Automakers embrace an electrified future

Nissan and Porsche are betting that EVs represent a big growth opportunity in Canada.

Porsche Taycan

When a customer steps into an electric vehicle (EV), its features and benefits are “easy to appreciate,” says François Lefèvre, senior manager of market intelligence and corporate planning at Nissan Canada. There’s the instant torque and smoothness, the savings at the gas pump, and a silence so uncharacteristic of cars that some manufacturers are now intentionally making EVs louder for safety.

The difficulty, Lefèvre says, lies in getting drivers behind the wheel so they can experience those benefits first hand.

Category awareness remains low, and the average car shopper has difficulty explaining the differences between EVs, hybrids and plug-in hybrids (which generally have a larger and more powerful battery than non-plug-in hybrids). There’s a lot more educating and awareness raising to be done. Still, Lefèvre believes that as improvements to battery capacity and range are introduced to market, sales should follow.

It’s a sentiment that is shared by Marc Ouayoun, president and CEO of Porsche Cars Canada. The Volkswagen Group-owned luxury automaker has had a hybrid strategy in place for a decade, but only unveiled the fully-electric Taycan last year.

Like Lefèvre, Ouayoun believes EVs are likely to become more popular over time, because “the social acceptance for fossil fuel energy is going down. Of course, it will continue to play a role in the near future. But we see progressively [many] governments worldwide shifting strategies towards electrification of cars, green energy, renewable energy. The pandemic will not stop that, and it may even accelerate that.”

For consumers, one of the biggest hurdles to adoption is a lack of charging infrastructure, according to Ouayoun. It’s the reason Porsche and its sister companies Volkswagen and Audi have partnered with Electrify Canada on the development of an EV charging station network along major routes connecting some Canadian cities. The first stations broke ground last year, and the companies expect to grow the network to around 32 stations within the next 12 months.

But that alone won’t be sufficient, says Ouayoun. Making EVs more accessible will require a lot more investment from the government and private sector. Canadian Tire heeded the call in January, announcing plans to make 90 of its retail locations the host EV fast-charging stations by the end of the year through a partnership with charging network FLO, Electrify Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and automotive brand Tesla. That will make it the largest retail networks of EV charging stations in the country.

Both Nissan and Porsche are betting that EVs represent a large growth opportunity in Canada. While Ouayoun says adoption is growing more slowly in Canada than in Europe and Asia, sales of fully electric vehicles were up 31% in 2019, according to Nissan. Several new vehicle models have been introduced since then, and that number will only continue to grow, says Lefèvre. Nissan, for one, will unveil the Nissan Aryia crossover, its second fully-electric vehicle to be sold in North America, on July 15.

2020 Nissan Nissan LEAF SV Plus-5

Since Nissan brought the LEAF, which the brand considers the first mass-market EV, to market in 2011, it has watched its target market evolve. Customers are now more likely to be female (39% in 2019 versus 29% the year before), at least 30 years old (with a fairly even mix of buyers between the ages of 30 and 60), have a university-level education, be married and have a family.

Today, LEAF owners are most likely to cite the model’s contributions to sustainability (34%), savings on fuel economy and good range (30%), and value (9%) as the reasons for purchase. Over time, Lefèvre says the model has been used to “herald Nissan’s brand identity” (which it calls Nissan Intelligent Mobility). “With LEAF offering the most advanced technology available on a Nissan, it has been the focal point to demonstrate features,” such as its semi-autonomous technology named ProPILOT Assist.

Meanwhile, Porsche is proceeding with a three-pillar marketing approach that gives it the flexibility to adapt to trends evolving at different paces across markets, according to Ouayoun. It markets combustion engine vehicles to more emotional, luxury sports car enthusiasts who are familiar with Porsche, its hybrid models to customers travelling longer distances, and the Taycan to a new target: early adopters who care about their eco-footprint and the latest innovations and less about their relationship with the brand.

It recently declared sustainability to be a “central pillar” of its business strategy, having brought its Porsche Impact Program to Canada (its sixth market globally) in May. The program, which Ouayoun says is still in need of a big marketing push, allows owners to calculate their vehicles’ CO2 emissions and contribute the equivalent to sustainability projects offered through South Pole, a carbon reduction project developer.

“It’s not only about the car itself. It’s about the environment, the ecosystem around the car,” he says, adding that the factory in Zuffenhausen, Germany that produces the Taycan is now carbon-neutral. “So limiting the impact on the environment, not only by driving, but also [across] the whole supply chain.”