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Lucid Motors’ sleek Tesla-killer redefines electric luxury

Excuse me, I’ll be stargazing from the backseat

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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The last time I was inside Lucid Motors’ prototype electric car, the interior was a jumble of exposed wiring and metal parts, the passenger door had to be pushed open from the inside, and nary a cupholder could be found. To be sure, I was riding in the electric car startup’s engineering prototype, so that type of condition was not unusual. Last week, when I was offered the chance to check out the more polished-looking alpha prototype, I leapt at the chance to trek uptown to the Classic Car Club on the West Side of Manhattan to give it a look.

The first thing I noticed was the exterior of the car, and how great it was to see it without the camouflage wrapping. Sitting in the middle of the well-lit club surrounded by classic roadsters and muscle cars, the Air was a futuristic vision in silver. Like Tesla’s Model 3, the Air lacked a traditional grille, which may be off-putting to some. Electric cars have different cooling needs than those that run on combustion engines. That said, the Air still includes a smaller air vent below the headlights, so the front of the car looks less alien than the smooth face of the forthcoming Model 3.

Peter Rawlinson, Lucid Motors’ affable chief technology officer, was on hand to show off some of the car’s cooler features. Sitting in the vehicle’s leather-upholstered backseat, he gestured for me to try out the reclining mechanism which is controlled by a touchscreen panel that curves out from the armrest at an odd angle.

There are three different seat settings: upright, slightly reclined, and fully reclined — and when I say fully reclined, I mean fully. I was pretty much horizontal in the backseat of the car. As someone over six feet tall, this was no small feat. That said, it was both weird and a little awkward. Rawlinson explained how this could be a very comfortable way to travel via Uber, for example, but all I could think about was how it must feel to be psychoanalyzed in the Air. (Also, I’m finding it difficult to imagine an Uber driver using the Air as his primary vehicle. A Honda CRV this thing ain’t.)

One thing is for sure: there is no better way to view the Air’s unique windshield-sunroof hybrid than by fully reclining in the backseat. The windshield extends over the roof of the car over a foot passed the point where it normally ends. This was another design feature carried over from by Rawlinson from Tesla, where he worked for many years as leader engineer on the Model S. Like Tesla, though, the Air could find itself experiencing the same problems that come with having that much windshield: too much sunlight. Tesla’s been distributing free sunshades to Model X owners to better them from blinding light.

Lucid has a pretty killer solution to the too-much-light problem: the Air will come with a canopy roof option that uses electrochromic glass that can adjust the amount of light that enters. This is a similar process that Boeing uses for its 787 Dreamliners. No need for an unsightly window shade.

From the front seat, Lucid Motors’ desire to combine ultra-luxury with cool gadgetry comes into sharp focus. Three digital screens ring the steering wheel, so the driver feels ensconced in technology. The left-hand screen contains a number of different menus to scroll through to adjust things like the headlights and in-car mood lighting (oh yes), while the right-hand screen controls functions like navigation and music. The center screen contains an image of the Air-in-miniature, as well as a neat feature that allows the driver to toggle between a bunch of futuristic backgrounds, all of which appear to be some variation of Peter Saville’s iconic album cover for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasure.

A retractable iPad-sized touchscreen is anchored under the center console, which also contains traditional buttons for heating and air conditioning. Because who wants to have to paw numbly at a touchscreen during the dead of winter? You can also find a number of smart car and home apps on the center screen, like Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Nest, and August Smart Lock. The car’s infotainment system runs on Android, Lucid says.

But the most unique aspect about the Air, according to Rawlinson, is also its most deceptive feature: the size of the vehicle. On the outside, the vehicle is smaller than a Tesla, with a shorter hood and trunk. That’s because of the way the car’s battery packs are stacked. Rather than lay the batteries flat across the chassis like some electric cars, Lucid has “sculpted” the battery pack to enhance the interior space. That makes the Air narrower, shorter, and lower than a Model S, but with the interior space of a long wheelbase Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

The goal was to build a vehicle that’s easy to park and store in an era of limited space, especially in urban environments where that space is a premium. “A more compact car is a more pleasurable driving experience,” Rawlinson says.

That’s why Rawlinson respectfully disagrees with those descriptions (including this very article) of the Air as a Tesla killer. A more likely scenario is Lucid competing with luxury coupes like the Audi A6, BMW 6 series, and Mercedes-Benz CLS class. “We think we have one car that can disrupt a complete set of vehicles,” Rawlinson adds.

Still, the Air will come with all the hardware necessary for full automation — cameras, sensors, etc. — but like Tesla the software won’t be available until that time when Lucid determines the technology is advanced enough to activate self-driving capabilities.

I didn’t get to drive or ride in the Air, unfortunately. The alpha prototype made the long trip from the West Coast just so it can be ogled at by New York Auto Show attendees when it kicks off in a couple of weeks.

That said, the Air is still a very fast machine. Back when I rode in the 1,000-horsepower prototype last January, the experience left me scrambling to find a new way to say “wheee!” Rawlinson says they’ve hit 160 mph on the test track, and expect to get that up to 200 mph in the weeks to come. A video of the car drifting at perilous speeds across the freshly fallen snow will no doubt appeal to anyone who dreams of taking their high-performing, environmentally sustainable vehicle somewhere above the Arctic Circle.

The company also recently announced that its first production model, a 400-horsepower, rear-wheel drive version of the sedan, will cost $60,000 and have 240 miles of electric-powered range. Lucid also expects to sell more expensive 315- and 400-mile range versions.

Lucid Motors is based in California, which is quickly becoming a hotbed of activity for electric cars, autonomous vehicles, and other futuristic tech that is roiling the 127-year-old automotive industry. New startups promising wide-ranging advancements in artificial intelligence are being quickly snatched up by major car companies for millions, and sometimes billions, of dollars. It’s a feeding frenzy of hype and money, but the effects on the way normal people buy and drive cars have yet to be fully realized.

Lucid’s first car is expected to roll off the assembly line in 2019. Given the perilous state of the electric car market, with state and federal tax credits in flux and buzzy startups like Faraday Future floundering under the weight of their own hype, Lucid certainly has its work cut out. Everyone is chasing Elon Musk’s dream of an electric future, and Lucid hopes it’s the best positioned out of all the competitors to make it a reality.


Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge