Early ride: Lucid Motors’ 1,000-hp Air ‘alpha’ prototype

  • 14-Feb-2017 08:05 EST
Lucid Air alpha prototype CES 2017 ride.jpg

Prototype of Lucid Motors' Air electric luxury sedan slated for 2018 production, camouflaged in the Las Vegas early evening (Image: Bill Visnic).

Always an early test for the veracity and viability of automotive startups: ya got a car that runs?

Menlo Park, California’s Lucid Motors, has at least one. We know because its chief technology officer, Peter Rawlinson, took us for a ride.

Lucid is the electric-vehicle startup that’s had the good fortune to often be named as the most viable competitor to Tesla and the bad luck to be forming at time when at least one other venture capital-intensive EV startup has been hogging the headlines with its financial straits. But Lucid has attracted a number of seasoned industry engineers and developers (including from Tesla) and appears, at least to equally seasoned media, to be achieving legitimate development goals and advancing on a realistic timeline.

So Lucid’s in Las Vegas during the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to make its own positive headlines. That goal centers mostly on the fact there’s an actual car in which to ride. Rawlinson will drive the probably almost-priceless mule, an early “alpha” prototype, he says. There’s barely any interior, the thing wears creative camouflage—although Lucid has provided plenty of images of the production Air’s projected appearance—but the doors work and there are even real (if rudimentary) seats.

Not 1000 hp—yet

Lucid claims 1,000 hp for the Air, but I can’t say the prototype felt like 1,000 hp. First, because Rawlinson made it clear this development-mule’s driveline was dialed back from the output stated for a production version and, equally important, I wouldn’t know what 1,000 hp is supposed to “feel” like, anyway—I’ve been in neither a Bugatti Veyron or a World of Outlaws sprinter.

Nonetheless, it’s clear this “alpha” prototype of the Air has an energetic power-to-weight ratio. Despite its probably curb weight in the 4400-lb (2000 kg) range that includes the undisclosed but undoubtedly substantial weight of the lithium-ion battery pack being co-developed with Samsung SDI (its optimized packaging is claimed to be one of the secrets to the Air’s extreme range capability), when Rawlinson toes the go-pedal, the car lunges assertively. We don’t wind up this prototype to the kind of speed that might give clearer indication of its raw power, but the car shoulders blithely past some traffic that isn’t exactly puttering, evidencing mid-range thrust that certainly seems to rival some of the forced-induction V6s and V8s we’ve recently tried.

Low-roller

What’s more revealing about the Air prototype—at least in terms of what it might suggest about this platform and propulsion package—is the pancake-flat cornering behavior. Rawlinson does what he can to upset the chassis with sharp and abrupt steering inputs or fully unstick it with too much cornering speed. This Air “mule” is having none of it: there’s an uncanny lack of body roll and it refuses to slide, even when brazenly provoked to do so.

The low degree of body roll should well serve the Air’s luxury-car positioning, as will its seeming refusal to slide, although this behavior may not win many of the budding Lewis Hamiltons of potential owners.

We remark on this and the generally firm—but hardly rocky—ride quality and Rawlinson is quick to remind this prototype also is riding on quite fundamental suspension tuning, a setup that’s likely to be far from the final-production state. Will that mean more body roll as a tradeoff for a softer state of primary tune?

Finally, there’s not much to say about an interior of a prototype, even a luxury one, but we do try the backseat to test Lucid’s claim of a uncannily voluminous rear-seat experience. It’s genuinely grand back there: the flat floor definitely contributes. Relax against what will be reclining rear seatbacks in the production Air and you’ll need one of those reach-the-top-shelf claw sticks to touch the back of the front seat. It’s pretty clear there’s more room back there than in most conventional fullsize sedans, regardless of whether the interior ends up with those thin and svelte seats Lucid’s shown in its press images.

Was the Air prototype rough and creaky and full of gear whine? Sure was. That wasn’t the intended takeaway, of course. Lucid’s prototype is thrusty and flat-cornering and its CTO wasn’t afraid it would break while hammering it around the streets of Vegas. That moves the needle on the credibility scale—the real goal for today's startup EV automaker breed. What we’ve seen so far is convincing.

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