translates to more miles on the road.
The Air’s five-year odyssey to showrooms has dimmed its power to surprise. But its clean, Citroën-like silhouette — with a dramatic “glass canopy” capping an interior feast of nappa leather, wood and metal — still looks fresh. The Air satisfies big-screen dreams as well, but its displays complement the interior rather than overwhelm it.
This Dream Edition’s 520-car run is built and spoken for, so no need to choke on the $170,500 price. A Grand Touring model ($140,500) amasses 800 horses and 516 miles of range.
For more apples-to-apples, Mercedes’ rear-drive EQS 450+ starts at $103,360, with 329 horsepower. For $96,500, Lucid’s Air Touring brings all-wheel drive and nearly double the Benz’s horsepower, at 620. (Deduct a $7,500 federal tax credit from these prices.) The most-affordable Air Pure, expected late this year, combines a projected 406-mile range and 480 horses for $78,900.
The Lucid and the Mercedes are their makers’ opening bids in EV sedans. But where a legacy maker like Mercedes can afford to tinker and dabble a while longer — perhaps deliberately, buying critical time — Lucid and Rawlinson have no such luxury. For Lucid, everything is riding on the Air. And it shows.
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