The normal temperature in Los Angeles on this particular date is 84 degrees Fahrenheit. Its record high was 102, set in 1955. Today it’s 111 (with 121 degrees recorded elsewhere in L.A. County). Call it global warming’s local warning.
When my abode was built, its location of a mile from the Pacific Ocean meant you didn’t need air conditioning to stay comfortable. With indoor squatting at Starbucks nixed and in a perspiring panic, I’ve decamped to the spacious, air-conditioned back seat of an SUV in the driveway to chronicle my introduction to the zero-emission 2021 Lucid Air electric sedan. Life is the theater of the absurd.
It seems humans are just 7.8 billion jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing frogs in a planet-sized pot of warming atmosphere who all keep forgetting what the real point of electric cars, like the Air, is. To be honest, most cars have no higher aspiration than to get you around without breaking down. And only after that do we look to these contraptions as a means to go on the odd adventure, fawn over technical trick or two, or serve as an extension of our personal fashion, musical taste, or cologne scent. Be honest.
And the Lucid Air has more than its share of these things, too. Is it more/better/cooler than Elon Musk’s Tesla Model S? Read on, because Lucid has a great story.
2021 Lucid Air: A Taste of Tesla
For instance, the Air carries a pedigree. Meet Lucid’s chief executive officer and chief technology officer, Peter Rawlinson—a Welshman and the mind behind this machine. After tenures as principal engineer at Jaguar and chief engineer at Lotus (he calls himself a Lotus man), he got a call from Elon Musk to come to California. The Model S had already been shaped by Franz von Holzhausen, but it needed an electric drivetrain. At first, Rawlinson was quietly unsure any of this would even work, but as the math started to compute and the components began to fit, his whole view of the automobile shifted. The Model S soon won over critics and went on to become the first electric car to be named MotorTrend Car of the Year.
Rawlinson’s terms for returning to the madhouse of EV startups—in this case, to what was then called Atieva in Mountain View, California—were simple: allow him to build his dream car. His baby. He knew the Model S was flawed. In particular, it missed a gaping opportunity to miniaturize its components and perfect their integration into a shape that could maximize space and efficiency.
His tech team’s answer was to raise the vehicle system’s voltage to an intense 900 volts to dramatically shrink the components. The Air would be defined by his “Space Concept”—nestling the miniaturized drivetrain in places where people and cargo won’t want to be. Nevertheless, each power unit—motor, inverter, and transmission—has the potential to make 670 horsepower and 2,950 pound-feet of torque. Yet they weigh about the same as an easy bench press: 161 pounds. Combined, the front and rear motors will be current-limited to a “mere” 1,080 horsepower. The battery, originally predicted to be 130 kWh in capacity, has been whittled down to 113 kWh by relentlessly squeezing more efficiency out of everything.
2021 Lucid Air: Design Dreams
Bringing art to Rawlinson’s science is another pedigreed player, ex-Mazda chief designer Derek Jenkins, whose talent you can judge by the current Miata. The cool spaceship of the Air sedan he’s created will absorb your stares as long as you care to keep looking. It’s rolling sculpture that’s somehow simultaneously immediate and timeless, and there’s no hyperbole in describing it as literally art and science.
Inside, it looks every bit of the initial Air Dream Edition trim’s $169,000-plus price, with an anti-minimalist, anti-Model S interior full of Bauhaus-meets-Berkeley sculptural complexity. A thin, wraparound digital display appears in the driver’s line of sight, perched atop an unpluggable stalk for later upgrading. “I’m not a fan of the ever-bigger screens thing,” Jenkins sighs.
The screens are divided into three zones: driving data in the center, touch-sensitive lighting controls on the left, infotainment on the right. Want to delve deeper? Information can be swiped down and expanded on a lower-mounted tablet in the center stack for both front occupants to explore. “My test is that I want my mom to be able to get in here and understand everything,” Jenkins says.
2021 Lucid Air: Big Price, Big Driving Range
To those gobsmacked by the eye-watering sticker price, please be patient. Like most automakers, Lucid is pushing the highest-zoot models first. As volume scales up, lower-priced models will follow. By 2022, Lucid will offer an Air for less than $80,000, which then drops below $72,500 after the federal tax credit. That puts it head to head with the Tesla Model S.
Then there’s its performance: a Tesla-crushing range that’s been independently measured at 517 miles, which, if it holds up on the EPA’s test equipment, is 115 miles farther than the Model S Long Range Plus. After covering 450 miles in a demonstration ride-along (which ultimately went to 490 miles), I agreed with Rawlinson’s assertion that it “transforms range anxiety into range comfort.” Our concern wasn’t the need to stop too soon (or often) to recharge, but whether we could mentally endure the seemingly endless driving.
But the Lucid Air isn’t just about range. Its combined 1,080 horsepower can bullet it to 60 mph in less than 2.5 seconds and to the quarter mile in 9.9. Yet it can recharge up to 300 miles in 20 minutes at a 350-kW Electrify America station—another chart-topping number.
Then there’s all the supporting tech: Integrated into the 2021 Lucid Air’s nose is a lidar unit—placed in anticipation of escalating levels of autonomous assistance. Below it is a remarkable, low-resistance air intake for drivetrain cooling. Air slots ahead of the front wheels send an air curtain around the wheel openings. The underbody sweeps upward with unusual grace, helping the Air to trouble the passing wind with a drag coefficient of only 0.21, the lowest in the world (since the GM EV1).
Which raises the question: Has the Tesla-focused war-footing from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes been aimed at the wrong electric car?
Musk’s 2016 “Master Plan, Part Deux”—the working blueprint for the whole endeavor—was to start with a high-price, low-volume, premium platform (the Model S and Model X) to subsidize a lower-priced, medium-volume setup (the Model 3 and Model Y).
Originally, those profits were to be plowed into an even cheaper, higher-volume car. But that’s been scratched, as Musk figures that’ll be the Model 3, as well, once full self-driving technology arrives and so does its magic. (Also mentioned is a pickup truck, which we now know as the Cybertruck, and a commuter minibus that’s gone sort of silent.)
The point is, although Tesla is perceived and feared as a premium brand, its ultimate intention is to perform a cannonball into the deep end of the pool where the big fish like GM, Ford, Toyota, and Volkswagen swim. While Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Jaguar are still trying to catch the Model S, their sights are trained on the wrong car.
The most important number that Peter Rawlinson quotes is the Air’s efficiency, which he puts at 20 percent better than any EV in the world. Crazy acceleration and range numbers aside, the real point of an electric car is efficiency—to be propelled by electricity and use as little of it to do as much moving as possible. Hopefully with grace and beauty, too.
Overheating Earth, meet the Lucid Air.
2021 Lucid Air Pricing*
Base: Less than $80,000
Grand Touring: $139,000
Dream Edition: $169,000
*Excluding destination, as well as all state and federal tax credits