Rarefied Air: Lucid’s New Car Just Might Be the Real Deal
Peter Rawlinson and Derek Jenkins are pleased. Pleased with themselves, and pleased with the product they’ve created. Formerly known to the world as “that car Atieva’s working on,” the company’s new automobile is officially known as the Lucid Air, which, perhaps, is the least interesting thing about it. It has a Koenigsseggian 1000 horsepower and the interior space of a Mercedes-Benz S-class, boasts a claimed maximum range of 400 miles, and, most important, features hidden headlamps.
The brief for the Air was to pack hypercar power and performance into an autonomous-capable EV with S-class interior space, with exterior dimensions smaller than Tesla’s Model S. To achieve that end, Lucid enlisted former Lotus, Jaguar, and Tesla engineer Rawlinson and designer Jenkins, whose last two projects at Mazda were the 10Best-winning ND Miata and the CX-9. To accomplish their mission here, Rawlinson’s team set to work on what he terms a “sculpted” battery pack. Like the Model S, the Air carries its hefty complement of cells under the floor of the vehicle. But while Tesla’s implementation favors a straightforward flat pack, Lucid’s places the cells in such a way that makes for lower footwell heights. The 600-hp rear powerplant and the 400-horse drive unit are tightly integrated with the suspension modules, tidily packed into subframes that attach to the aluminum unibody, optimizing room in the passenger compartment and cargo areas.
Lucid claims that the 100-kWh pack, which will ship with the car at launch, offers 300 miles of range, while an optional 130-kWh version will enable 400 miles of motoring bliss between charges. The electrical system also powers a self-driving suite of technologies that consists of two long-range and four short-range radar units, three front cameras, five surround-view cameras, two long-range and two short-range lidar units, and a driver-monitoring camera.
While Franz von Holzhausen—also ex-Mazda—carried much of his visual aesthetic with him to Tesla, Jenkins seems to have thrown away any attachment he may have had to the Kodo language he worked with so effortlessly at Mazda. If the Air owes anything to anything, it resembles a modern Dodge Charger restyled by Acura. Or perhaps the Svedka robot’s four-door Camaro. Either of which sounds like a recipe for unmitigated disaster. Happily, the result is better than that. While the Air wears a fast roofline, the rear doesn’t feature an Audi A7/Tesla Model S–style hatch; it sports a traditional trunk. A black cutout in the lower doors pulls the rocker up into the portals, reducing the visual thickness of the automobile, while a full-length, electrochromically darkened roof panel dispenses with any sense of claustrophobia the relatively low roof height could impart.
If the exterior has a full-on disco party piece to complement its 29-speaker sound system, it’s those headlamps. Each one is mounted on a gimbal and packed with 487 microlenses capable of focusing the beam for optimum lighting. Hidden headlamps have returned! Rejoice, ye lovers of LeBarons, Thunderbirds, and GTOs! Unlike the headlight doors of the 1960s through 1980s, which were often prone to unsightly misalignment, the Lucid’s lights unveil themselves by rotating the individual modules outward in a really snappy display. Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it’s a great one. Rawlinson notes that the microlens lights contribute to space in the front trunk by dispensing with large reflectors, and that system uses only 30 percent of the energy a full-LED setup would.
One knock on the Model S is that, while Elon Musk insists on comparing the car to Benz’s S-class, the Tesla’s interior simply isn’t the equal of the Mercedes’. Or, for that matter, even the Mazda CX-9 Signature’s, which is a machine that punches far above its price class in finish and materials. In contrast, the Air’s innards seem straight out of a concept car. The instrument panel consists of three screens under a single piece of touch glass; the console touchscreen descends out of the dash in a properly sci-fi manner; the graphics make real use of the digital medium without overly exaggerated glowing, shaded, 3D-esque overkill; and the overall effect is one of fundamental loveliness.
The interior packages are meant to evoke California locales at certain times of day, hence their odd time/place naming conventions. It’s a modern take on the West Coast romance so effectively evoked by Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s via model names such as Malibu, Bel Air, Monterey, and Catalina. While Santa Cruz 12:09 36.9514° N, 122.0257° W or Tahoe 19:01 39.0968° N, 120.0324° W could come off as pretentious and cloying, it somehow works here, bolstered by the color palettes and choices of wood, leather, and cloth. The coordinates, however, might be a case of slight overkill. We’re intensely curious to see if they’ll come up with something along the lines of 16:15 Fresno 36.7468° N, 119.7726° W or a 19:25 Coalinga 36.1397° N, 120.3601° W package. The Central Valley desires representation, after all.
We accepted a quick spin around the block surrounding Lucid’s Fremont, California, prototype shop, lounging in the rear of one of the company’s “alpha prototypes” piloted by an engineer. Since it was devoid of a finished interior, the three screens comprising the dash were simply bolted up behind the steering wheel, and the finely trimmed seats seemed entirely out of place in what resembled the world’s most high-tech 24 Hours of LeMons racer. Rawlinson regretted that the cars were at a development stage where the powertrains were cranked down to 37 percent of full power. As such, the accelerative grunt was roughly on par with what you’d expect from a 400-hp automobile. Our driver flipped the car into its self-driving mode, and the Air effortlessly tracked its way down the road and around a corner. For such an incomplete machine, it felt very much like a whole automobile. And the sense of airiness imparted by the transparent roof is absolutely sublime.
Nobody at Lucid seems to have any illusion about the toughness of the road ahead, and the Air seems the least vaporware-tastic of any new EV company launch since the Tesla Roadster bowed a decade ago. The intended customer base is now well understood, and while the first cars will be fully luxed-out 100-kWh, 300-mile machines selling for north of $100K, Rawlinson says there’s a plan to push the Air’s price down eventually into the $60,000-to-$65,000 range.
The most impressive thing about the company is the enthusiasm of the people. They don’t come off as zombified true believers. There are no excuses bandied about, no misdirection from the vehicle’s generalized badness and expense. Such was the case with the short-lived Coda, which carried an excellent-for-its-day powertrain under a steaming pile of warmed-over Mitsubishi. Lucid’s designers and engineers were absolutely thrilled with what they’d been working on and wanted to share it, down to the minutiae of gear design.
Lucid still has to break ground on its Casa Grande, Arizona, factory, develop its beta prototypes, tool up for production, and develop sales channels. They’re planning to do all that in the space of two years; the intent is for the first vehicles to reach customers’ hands in late 2018. It’s a monumental task, but these folks are no pie-in-the-sky Pollyannas. Veterans of the business, they’re wholly aware of the enormity of the task at hand, and we walked away from their event with the distinct feeling that they may well just pull it off.