SANTAGATA BOLOGNESE, Italy. The boys tumbled out of an elementary school in an Italian village fell silent as a Lamborghini approached them, its raucous 12-cylinder engine trumpeting its presence. Then, as the wedge-shaped beast rumbled across the schoolyard, they burst into applause, clenching their fists and jumping up and down in the air.
It was a spontaneous expression of emotion that inspires the Italian sports car manufacturer and motivates those who can afford it to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in some cases millions, to get one.
But Lamborghini, Ferrari and a handful of other companies that make so-called supercars — a loosely defined category of vehicles that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and offer race car-level performance — face an existential threat. The automotive industry is steadily moving towards battery power, and these automakers cannot avoid this trend. Now they are scratching their heads on how to design electric sports cars that will generate the same passion and have the same prices.
Tesla has already challenged Ferrari and Lamborghini’s claims of being at the forefront of automotive design. Tesla has pioneered electric vehicles and its Model S Plaid can hit 60 mph in just two seconds, faster than any Ferrari or Lamborghini, according to testers at motor trend.
“For supercar manufacturers, the question is, can they become world leaders in electrification?” said Karl-Thomas Neumann, a former chief executive of German automaker Opel, who sits on the board of directors of OneD Battery Sciences, a California-based electric vehicle technology provider.
“If you’re just building a supercar and putting the Ferrari logo on it, that’s not enough,” he said. Neumann said. He added that the company is “very late” with the electric car game.
Ferrari has been offering the Stradale plug-in hybrid since 2019, but won’t introduce an all-electric car until 2025. The Maranello, Italy-based company detailed its plans at an investor event this month, saying the electric motors themselves and other key components are in keeping with a tradition of craftsmanship and exclusivity.
“An electric Ferrari will be a real Ferrari,” CEO Benedetto Vigna said in an interview ahead of the presentation.
Ferrari also said it would traditionally borrow technology from its formidable racing team. But the company does not compete Formula E, the answer to Formula 1 for electric vehicles. mr. Viña declined to say if there were any plans to do so.
Lamborghini, owned by Volkswagen and based in the village of Sant’Agata Bolognese, will offer its first plug-in hybrid in 2023, with an all-electric car sometime in the second half of the decade.
Critical year for electric vehicles
As the overall automotive market stagnates, the popularity of battery-powered vehicles is skyrocketing all over the world.
The mystery of Italian supercars is closely intertwined with the sound and power of internal combustion engines. The famous Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan is said to have once said that the 12-cylinder Ferrari engine achieves “a harmony that no maestro can reproduce”.
Electric motors inherently run in an undertone.
“Sound is an important selling point for these vehicles,” said Andy Palmer, former chief executive of Aston Martin and now chief executive of Switch Mobility, an electric bus maker. “Will a sports car as we know it survive if you can’t tell it apart by its sound?”
The question is of interest not only to a few wealthy people. The pride and prestige of Italy are at stake.
While much of the rest of the Italian car industry has become almost irrelevant – Fiat’s market share in Europe has fallen to just 4 percent – supercar fans typically shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for Ferraris and Lamborghinis and often wait up to a year for delivery. The cost of the most exclusive models is in the millions.
These two brands represent Italy’s industrial prowess, which is often overshadowed by its political dysfunction.
Ferrari and Lamborghini are also very profitable. Ferrari, listed on the stock exchange but controlled by the powerful Italian Agnelli family, has announced net profit €240 million, or $250 million, in the first three months of 2022 on $1.2 billion in sales.
Lamborghini contributed 180 million euros of pre-tax profit to Volkswagen’s first-quarter net income on sales of 592 million euros. Last year, Ferrari sold 11,000 cars and Lamborghini 8,300. The two companies’ double-digit margins on sales are unusually high for an auto industry that is notoriously low-margin.
The changes are evident in the area near Bologna, in the hilly area known as the Motor Valley. Ferrari and Lamborghini are half an hour away from each other.
Last year, Ferrari broke with tradition by naming Mr. Chief Executive Officer of Vigna. Despite being a car lover, at the age of 14 he sneaked out of his house for a few days to attend a Formula One race. Viña has never worked for a car company. Previously, he was a senior executive at STMicroelectronics, a semiconductor manufacturer. His appointment signaled the importance of electronics to the future of Ferrari.
“We needed a CEO with a deep understanding of technologies that are changing not only the automotive industry but the entire world,” John Elkann, a scion of the Agnelli family and chairman of Ferrari, told investors this month.
mr. Vigna, whose STM clients have included Apple and Tesla, brings close ties to the world of technology to Ferrari. “If I need some kind of contact with a potential partner or supplier, it’s easy for me to reach the right level of people,” he said.
The move to batteries poses several challenges for Ferrari and Lamborghini. One of the characteristics of supercars is their extremely low profile, which reduces wind resistance. The roof of the car barely reaches the waist. The same silhouette is difficult to achieve with batteries, which are usually located under the passenger compartment.
Another feature is exclusivity. Buyers can easily wait a year for delivery. Cars are collectibles that often increase in value over time. vintage ferrari were sold for over $20 million.
But does Ferrari still feel exclusive when the Tesla is faster? mr. Vigna argued that a difference of a few hundredths of a second in acceleration from 0 to 60 is not a decisive factor. He compared driving a Ferrari to riding a rollercoaster. It’s not so much the speed, but the feeling.
“Ferrari is an experience,” he said.
Electric vehicles are known for their smooth acceleration and quiet ride. It’s not something Lamborghini Aventador or Ferrari SF90 Spider buyers pay over $500,000 for. They need a sense of brute force.
The Lamborghini driver sits inches from the road in a low-slung cab and is aware of every imperfection in the road surface. The massive engine sits just behind the seats, rumbling in the ears of passengers. The steering is precise, but hard, requiring a lot of concentration. It’s an all-out sensory experience that makes a roundabout in an Italian village feel like a tight turn at the Monaco Grand Prix.
“The car gives you the feeling that you, as a driver, are a hero,” said Reuven Mohr, Lamborghini’s chief technology officer. Recreating that feeling in an electric car is “our main goal,” he says.
Batteries offer supercar designers some advantages. Electric vehicles do not need long driveshafts and bulky transmissions. Electric motors are much smaller than internal combustion engines. Components can be positioned to optimize weight distribution and ease of use.
Each wheel can have its own electric motor and be programmed to run at slightly different speeds to maximize cornering control. Lamborghini is considering equipping cars with artificial intelligence that will learn driver preferences and driving style, and adjust handling and performance accordingly.
“The machine understands what you want,” Mohr said.
For now, the exclusive supercar clientele does not demand electric vehicles. “No one offered them something that they were like, ‘Oh, that’s even cooler than my current internal combustion engine car,'” Mohr said.
Other companies are trying, although so far they are producing electric supercars in very small numbers. Rimac Automobili, a Croatian firm whose investors include Porsche, Hyundai and the private equity arm of Goldman Sachs, unveiled Neveraan electric sports car that the company claims can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than two seconds.
Lotus Cars, a British manufacturer controlled by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, is selling an electric model, Evia. That and Nevera have price tags well over $2 million. Lotus, whose other models are much cheaper than Ferrari or Lamborghini, has said it will only sell electric vehicles from 2028. (Fun fact: Lotus supplied key components for Tesla’s first production model, the roadster.)
Other close competitors are moving at about the same speed. In the UK, Aston Martin plans to offer its first all-electric car in 2025. McLaren, also British, is not expected to offer a purely battery-powered model until 2028.
Ferrari and Lamborghini are not going to stop the production of cars with internal combustion engines. But they are under increasing pressure from regulators to cut fuel consumption, especially in Europe. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a Lamborghini Aventador two-seat coupe averages 11 miles per gallon, half the fuel economy of a full-size pickup. (Fans claim that most people drive their supercars for only a few thousand miles a year, so fuel consumption is low.)
Wealthy young buyers may not want to be seen in such an extravagant car.
“We have more and more young customers every day,” said Stefan Winkelmann, Lamborghini’s chief executive. They want performance, he says, but also “peace of mind.”