+++ The introduction of a standalone AMG showroom is “only a matter of time”, according to AMG boss Tobias Moers. Having launched the first AMG store in Tokyo earlier this year, the performance arm of Mercedes now has imminent plans for showrooms in Sydney, Shanghai and Abu Dhabi. Moers said it was “only a matter of time” for both the UK and its home market of Germany. “All the independent dealerships are seeing the chance to get money back”, said Moers, referencing the profitability of the AMG brand for dealerships. He added that the showrooms would always share a workshop with a mainstream Mercedes outlet so needed to be close to one another. Tokyo became the location of the first AMG showroom after local AMG staffers voiced an interest to AMG headquarters. While Japan is only AMG’s sixth largest market, AMG sales were up 21% in the country last year, making it the perfect test bed for the new venture. The showroom in the affluent Setagaya suburb has red and white ripple strips akin to a real race track, burn-out tyre marks and several AMG models on display. Globally, AMG sales were up 44% last year on 2015, almost hitting the 100,000 mark. Moers is expecting double-digit growth this year too, though expects it to be more steady until the next wave of new products arrive in 2020 including the four-door GT saloon. +++

+++ The next-generation AUDI A8 will be the most advanced autonomous car in production when it goes on sale later this year. Claimed to offer Level 3 autonomy (also known as ‘conditional automation’) drivers will be able to relinquish full control to the car, marking the first time this will be offered with a series production model. The system will work at speeds of up to 50 km/h on roads that have physical separations (such as a barrier) between both sides of traffic. In this mode, the driver can focus on other tasks such as reading, but they must remain alert because the car can request they retake control with an eight to ten second warning, should the traffic situation require human input. The A8’s driverless functions will be more advanced than even the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class’s, which itself will offer Level 2 autonomy, also known as partial automation. Level 2 allows a driver to take their hands and feet off the controls but requires them to continue looking at the road ahead. Tesla is building its cars with hardware capable of full autonomy, but is yet to issue the accompanying software. Speaking at Audi’s annual press conference, CEO Rupert Stadler said only government legislation would prevent the A8 from running in fully autonomous modes in public. However, European governments are looking to change legislation to enable the use of driverless technology. +++

+++ Is the new DODGE Challenger SRT Demon the fastest car to date? According to some sources, the Dodge Challenger SRT Demon had just beaten the Tesla Model S’ record for being quickest at accelerating. Not so long ago, Tesla announced that its non-performance Tesla Model S broke the record of its fastest car to accelerate, the Model S P100 D, which is the performance version. The performance version clocked at 2.3 seconds, while the non-performance beat that record with a 2.28 second run from 0 to 60 miles per hour (96 kilometers per hour). But move over Tesla, because you are not alone in this game. This world of ours never gets satisfied. We always want more, more of everything. But in this specific community, we know what we want: more powerful or faster cars. Having said that, the Dodge Challenger DRT Demon had to take up a challenge, under the same circumstances as Motor Trend’s P100 0-to-60 mile run. The rules were basic – from a stop, the Dodge will accelerate to 60 miles per hour (96 kph) in 2.3 seconds, but with a rollout of an extra seven inches before the timer begins. Tim Kuniskis, Head of Passenger Cars at FCA North America, said that it was even quicker than that. In a shocking 2.1 seconds, the Dodge sprinted from a standstill to a sixty. That is with less weight as the passenger and rear seats were taken out, and with the help of Direct Connection powertrain controller, and 100-octane racing fuel – these can all be done as an option by the factory. The Tesla P100D on the other hand, reached 0 to 60 in 2.53 seconds without a rollout, and with all standard equipment – still an impressive number! If you haven’t heard, the Demon has a 6.2 liter supercharged V8 engine under its hood, bringing 840 horsepower. The Demon is too fast for the track. In fact, National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) has “banned” it due to its ability to run a quarter mile in less than 10 seconds. They mentioned that the Demon needs to have a roll cage to be able to compete. However, most tracks follow that rule too. What’s cool is that Hennessey Performance wants to make the most of the Demon by bumping it up to 1,500 horsepower. Making it more exciting are its exterior upgrades such as new headers, a roll cage, and a parachute (to help slow down a speeding car). +++

+++ Are ELECTRIC cars ready to stand on their own in the United States? If you took a spin down to the New York International Auto Show last week and saw the $37,500 Chevrolet Bolt parked next to the strikingly similar $17,000 Chevrolet Cruze (gasoline), the answer is probably a hard no. The Bolt is arguably a better car than the Cruze, but not $20,000 better. Edmunds, the car-research company, recently weighed in with a hard no of its own, warning that the elimination of a $7,500 U.S. tax credit is “likely to kill the U.S. EV market”. Edmunds pinned its argument on what happened in Georgia, a state that became an unlikely leader in electric cars thanks to an extra $5,000 incentive. At one point, almost 4 percent of new cars being sold in Georgia were electric. Then they pulled away the punch bowl.  But a very illuminating thing happened after Georgia’s incentives expired. Unlike the Nissan Leaf, which made up the majority of the EV market there, sales of electric-luxury Teslas were barely affected by the loss of the tax credit. In fact, more people are buying Teslas in Georgia today than during the subsidy years. The Tesla exception shows what happens when an electric car reaches parity with fuel-burning competitors in both price and function. Unlike the Leaf and the BMW i3, the Tesla Model S is quicker than similarly priced gasoline cars, has a long driving range, extensive fast-charging network, and is packed with unrivaled tech advances like Autopilot and wireless software updates. As a result, the Model S is now the best-selling large luxury vehicle in America. Changes to state or federal incentives are unlikely to alter that fact. But those Teslas are premium cars that start around $70,000. For plugins to really pass the subsidy test and take over the auto industry, they’ll need to prove themselves in cheaper classes of car, and there will have to be more manufacturers besides Tesla. The primary cost for an electric car is its battery, responsible for almost half the pricetag of a mid-sized plugin. If you take that away, electric cars are much cheaper to produce and maintain than internal combustion vehicles (that’s why French carmaker Renault sells its popular Zoe without a battery, which customers pay a monthly fee to lease). For true mass-market appeal, the up-front sticker price is what matters most, and battery prices must come down further. Fortunately, prices are falling fast; by roughly 20 percent a year. The manufacturing cost of electric cars will fall below their gasoline counterparts across the board around 2026, according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The question of when electric cars will cost the same as their combustion counterparts isn’t academic. The $7,500 federal incentive is set to taper off as each manufacturer reaches its 200,000th U.S. sale. For Tesla, that day will arrive sometime next year. Nissan and GM won’t be far behind, and any extension of the subsidy by the Trump administration seems unlikely. Another thing that makes electric cars more expensive is that, at lower volumes (less than 100,000 a year of the early models), even the traditional components of a car come at higher costs. Low production numbers and high battery development costs created a valley of despair for EVs that lasted decades, which is why subsidies have been critical to giving the sector enough breathing room to eventually stand on its own. Government incentives were crucial to the birth of the EV industry, and many countries and local governments will continue to offer them because of the critical role electric cars play in reducing pollution and combatting climate change. But even where governments are less enlightened, the valley of despair is coming to an end. Tesla, the first to approach price and function parity in the Model S sedan and Model X SUV, will attempt to recreate that magic later this year with the Model 3, a $35,000 entry-level luxury sedan. A longer-range Nissan Leaf will be unveiled in September, and depending on its pricetag, it could begin to approach the parity zone in the sub-$30,000 market. And then watch out: In 2018, Volkswagen plows into electrification with an Audi SUV and the first high-speed U.S. charging network to rival Tesla’s Superchargers. Jaguar and Volvo both have promising cars on the way too, and by 2020, the avalanche really begins, with Mercedes, VW, General Motors and others releasing dozens of new models. When the U.S. incentives begin to expire next year, don’t expect a Georgia-sized collapse in the market. The period of greatest peril is ending for EVs, and the time of greatest promise is beginning. All the top carmakers are investing billions of dollars to electrify their drivetrains, and the smart ones will compete aggressively on pricing in the short-term in order to establish market share for the long haul. Incentives are important, but they won’t define the market for much longer. +++

+++ The JAGUAR XF Sportbrake will go on sale this summer as rival to the BMW 5 Series Touring and Mercedes E-Class Estate. Previewed in a new image that shows a full length panoramic roof, the estate model is expected to sport an exterior design that’s identical to the saloon barring its more practical bodyshape, which will increase boot space and rear head room. The XF Sportbrake will be built upon the same aluminium architecture as the saloon, and it’ll also share engines with its sibling, meaning a 2.0-litre diesel will be the base unit, with 3.0-litre V6 petrol and diesel engines sitting above this in the range. A 2.0-litre petrol engine, as launched along with a new wave of Ingenium units, will also be included with both variants of the XF. Power outputs for the engines range from 163 hp to 380 hp. Drive is sent to the rear wheels as standard through a 6-speed manual gearbox in lower models, with an 8-speed automatic offered as an option or as standard on the most potent units. The saloon’s optional four-wheel drive system will likely also be offered on the estate. The range will be crowned by an XF S Sportbrake model. Expect the XF Sportbrake to be slightly more expensive than the saloon. +++

+++ A high-performance variant of the LAND ROVER Range Rover Velar has been spotted outside the Nurburgring in Germany. Although the Velar was given its full debut in March, Jaguar Land Rover’s development team has covered this prototype from head-to-toe in camouflage. From what we can see, this car has altered lower front air intakes and a new exhaust system. According to the spy photographers the prototype was considerably louder than other models in the existing Velar range, they couldn’t quite figure what type of engine it was running. If this indeed the Velar SVR, it will likely feature a version of the company’s 5.0-litre supercharged V8. In the F-Type SVR the motor cranks out 575 hp / 700 Nm, while in the Range Rover Sport SVR it has been tuned to deliver 550 hp / 680 Nm. Even in a less powerful state, the V8 would be a huge jump above the 380 hp / 450 Nm 3.0-litre supercharged V6 that currently sits atop of the Velar’s petrol drivetrain tree. This motor is capable of propelling the rakishly-styled SUV from 0-100 km/h in 5.7 seconds. Alternatively, this prototype could be powered by a more powerful version of that V6 engine. Whatever is under the bonnet, it’s likely that this sportier Velar will be sharing it with Jaguar F-Pace R or SVR that was spied in Spain in late February. +++

+++ The head of marketing and sales for MERCEDES , Britta Seeger, says new product is more important than ever before, but needed to be backed by strong marketing, dealer performance, and aftersales success. Above all, though, is the brand’s premium status. “Since 2011 when we started the 2020 Programme, one strong aspect was the product platform”, Seeger said, speaking at the New York motor show. “We are about to launch even more products, many more products actually, and we truly believe this is very important on a continuous basis”. Seeger went on to explain that the key to success globally was building a strong spirit, and a strong link between head office and the various dealers around the world. “The key strength is that we concentrate on strong relationships with our dealers”, Seeger said. “There are many aspects that lead to success. One is the product from headquarters: we need to make sure we have the right products, within international sales and marketing. We need the right dealer performance and sales, and aftersales for the future is a key point. It’s not just product but every aspect”. While Mercedes-Benz has continued on its roll of releasing more new product seemingly every few months, the German marque has shown that it can (and will) remove product from the line-up if it isn’t working. “Currently we have a very good line-up, and that is an ongoing thing that we have to do”, Seeger said. “Does this mean we have to fill every niche in the market? We go into areas where we believe we will find customers. “In the product offensive, we look at opportunities, but we have also dropped the R-Class in the past, so it is a natural thing to look where the potential for sales is. It’s an evolving process”. Seeger is more aware than most that the aforementioned owner experience after purchase is also crucial to the premium expectation of the buyer. “We can always do better”, Seeger said. “It is a very competitive industry, but we can always do better. The customers want us to offer more, a better dealer experience, this is one thing that will help the brand in the future. We have to offer services, but offer them seamlessly. For all of us in the industry, this is important”. A crucial aspect of that product offensive will be the role SUVs take in a world where demand for traditional passenger vehicles is dropping more rapidly every year. Seeger isn’t so sure the sedan is dead just yet though, despite the surging popularity of SUVs around the world. “There is a very strong SUV trend in the USA, for example”, Seeger said. “There’s a change in customer’s perceptions regarding passenger cars, sedans, for example. We don’t take them out of the market, but we reposition them to go forward. We have to decide this market-by-market, because they are all different”. Seeger explained that a large chunk of the SUV’s initial popularity was related to buyers wanting to be different and thus opting for an alternative to the traditional family sedan or wagon. “It’s certainly not the utility of the vehicle”, Seeger said in relation to few owners using them in the manner in which they were intended. She went on to explain that it follows logically that there may at some point, be a return back to traditional sedans and wagons. If that happens, Mercedes-Benz will be ready. “It is for sure though, part of our strategy to remain premium”, Seeger said. “We were able to rejuvenate our brand with compact cars and you shouldn’t be too distinctive as a brand just with SUVs for example”. +++

+++ TESLA is going to need more chargers. Lots of them. The company is preparing to launch its $35,000 Model 3 electric car later this year, with plans to make 500,000 EVs in 2018 (up from 76,000 a year ago). This audacious timeline has left many current owners worrying about wait times throughout the company’s U.S. Supercharging network. Well, Tesla has a plan. This year, the number of Superchargers available for public use will double: from 5,000 to 10,000. That’s 39 percent more Superchargers than CEO Elon Musk promised for 2017 when he unveiled the Model 3. The company will also increase the number of so-called Destination Chargers located at hotels and restaurants from 9,000 to 15,000. Some of the new stations for these Superchargers will be powered by solar panels, have customer centers, and enough chargers to accommodate “several dozen Teslas” at the same time. “Many sites will soon enter construction to open in advance of the summer travel season”, Tesla said in the post. “We’re moving full speed on site selection”, Tesla also gave a first glimpse into its strategy for boosting charging options in urban centers like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, where it’s common to have multi-unit residences with no dedicated parking. The Supercharger network was originally designed to enable long-distance travel between cities and are mostly located adjacent to major highways. Now, Tesla will be expanding charging locations into city centers as well (the company has already been installing Destination Chargers in parking garages in New York. It costs an extra $10 to charge up at the garage across the street from my office in Midtown Manhattan). Tesla, based in Palo Alto, said it’s also building bigger stations along its busiest routes and will add more than 1,000 Superchargers in California alone. The North American network will expand by 150 percent this year. +++

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