Payne: Sci-fi Lucid Air offers Tesla performance, European style

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Woodside, California — In 2017 I hustled across Skyline Boulevard here in an American-made, electric, 680-horsepower Tesla Model S P100D. The car was hypnotic — a new standard for luxury that blew away rivals like Mercedes S-class and the BMW 7-series in acceleration (2.3 seconds zero-60) and tech. My goosebumps told me luxury had a new boss.

Four years later and I followed in the Tesla’s tire tracks in the 2022 Lucid Air. The goosebumps were back.

The creation of original Model S engineering genius Peter Rawlinson, Lucid Air has followed the Tesla playbook — leap-frogging the European competition with sci-fi performance, instant torque and drop-dead beauty. With clean-sheet designs propelled by state-of-the-art electric-motor technology, the twin Silicon Valley startups stand atop the luxury class for most electrifying vehicles (pun intended).

At a Woodside stoplight, I triggered launch control by flooring both pedals. Then released the brake. I was halfway to the moon before my vision cleared. With 1,111 horsepower (um, about the same as Penske’s famed 1973 Porsche 917-30 Can Am for you racing fans), the 5,200-pound rocket ship launches to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds. Nearly as quick as the P100D.

Having achieved these heights, the Lucid steps back to ask whether the world is big enough for another Tesla. Push the limits of autonomous driving? Of government regulation? Controls in screen? Yoke steering wheel?

Let Tesla be Tesla. Lucid tries a third way. With one foot in New World power and the other in Old World European luxury, Lucid aims to be the Mercedes of the electronics age.

Take that mind-blowing acceleration, for example.

Unlike Tesla, Lucid hasn’t taken its business model from “Spaceballs,” the movie. My rocket-pad launch was not achieved using Ludicrous or Plaid mode. Lucid sports more conventional Smooth, Swift and (the ultimate Launch Control-equipped) Sprint drive suite. It dovetails with a product that wants to bring classic elegance to EVs, while Tesla explores the bleeding edge of smartphone tech on four wheels.

My $170,500 Air Dream tester is already a collector’s item. Just 520 will be built to launch the model line which begins at $78,900 with the Lucid Air Pure. Slip inside the sedan and it recognized my key like the Model S Plaid I tested earlier this month. No starter button. No brake initiation. Hand meets glove.

But the interior surrounds are more European luxury than Apple smartphone. Lush materials. Porsche Taycan-like, 34-inch curved screen. A traditional full wheel (flat-bottom for ease of entry) versus the Model S’s yoke steering wheel.

A second console screen follows the Tesla example — containing drive modes, steering wheel, climate, even mirror controls. Sealed tight with sound-deadening materials, the 2 1/2-ton space ship is a dream to drive. Like the Model S, it feels organic — no piped-in faux engine sounds like Taycan. Just silent, relentless torque.

At busy Alice's Restaurant on Route 35 I stepped out of the cabin and Air drew onlookers like a magnet. They’re used to exotic vehicles in the wealthy Bay Area where startups Rivian and Tesla have redefined luxury sedans and pickups (not to mention the stodgy image of EVs).

I remember the first time I saw the Air prototype at the 2017 New York Auto Show. Slim chrome cowl over slimmer headlights. High sills. Bubble greenhouse. It looked like a car from a sci-fi flick.

Take Air to the local country club and your guests will spill out from a backseat as big as your living room. Unlike the prototype, however, the rear compartment is spare, devoid of seat recliners and passenger tablets like Euro rivals. Drive controls are familiar, though you may have to explain one-foot regenerative driving to the valet.

The expected EV details are here. Up front is a bigger frunk than the Tesla — so big it has a sub-frunk. The new Mercedes EQS and BMW iX don’t have frunks. Huh?

Blame poor packaging, something Lucid and Tesla have down cold. The Air has the interior room of a Merc S-class, the wheelbase of an E-class. Credit Lucid’s compact motors — more space efficient than even Tesla’s hallowed tech. Sitting on an industry-leading 900-volt architecture (compared to the Model S’s 400 volt), Lucid benefits from battery technology developed for Formula E racing by battery partner Atieva.

Plug the Air into a 350-kWh charging station and it claims 300 miles of range added in 22 minutes. That's tops for EVs, though still well shy of a gas engine's capability.

Air’s huge 118-kWh battery pack is mounted low in a skateboard chassis, and I tackled Route 35’s twisties with confidence. Throttle back and ogle the redwoods canopy above through a Tesla Model X-like panoramic roof.

The standard Lucid Pure features a full steel roof. That front trunk is enveloped by a dramatic clam-shell hood, as is the rear trunk.

Lux buyers want white-glove dealership service, and here Lucid is a work in progress. Following Tesla’s pioneering path (and statehouse lobbyists), it wants to build its brand with unique “studio” showrooms and adjoining service centers. Mobile units will provide home service for small fixes — a convenience I enjoy with my own Model 3.

But my Tesla showroom/service center is an hour away, and mobile units can take days for an appointment. Lucid will face similar challenges. Speaking of infrastructure, Tesla’s secret sauce is a Supercharging network integrated with vehicle software, easing owners’ range-anxiety on long hauls. Lucid puts its trust in a promised network of third-party chargers — in particular partner Electrify America.

In the Golden State Lucid navigated a mock trip to Santa Barbara. The system dutifully found an EA supercharger on the way. Nice start. But, in the Age of Tesla, buyers will also want to know how long they will be at the charger, where to eat nearby, and so on. Lucid hopes its sexy looks, 520-mile range and powerful motors will keep owners content until the charging network catches up.

It also promises self-driving technology. Eschewing Tesla’s daring all-road Autopilot, Lucid talks of a “DreamDrive” hands-free system like Cadillac SuperCruise and Ford BlueCruise. Lucids will get an over-the-air update to awake 32 onboard sensors — including LIDAR for all-season nasty weather.

In just a decade American brands have upended the luxury vehicle landscape. They aren’t called Cadillac or Lincoln. They are fresh-faced kids named Tesla and Lucid. And they come up quickly, silently in your rear-view mirror.

2022 Lucid Air

Vehicle type: Battery-powered, all-wheel-drive five-passenger luxury sedan

Price: $78,900, including $1,500 destination fee ($170,500 Dream Air Performance as tested) 

Powerplant: 118 kWh lithium-ion battery with dual-electric-motor drive

Power: 480 horsepower, 443 pound-feet of torque (1,111 horsepower, 1,025 pound-feet of torque Dream Air as tested)

Transmission: single-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.5 seconds (mfr); top speed, 168 mph

Weight: 5,200 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 114 MPGe (FWD), 98 MPGe (AWD); range, 406 miles (Pure), 520 miles (Dream Air)

Report card

Highs: Gorgeous figure; best-in-class EV range

Lows: Slim dealer network; gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars 

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.