Has Porsche changed the future of road cars?


It may seem an unlikely thing to say on the day the price of oil hits a seven-year low, but last Friday the future of the car took a massive – and what history may judge to be decisive – turn away from the fossil fuel that has powered all bar a statistically negligible number of cars since the invention of the automobile 130 years ago.

That was the day Porsche announced that its all-electric Mission E concept car shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September would be put into production before the end of the decade. How can a Porsche likely to cost around £100,000 and which therefore hardly anyone will be able to afford have such a transformative effect on our lives? I’ll get to that in a moment.

For now consider the proposition. I am instinctively wary of all ‘concept’ cars, which is why I write so rarely about them in this space. Few make it into production and those that do are usually in such radically altered states as to have little or no relevance to the impractical, implausible creation from which it is claimed to be derived. But Porsche is different: not only does it have an (almost) perfect record of building its concepts, it tends not to let them write cheques the production cars that follow cannot cash in full.

Take as the most recent example the 918 hypercar. It was shown as a ‘concept’ at Geneva in 2010 and at the time we were told it would be powered by a petrol engine with over 500hp, joined by 218bhp of electrical power. In fact it turned up in showrooms with 608bhp of petrol power and 279bhp from its electric motors. Originally Porsche said it would lap the Nürburgring in less than 7min 30sec; in fact it did 6min 57sec. Its claimed 0-62mph time of 3.2sec turned out actually to be 2.8sec. And so on and on and on.

So when Porsche says the Mission E will have 600hp, a 0-62mph time of better than 3.5sec and, crucially, a 300-plus mile range with a charging time to 80 per cent capacity of just 15min, I feel inclined to treat these numbers with more than the usual pinch of salt. Besides, charging times aside, that’s already very similar to what Tesla currently claims for the P85D version of the Model S.

But the true significance of the Mission E is not the car itself, but those it will spawn. A Tesla can only give birth to a Tesla. Porsche offspring can include Audis, Bentleys and Volkswagens. And indeed it will. Porsche is investing around a billion Euros in the project and the way things are configured within the VW group, you don’t get that kind of money and only spend it on yourself: Porsche will have the right to go first with the technology and, presumably, the bespoke electrical platform architecture that goes with it, but soon it will be made available to other companies within the group. When that happens, electricity will enter the mainstream, and no-one will be able to ignore it.

It interests me too that despite the known benefits to the environment, near instant refuelling and no serious range issues, Porsche did not choose to power the Mission E via a fuel cell. I suspect it remains doubtful that there will be a viable hydrogen infrastructure even by 2020, because still no-one seems to know how to produce hydrogen in a way that is both clean and affordable.

Rumours that the VW Group is on the verge of making the much mooted but still awaited leap in battery technology may also be true: if people knew they could get another 250 miles range in the time it takes to have a cup of coffee, that would likely seem enough to convert many who like the idea of electric but not the current reality.

What this means for the good old internal combustion engine remains to be seen, but my strong suspicion is that it has not years, but decades of life left in it even if it ends up only supporting electricity in a hybrid powertrain or as a niche player in sports cars. For while I can see the sense of electric hatchbacks, SUVs, family cars and large luxury saloons like the Mission E, a proper sports car needs not only to provide the performance and look the part, it has to sound right too. And despite all its advances in recent years, that is one attribute electric cars appear no closer to acquiring now than when they first appeared, over 125 years ago.

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