In September, Car and Driver releases the results of its ‘Lightning Lap’ — an annual event held at Virginia International Raceway that pits the latest and greatest performance cars in the world against one another. At their own expense, global carmakers bring their highest performance models to VIR with the hopes that one of their cars will reign supreme and return the quickest lap.
In 2017, two cars topped the chart and put down the fastest lap times around VIR. The champ that year was the $195,875 Mercedes-AMG GT R. The runner up: the $73,090 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE.
The disparately priced sports cars beat out — in order of ranking — the $192,310 Porsche 911 Turbo S, $68,225 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, the $129,685 Nissan GT-R Track Edition, and fourteen other vehicles. If you’re paying even the slightest bit of attention, you’ll notice a pattern in that top-five ranking: The two Camaros were as fast — or faster — than cars with price tags twice or three times their own.
I realize it’s odd to rehash a year-and-a-half-old sports car competition at the introduction to a story about the future of electric cars. There’s a through line here, I promise. And that connection is the Chief Engineer of the Camaro for the last four years: Al Oppenheiser.
With Oppenheiser at the helm, the Camaro became a world-class, blue-collar muscle car capable of embarrassing supercars on and off the track — for a fraction of the price of the cars it was trouncing.
Late last year, General Motor brass did something astounding: They yanked Oppenheiser off the Camaro and reassigned him to the company’s electric vehicle program. There, Oppenheiser will bring his bona fides to the future of self-driving and electric vehicles.
That is a significant thing. And I mean more than just for GM’s future electric vehicles. Without even a whiff of hyperbole, I believe Oppenheiser’s reassignment could prove one of the most consequential events in furthering electric vehicles since the founding of Tesla. Let me explain.
There are three factors that I believe will shape the success of EVs in America. First, the cars have to be cool. Second, they have to become common. Third, they must be affordable.
Tesla isn’t a sales success because its cars are remarkably good (by traditional automotive standards, including reliability and value, they’re not). The brand has sold so well because it’s cool. And, yes, I realize this is an oversimplification of the ‘cult of Elon.’ You know what I mean, though.
For EVs to take off, to be widely accepted by consumers, and succeed, they need to be cool. Simply having a long range won’t bring buyers to the EV fold. We have seen this with several of the long-range EVs currently on the market: They’re selling well enough, but their buyers are still early adopters. None has broken into the realm of the everyday car consumer.
This is the first hurdle Oppenheiser’s skills could help EVs overcome.
Irrespective of the rough-and-tumble muscle-car reputation the Camaro nameplate has with some folks, the car — especially its current iteration — is undoubtedly cool. It looks amazing. It’s fast. It makes great noises. And, as we revealed earlier, is a great equalizer. In a Camaro, a plumber can lap a billionaire on the track. And that’s cool.
What’s more, it’s a nameplate Americans can be proud of. It races in NASCAR. While some northern coastal Americans might not see value in the NASCAR proposition, the middle portions of the country do. After all, NASCAR is still one of the most-watched sporting events in the U.S.
And Camaro was chosen to represent Chevy in NASCAR because it is a performance car virtually every American can afford. This brings us to my second point.
There are two ways to break commonality down: 1) Make enough of them that they become commonplace. 2) Make well-known, mass-market cars into EVs.
Honestly, I think the most meaningful way of making EVs common (or perceptively “normal”) is not the way the EV market will actually shake out … at least not at first. By that I mean I see the most effective way to give EVs mass-market appeal is to offer already best-selling vehicles in EV alongside their gasoline and hybrid variants.
Imagine stopping into a Toyota store in order to buy a Corolla. The salesperson asks, “Do you want the gas or the EV version?” The same goes with, for example, the F-150 pickup, which Ford has confirmed it is going to offer in an all-electric variant. If buyers see an F-150 EV next to a V8-powered model, even if they don’t pick the EV, the EV concept becomes normal in their minds — at least eventually.
Hyundai and Kia are employing exactly this strategy with their Niro and Kona models. Though, admittedly, those aren’t already best sellers. So they move the needle less than a Corolla EV or F-150 EV might. The strategy is there, however, and I think it’s a wise one.
Chevy has sort of hinted at adopting this strategy with its eCOPO Camaro drag racer. If you’re not familiar, the COPO Camaro is a specially designed version of the Camaro built expressly for drag racing. This year, Chevy showed an all-electric concept version of the COPO Camaro, dubbed eCOPO.
If eCOPO is put into regular COPO production, there could come a time when racers can order a gasoline V8-powered COPO Camaro or one powered by electricity — aka eCOPO. Imagine if that were the case for, say, the standard, road-going Camaro. It’d make quite an impact in shifting the perception of millions of Americans.
Likely, GM is going to go the other route. The General will presumably aim to create new, compelling EV models with new nameplates and leave the traditional, well-known models alone.
Regardless of which strategy GM employs, the electrification of popular models or create new EV nameplates, Oppenheiser is the right guy. If nothing else, Oppenheiser knows how to build an amazing car with an incredibly competitive price tag. This brings me to the last, and perhaps the most important, point: affordability.
Tesla is an anomaly. Its cars, save the entry-level Model 3, are eye-wateringly expensive — and prohibitively so for most Americans. The average new car transacts around the $36,000 mark. So the Model S, Model X, and even the new Model Y are out of reach for most buyers.
For EVs to work, they need to get cheaper … a lot cheaper.
I know there are some compelling EVs being offered in the mid-$30,000 range right now, including the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Nissan LEAF. Those cars are sold at a loss; they cost more to build than the brands charge for them.
Guess which car isn’t? The Camaro. And that’s pretty astonishing considering the car is capable of beating Porsches around the track.
Squeezing value out of a vehicle without sacrificing, well, anything is what Oppenheiser has proven he knows how to do. Think about it, the Camaro is essentially priced the same as it has always been. Under Oppenheiser’s leadership, however, its capability and value proposition have skyrocketed.
The difference between the third- and fifth-generations of Camaro is like the difference between a Conestoga wagon and the space shuttle. That is, if they cost the same … you get what I mean. The third-gen Camaro could barely beat the Mustang around a track. Meanwhile, the fifth generation trounces supercars.
This is exactly what EVs need. Right now, accessible, everyday EVs are just fine. They’re fine; they’re not amazing. They need to get amazing while becoming cheaper — both for the carmakers to build and for customers in the showrooms. I believe no one is better positioned to do that than Oppenheiser.
We are at this point in history where virtually every automaker has decided that the future is electric. Accordingly, the new-car market is about to get flooded with new EV models. The issue is that customers just aren’t there.
Automakers sold just over 17 million new cars in the U.S. last year. Just over 350,000 of those were EVs. That is right about two percent of the total retail sales market for the country. To put that into perspective, Ford alone sold more than 460,000 F-150 pickup trucks during that same time.
Granted, EV sales were up around 80 percent year over year in 2018. However, EV sales have a long way to go to match the percentage of relative new-car dealer showroom space they’ll occupy in the next decade.
To close that gap, automakers will need to pull talent from the most unlikely places to create compelling products that attract more than the earliest of early adopters. I believe Oppenheiser is the man to do just that.
Porsche can make the most amazing electric crossover in the world, capable of hitting 60 miles per hour in less than two seconds and lapping some far-off racetrack quicker than anything ever before. And that’s great. It won’t incentivize real consumers to adopt EVs, however.
Do that in a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck or a Malibu mid-size sedan, though, and you might actually make EVs compelling for everyday American drivers.
Maybe I’m wrong. Regardless, with Oppenheiser at the helm, I can say for certain that GM will have some truly amazing EVs in their showrooms in six years — whether they are capable of shifting the perception of EVs for American shoppers or not.