Whilst seemingly irrelevant to everyday driving, the ongoing competition between Tesla and Porsche over EV performance supremacy is quickly demonstrating that fossil sports cars are becoming obsolete — an important symbolic milestone for the EV revolution which will have repercussions in higher volume segments. If Porsche wants its Taycan to keep pace with the Tesla Model S Plaid, Porsche will have to allow it to outperform the company’s current flagship Panamera combustion sedan. And that will only highlight the inferiority of fossil vehicles.
Whilst lap times around the Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit have little apparent relevance to most folks, they are precisely the central currency that Porsche itself uses to show off the desirability and superiority of its sports cars. Unfortunately for Porsche, the Tesla Model S Plaid prototype’s recent informal lap time of 7:23 soundly beat out the Taycan’s 7:42 lap time — which Porsche had previously proudly highlighted as “class leading” in the Taycan’s pre-launch marketing.
Even adjusting the lap times to even out the effects of unequal tire choices, the Tesla is still already around 10 seconds ahead of the Taycan — a significant margin for such vehicles on this circuit. There’s likely to be further embarrassment for Porsche coming, since next month Tesla will target a possible 7:05 lap time (likely using race tires). Even if they fall short and end up around 7:15, that still translates into a 7:25 lap time when equalizing for tires, beating all 4-door combustion cars. This will still be around 17 seconds ahead of the Taycan’s best time.
Data from our track tests indicates that Model S Plaid can achieve 7:20 at the Nürburgring.
With some improvements, 7:05 may be possible when Model S returns next month.
— Tesla (@Tesla) September 19, 2019
Porsche has long been regarded as the world’s leading performance car brand, particularly taking into account production volumes (Ferrari and other performance brands are minnows by volume). Porsche has also unambiguously marketed the upcoming Taycan as the definitive performance sports EV of the moment (with a price lag likely much higher than even the “Plaid” Model S). Porsche will feel compelled to respond to Tesla’s challenge. But how to respond?
Upsetting the Pecking Order
The Taycan’s pricing within the Porsche lineup places it fractionally below that of the fastest-on-track 4-door flagship Panamera, a combustion engined model. It’s $150,900 for the Taycan Turbo vs. $153,000 for the Panamera Turbo. The Taycan Turbo has slightly better acceleration than the Panamera to 60 mph (3.0 vs 3.4 seconds), and more power (459 vs 410 kW), though lower top speed (161 vs 190 mph).
The Taycan’s Nürburgring Nordschleife lap time worked out to be 4 seconds slower than the Panamera (7:42 vs 7:38). This may have been more than a happy coincidence. With these respective lap times, in the eyes of Porsche’s marketing department, everything lines up nicely: the Panamera is fractionally more expensive, but carries slightly higher currency in terms of track performance than the Taycan. This arrangement preserves the supremacy of combustion vehicles in Porsche’s family hierarchy.
The Taycan slots in just behind the Panamera, whilst fulfilling its most important design brief — offering the best performance chops of any EV on the market.
Well, everything was lined up nicely. Tesla’s Model S Plaid prototype now disrupts this tidy arrangement. It has already stolen the Nürburgring track performance crown from the Taycan — the currency that Porsche itself chose to highlight its brand’s unique strengths.
Porsche’s Existential Dilemma — Can Porsche Already Allow its EV to Outperform its Fossils?
Closing the likely 15+ second gap with the Model S Plaid will not be straightforward for the Taycan. But even if it does not get all the way there, it can almost certainly be boosted enough to get a lap time below the Panamera Turbos’s 7:38 time.
But there’s the rub — Tesla’s habitual insistence on squeezing as much as it can out of EV powertrains has created an existential dilemma for Porsche — can this storied sports car maker really allow its very first full EV, the Taycan, to already perform at a level where it outcompetes the more expensive combustion king, the Panamera?
Put more bluntly — can Porsche afford to admit that the very first generation of its EV technology is already superior in performance to the pinnacle sedan showcasing its combustion engine technology, a car representing its best efforts after decades upon decades of engine development and billions of euros spent on that focus?
What message would that send — fossils are already becoming obsolete?
What impact would this have on the sales of Porsche’s combustion vehicles overall?
Heads Tesla Wins, Tails Fossils Lose
The performance competition between Tesla and Porsche seems on the face of it to be an exercise in impracticality, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
There’s a famous old aphorism in motorsport — “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” The idea emerged in the mid-20th century, and remains the case today.
One of the most widely broadcast (and/or distributed) TV shows of all time was the classic BBC show “Top Gear,” which centered around performance vehicles doing impractical things. It was shown in 214 different countries at its peak popularity.
Symbols and markers of “performance” — be they fancy wheels and low-profile tires, wings and diffusers, large-bore exhaust pipes, or otherwise — are visible at almost every tier of the auto market today, often even on otherwise unpretentious economy vehicles. Symbolism, prestige, and emotionality, beyond considerations of pure economics or practicality, are inherent facets of the global auto market. Just watch a few advertising videos from the main automakers (from almost any decade) to remind yourself of this reality.
In short, performance chops at the top of the market quickly trickle down and play an outsized role shaping the vehicles that people actually feel excited to buy, even if only via indirect status associations and symbolism, well beyond purely practical considerations. The locus of excitement is now shifting to electric vehicles.
We’re now at the point where various automakers, beyond Tesla and other pioneers, are starting to enter the EV fray in increasing visibility. Just as a result of physics combined with where the technology is today, all EVs typically offer more compelling performance than their combustion engined peers. It’s for this reason that the next generation of supercars and hypercars — from the likes of Lotus, Nio, Pagani, Pininfarina, Rimac, as well as Tesla itself — are going to be fully electric vehicles.
The inherent performance advantages of EVs mean that Porsche now has two basic choices. Either quickly iterate on its EV powertrain to keep pace with Tesla’s offerings, or concede its performance crown to the California upstart, and risk losing decades of hard-won credibility.
If choosing the latter course, Porsche would perhaps even risk having its first EV effort be perceived or described as a moderate fail (within reason — the Taycan is already fantastic compared to most vehicles). This would be the “Heads Tesla wins” outcome.
If Porsche, however, was to take the first option — and quickly respond over the coming months by increasing its EV powertrain performance — this will also cause problems. It will quickly reveal that Porsche’s fossil vehicles are poor value by comparison. This is “Tails Fossils lose.”
A Solution — Quickly Implement More EV Powertrains
There’s another path that Porsche may feel it’s wise to pursue (and indeed there are indications that the company is heading in this direction). Porsche may be able to boost the Taycan to keep “close enough” in performance to the Tesla Model S Plaid in order to maintain kudos, and emphasize the overall package and handling as well as the legendary build quality, to round out the offering and attract customers who appreciate these traits of the brand.
To avoid fallout from the repercussions of Taycan’s superior performance over its fossil lineup when taking this path, Porsche could work fast to maintain the performance pecking order within its wider family. Porsche could achieve this by quickly offering a high performing fully electric (BEV) powertrain option, or at least a more electric-biased plug-in hybrid (PHEV) powertrain option, for the Panamera. This would have to keep overall performance roughly on par with the Taycan (at least), but emphasize the greater space and Gran-Turismo levels of comfort of the Panamera.
The current combustion-biased PHEV powertrain of the Panamera just won’t be able to scale to this increased performance level whilst maintaining legal emissions limits over its full sales lifespan. Combustion entails emissions — there’s no way around that fact. If Porsche doesn’t go full BEV for the Panamera, it will have to implement a new PHEV powertrain with much greater emphasis on electric motor power (ideally at least 45:55 — electric:combustion — similar proportions to the 919 hybrid race car).
The Cayenne SUV could readily follow suit with the same renewed powertrain as the above Panamera setup, as the two have traditionally shared powertrains.
The top-selling Macan would benefit from its own (appropriately scaled) version of the same powertrain. Being at the lowest performance level of the family hierarchy, it might seem the Macan can escape this urgent reshuffling of performance. But without such a PHEV (or better, full BEV) powertrain, the Macan will not be able to compete effectively with the upcoming Model Y Performance variant.
Porsche has previously hinted that it is planning a full BEV powertrain for the Macan for the 2022 timeframe. It may be wise to bring this forward by a year or two if at all possible (at least as an optional variant in modest volumes).
The 911 and 718 model lines — emphasizing compact form and lightness — might arguably have a few years of combustion powertrain, or PHEV, remaining. Offering a PHEV option with modest batteries yet powerful electric motors (like the 919 hybrid) would be a good intermediate step towards eventual full BEV options here.
Porsche is now under significant pressure to squeeze more performance from its BEV powertrain to keep the Taycan competitive with the Tesla Model S Plaid. Porsche has the engineering capability to do so, but taking this path runs the risk of upsetting the performance pecking order of its existing model hierarchy. In particular, there’s the undesirable side effect that the Taycan will outshine the performance of the more expensive Panamera combustion sibling.
The best solution to this will likely be to bring forward stronger electrification efforts for the Panamera (and by implication, its powertrain sharing sibling, the Cayenne). BEV would be preferable, but an electric-biased PHEV powertrain (different from the Panamera’s current PHEV variants) may be more practical in the short term, given the timescale. If that’s the path taken, it makes sense for the Macan to follow this trend also, and offer its own PHEV or full BEV variant. This is the only way the Macan can compete effectively with the upcoming Tesla Model Y Performance.
More broadly, we have finally reached the point of full BEV performance cars vying for position against each other via rapid improvements. As they jostle and push each other forwards, with plenty of headroom to improve at lightening fast rates, the fallout lands on the venerable combustion engine, which ends up in an untenable position, far behind. Fossil fueled vehicles are no longer where the excitement is.
The only way to effectively compete with performance-leading BEV powertrains is … with ever better BEV powertrains (or at minimum with advanced PHEV powertrains, in the short term). This will inevitably only widen the performance gap between EVs and traditional combustion vehicles. And — in the eyes of observers — accelerate the combustion engine’s obsolescence.
This unambiguous ascendancy of EVs over fossil cars at the performance end of the market will thus have repercussions all the way through to mass market vehicles.
Which path will Porsche take to respond to Tesla? Please share your thoughts and observations in the comments.
Article images from company press websites.