A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today
To paraphrase Walt Whitman, the Lucid Air contains multitudes. This new electric car represents billion-dollar startup dreams, climate-change nightmares, the prospect of a healthier, sustainable form of American car manufacturing — and, of course, a true alternative to the 800-pound gorilla that is Tesla, the like-it-or-not template for any electric newcomer.
Yet for a few electron-firing seconds — the few moments in which the 800-horsepower Air I’m riding in can drop the hammer on Manhattan’s West Side Highway — I’m determined to unload that social, environmental and financial baggage and just appreciate the Lucid for what it is: a creamy, cavernous luxury sedan that can whomp from 0 to 60 mph in as little as 2.5 seconds. It’s the longest-range EV in history, with enough stamina to travel an EPA-rated 520 miles (in top-shelf Dream Edition R form) — more than 100 miles beyond Tesla’s best. It packs an industry-leading 900-volt electrical architecture that enables it to add up to 20 miles of driving range in just 60 seconds of plug-in time or 300 miles in 20 minutes flat. Consider the Lucid a 5,000-pound Xanax for banishing range anxiety.
But getting this car to the streets hasn’t been easy. Lucid’s eight-year odyssey to production has involved the rocky paths and pitfalls familiar to any startup — even before a fateful pandemic that continues to batter supply chains for every automaker, forcing further delays for the Air. The first cars are now scheduled to reach customers in late 2021, a year later than the original plan. And Lucid remains firmly in “show me” mode: setting aside Chinese-market startups, Tesla is the only company that has successfully managed to make a go of it in the EV business.
Yet Lucid appears to hold one of the strongest hands among the latest EV hopefuls, thanks to ace technology, rich backers and the “story stock” aura that’s catnip to today’s investors. The proof? In July 2021, Lucid dragged itself over the finish line to go public via a blank-check merger, netting $4.4 billion in fresh, tasty capital — seed money for the Air and its planned successors. All before even a single car has reached its owner’s hands.
My ride-along in a pre-production Air — one of about 110 to emerge so far from the company’s spanking-new factory in Casa Grande, Arizona — is all too brief, but it’s enough to reveal the Lucid’s rib-crushing acceleration, planted handling and easeful ways. Passersby cast approving glances at the car while we’re parked outside Lucid’s new studio-style showroom in Manhattan’s fashionable Meatpacking District. It’s among the roughly 25 stores that Lucid hopes to open by the end of 2022, each to be equipped with simulator-style VR car configurators or naked displays of the Air’s skateboard platform.
Derek Jenkins, the bespectacled, sleek-domed former Mazda stylist who’s Lucid’s vice president of design and brand, shows me around the Air. Every detail of the car is meant to lure free-spending buyers away from their existing cars — not from Teslas, as you might expect, but from gas-drinking flagships like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series.
“Tesla makes a great electric car, but it’s one flavor of electric,” Jenkins says. “They are not moving toward the luxury market, but more toward the mainstream market.”
Pricing for the Air puts those targets into focus: the inaugural Dream Editions, with a choice of 933 or 1,111 horsepower from dual-motor AWD powertrains and 113-kWh batteries, cost a Maybach-worthy $170,500. More affordable Airs should follow in 2022; the dual-motor Grand Touring I rode in will start at $139,000, while the single-motor, rear-drive Air Pure with 480 horses and a roughly 408-mile range should start at $77,400.
But no gas-powered luxury sedan can touch the Dream Edition’s electrified crackle. Lucid says the quarter-mile drag race is dispatched in a ridiculous 9.9 seconds at 144 mph. In New York terms, that’s a dead stop to 2.4 miles a minute in the space of two crosstown blocks — though it requires dialing up the Sprint Mode launch control, which unleashes a Bugatti-esque 1,025 pound-feet of torque.
Sensory temptations extend to an airy interior that maximizes space via miniaturized electrical components. An underhood storage “frunk,” the industry’s largest, could swallow a limber adult. For the California-based Lucid, four available cabin themes evoke the state’s natural landscapes (minus the apocalyptic wildfire smoke), offering carbon-free leather, synthetic hide or a natty wool blend of sustainable Alpaca and recycled yarn. Tasteful wood trims include silvery eucalyptus with driftwood-style markings. The posh quarters definitely shame Tesla and its Tupperware-grade plastics. A floating 34-inch 5K display called the Glass Cockpit curls before the driver, flashing a crisp UI; a secondary, motorized Pilot Panel unfurls from the dashboard. Manual door pulls and physical switches for climate controls and audio volume avoid digital overload — a literal old-school touch that Jenkins demanded. The topper is a dramatic Glass Canopy roof that creates a nearly unbroken vista from the windshield to the rear deck.
The aircraft-inspired body ditches the automotive-design cues that once symbolized power, prestige and performance, Jenkins says. Phallic hoods, haughty grilles and gaping body openings — all necessitated by space-wasting, heat-soaking internal combustion engines — give way to an unblemished sedan shape whose simplicity proclaims its electric power but not so jarringly as to alienate traditional buyers.
“We’re turning the page on the automobile, from one form of propulsion to a new form, and that should absolutely influence the aesthetic, the aspiration, the statement of technology,” Jenkins says.
Jenkins cites streamlined classics like the Citroen DS and Porsche 911 as other inspirational guides, however subliminal. But the real marching orders came from pure, efficient functionality — a company-wide obsession that was rewarded with that record 520-mile range rating. Obsessors include Peter Rawlinson, Lucid’s chief executive and chief technology officer. You may know him as the chief engineer of Tesla’s game-changing Model S; you’re less likely to know him for his expertise that saw Lucid, originally named Atieva, become the exclusive battery-pack supplier to Formula E racing.
The company’s electric drive unit is roughly as power dense as a dwarf star, with a claimed ceiling of 670 horsepower. (AWD models get one for each axle.) Yet the unit’s motor, transmission, inverter and differential weigh just 165 pounds and can fit inside a roller bag. The Air’s slippery 0.21 coefficient of drag, if independently confirmed, would mark another record for a luxury sedan.
The Wales-born Rawlinson insists he never set out to create a sedan that can outgun most gasoline-powered supercars. “Ninety-nine percent of the words I speak are about efficiency, and one percent performance,” Rawlinson tells me. “But it seems speed is a drug that still captures the imagination.”
Lucid’s corporate imagination predicts 20,000 sales in 2022. A forthcoming Air Gravity SUV, penciled in for 2023, is critical to plans for 200 percent annual growth, roughly $23 billion in revenue by 2026 and up to 500,000 annual sales by 2030. Those are ambitious forecasts, especially with legacy automakers and startups alike cranking up their own electric vehicle plans. Yet Jenkins insists Lucid’s time is now.
“We’re at a pivotal moment in this industry,” Jenkins says. “Things are changing so fundamentally. We see it as an advantage to be a new player with a clean sheet.”