LOS ANGELES – When it comes to long-range, eye-turning electric cars, Tesla may be in the lead, but a raft of competitors are trying to catch up.
Call them the Tesla fighters, or maybe more appropriately, the Tesla wannabes.
They are hoping to field new models that will win them a bigger chunk of the luxury electric car market as they have watched Tesla come zooming up in their rear-view mirror.
Why the alarm? In October, one analyst says it appeared Tesla outsold Mercedes-Benz in the third quarter. Jean Baptiste Su, principal analyst with Atherton Research, said in a report in Forbes that Tesla sold 69,925 cars in the U.S. compared to Mercedes-Benz's 66,542, excluding its commercial vans.
At the Los Angeles Auto Show last week, a raft of competitors displayed concept cars that they hoped would light up affluent buyers who prefer the plug to the pump. They included established heavyweights Audi, BMW and Volkswagen, and start-ups Rivian and Byton.
The show is open to the public through Sunday.
Tesla, which is displaying all three of its models at the show, already has a massive head-start on newcomers – it began selling its first electric car, a fun little roadster, in 2008 – and has racked up big successes since then. Tesla is forging ahead as well. It has announced that Tesla drivers have used the car's driver assist system, Autopilot, collectively more than 1 billion miles.
"Nobody has been able to kill Tesla. They are resilient like you can't believe," said Ron Cogan, publisher of the Green Car Journal.
And one reason is the brand stands apart, having become synonymous with electric cars in a way few others can match.
"There's a lot of talk about the Tesla fighters," said Jessica Caldwell, analyst for Edmunds.com. But it will be an uphill struggle. When it comes to Tesla's vehicles, "they are constantly a topic of conversation. It's hard for these other brands to fight that."
But that doesn't mean automakers can't keep trying. Jaguar put its well-received electric SUV, the I-Pace, on sale last month and reported it sold 165 of them.
Here's are some of the vehicles that were introduced at the show:
Audi e-tron GT concept
The German luxury automaker gave a debut to one of the most gorgeous electric cars, the e-tron GT concept, that appeared at the media preview for the auto show.
It's not only beautiful, but powerful. Its electric motors can crank out 590 horsepower, and zero to 60 mph comes in a zippy 3.5 seconds. The car has a maximum range of almost 250 miles a charge, which is respectable, but a bit short of the more than 300 miles that Tesla offers in its luxury vehicles.
The four-door coupe concept, which is just meant to gauge reaction at auto shows, is expected to be followed by a production version in about two years, a vehicle that people can actually buy. The GT is a stablemate of an electric SUV that's going arrive just ahead of it. Audi said it plans to offer 12 electric vehicles in its top markets around the world by 2025, and that they will make up about a third of its sales.
BMW Vision iNEXT concept
Let's just say it: The BMW Vision iNEXT concept, an electric SUV, is just weird.
It has wood-planked floors, airliner-style steering wheel and wide-opening, side-by-side doors that have become requisite for fanciful auto show SUV concepts. All are features unlikely to make it to the production model. But then there's also the velour-like rear seat and pink champagne paint that just seem a little over the top.
Still, there's some serious business behind this concept. Besides being electric, the concept is meant to be self-driving. BMW calls the mode in which drivers actually pilot the vehicle "Boost" and the mode in which the car drives itself “Ease." Self-driving could mean big changes in vehicle interiors, turning them into big playrooms since drivers won't have to have their eyes glued to the road.
“The BMW Vision iNEXTrepresents a new era of sheer driving pleasure,” said Harald Kruger, BMW's board chairman. “It underlines the leading role Germany plays in the future of mobility.”
Volkswagen I.D.Buzz Cargo
For the auto show, Volkswagen went a different direction than the swoopy, sexy concepts of its peers. It brought an electric commercial van.
Not just any van, but one that plays off the original Volkswagen bus. The I.D. Buzz, which has been seen before, was redone to become the Cargo version. VW said the idea was to show how commercial vehicles would be practical as electrics.
The van has electric motors producing an ample 201 horsepower. The range is up to 340 miles.
This Chinese company, which has research and other facilities in the U.S., is producing an electric sedan and SUV.
The sedan will not only have electric power but also enhanced partial self-driving capability. It can't quite drive itself under all conditions yet, but executives say it is a step closer.
The sedan, the K-Byte concept, and the SUV, the M-Byte, both will feature a massive video display stretching across the dashboard. It's yet to be seen how the company copes with concerns about driver distraction, but for now, it's like having a wide, thin big-screen TV in your car. There's even a video display in the center of the steering wheel.
The sedan is also distinctive because of the Lidar sensors that extend from little doors on its sides to enable its driver-assist system.
This company appears to love to invite comparisons to Tesla.
Nine years in development, Rivian has produced an innovative pickup and an SUV that it is finally showing off. It says production will start in 2020.
It says both will have a battery that will offer up to about 400 miles in range per charge and can produce the kind of acceleration that's seen in supercars.
The pickup is filled with touches like a "tunnel" just ahead of the bed that will allow owners to store long items like skis or golf clubs in a place protected from the elements. The door to the tunnel becomes an outside seat that hikers can use as a perch when they lace up their boots.
The Michigan-based company is headed by RJ Scaringe, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who says the pickup is about "the ability to have fun" without having to "make a lot of noise."