MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tesla invented the luxury electric car. And for the last decade, if you want us to drop 70 grand or more on an upscale electric vehicle, Tesla has pretty much been the only option. But now that's changing, and as more pricey electric cars arrive on the market, it's a preview of the entire car industry. NPR's Camila Domonoske has this report.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: The Jaguar I-PACE, an electric crossover, went on sale late last year.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: A Jaguar still roars, but silently.
DOMONOSKE: Silently because electric motors are quiet. You may have spotted Audi's e-tron in a Super Bowl ad this year. It's for sale right now. Later this year, the first electric Mercedes and Porsche.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: So electrified.
DOMONOSKE: Tesla showed that you could make a luxury electric car for a profit. That got the attention of other luxury carmakers - also, government regulations from California and other states that promote electric vehicles. Automakers used to respond to these mandates half-heartedly. They'd build what's called a compliance car. Chelsea Sexton, an industry consultant and electric vehicle advocate, explains.
CHELSEA SEXTON: It is expensive. It's low volume. It's hard to get. It's somehow engineered to be a little bit unattractive in some way, very low range, et cetera, et cetera.
DOMONOSKE: Often, they'd only be for sale in the states that have mandates. Automakers would then point to poor sales to say electric vehicles just aren't profitable. Sexton calls that a self-fulfilling prophecy.
SEXTON: As long as things aren't available, they're never going to sell. People can't buy what isn't out there.
DOMONOSKE: But the new premium electric vehicles - the ones going toe-to-toe with Tesla - they're available in every state, and the cars themselves are not the compliance cars of old.
REBECCA LINDLAND: So one of the things that struck me about the Audi e-tron is that it was so normal.
DOMONOSKE: Rebecca Lindland is an independent auto analyst.
LINDLAND: You're not compromising. You're not sacrificing. You're driving a really good Audi, and by the way, it's electric.
DOMONOSKE: More affordable electric cars, which have been on the market for years, are promoted as eco-friendly electrics. But ask Jaguar executives why the company made the I-PACE, and you won't hear the word emissions. Executives say the goal was to make a crossover that drives like a sports car. Analyst Sam Abuelsamid says this is part of a broader strategy.
SAM ABUELSAMID: There's a certain segment of the audience that wants an environmentally friendly vehicle. They want to show off their green credentials. But the reality is that most consumers just want to have a nice car that, you know, that drives well, looks good.
DOMONOSKE: For a long time, cars like Teslas were bought by early adopters like Alex Schefer. As he drives his Tesla Model S around Arlington, Va., he says he's been waiting impatiently for these other options.
ALEX SCHEFER: I mean, this car came out in 2012. In 2015, Porsche said, hey we're going to make this Mission E. And that's great. I love Porsches. But now it's 2019, and I still can't buy one.
DOMONOSKE: He doesn't have much longer to wait, but the bigger question is, what happens with people who haven't been waiting, people who don't think of themselves as electric vehicles fans? Will these new customers spring for an electric if it's sold by a familiar luxury brand? Right now, it's too early to tell. And few people can afford a car that costs 70 grand and up. But how to broaden the appeal of electrics? It's not just a challenge for the Porsches and Audis of the world. Right now, every major automaker is working on electric vehicles to hit the market over the next few years. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
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