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Frankfurt 2013: Are high-tech hybrids and EVs carving out a new premium car segment?

They’ve been gaining momentum over the past couple of years – high-end automobiles that satisfy a taste for luxury as well as craving for the latest technology.

From the million-dollar halo cars like the LaFerrari, the McLaren P1 and the Porsche 918 Spyder  showcased at the Frankfurt Motor Show to the $135,000 plug-in hybrid BMW i8, high-end automobiles have suddenly taken a completely different turn. 

Unlike premium automobiles in decades past, there’s a growing trend in the world of cars driven by premium vehicles that offer the latest advancements in technology rather than traditional luxury interior features like soft-touch leather and wood veneers.

Spending considerable time in Southern California, I’ve come to call it the “Tesla Effect.” In large part, the demand for and desire for high-tech, high-end cars is being been driven by the popularity of the Model S, a car that’s generated as much buzz for its in-car connectivity features as it has for its blindingly fast e-powertrain. But the interior trim? While nice, it’s far more functional than beautiful.

For those who can afford it, whether you actually need any of the tech or wood trim is irrelevant. But, as indicated by some of the vehicles displayed at Frankfurt, there are a growing number of automakers that are looking to cater to the growing number of buyers wanting the best in tech rather than walnut dash inserts.


The all-electric Cadillac ELR coupe, making its European premiere at the show and set to debut next year, represents Cadillac’s attempt to lure in premium buyers with tech elements like regenerative paddle shifters that help to store energy for later use and in-car command centers like the CUE infotainment center stack.

“ELR marks a fresh, even surprising new dimension of Cadillac,” said Bob Ferguson, Cadillac global vice president, in a company press release, following the debut of the car earlier this year at the North American International Auto Show. “An additional aspect of ELR’s appeal will be exclusivity. It will be a specialized offering produced in limited numbers.” Rumor mill grist says the ELR may be on par with the Model S in terms of tech and power, so Cadillac’s timing could be just right.

Mercedes-Benz was showcasing its 2015 S500 plug-in hybrid at Frankfurt hoping to entice buyers interested in the technology wrapped in a car with a Mercedes-Benz badge along with some of the brand’s other high-tech features. Again, high-end meets the hybrid factor for more performance and better gas mileage.

In addition to its electric and gas powerplant, the BMW i8 will be available with a wide range of BMW ConnectedDrive features including BMW Online Entertainment, a Concierge Services and features like Real Time Traffic Information and mobility services developed specifically for the BMW i series of vehicles. Concierge-type personal service offers, while not new, are getting more popular and have been brought to the forefront by Tesla.


It’s an interesting spin for a brand in which the most coveted models for years have been cars like the high-performance M6. And even with a starting price of $135,000, I’m betting most of the hybrid i8s will be sold before the first model ever rolls off the assembly line when it goes on sale next spring.

For a certain market segment, the high-tech features of these premium cars far outweigh the sound of high-revving engines of even familiar luxury automobile nameplates.

It’s all about the technology – and the more of it, it seems, the better. 

I imagine there are some who buy the vehicles out of a genuine desire to be more fuel efficient or less dependent on gasoline.  But I’m betting the vast majority who buy the high-end cars do so to revel in the emerging technology making those efficiencies possible.

It makes you wonder, if some 60 years from now, the cars getting the highest bids at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance will be vehicles known for their ground-breaking EV technology and not for their power, top speed or handling prowess.

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