Brainchild of the man behind the Tesla Model S aims to unseat the established luxury order

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Stationary traffic isn’t typically an environment to leave you gawping in wonder at your surroundings. But when that traffic is downtown Manhattan and you’re driving a Lucid Air, you only need to look up to do a bit of sightseeing, because the Air’s striking windscreen runs all the way back into the roof to give you a panoramic view of the city and the sky above from a unique perspective.

The Air itself comes with a unique perspective of its own. Its maker Lucid is determined to do things differently as it creates truly premium if not luxurious electric cars way above Tesla in their positioning and with an eye as much on Bentley as Mercedes-Benz or Audi.

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The Air saloon is Lucid’s first model. We have experienced it briefly before on a short drive around a year ago, when it first entered production. That was an early-build car, but now Lucid is fully up and running, with 7000 Airs having rolled out of its US factory in Arizona last year and a further 12,000 planned for this year – and one of those cars is ours for a sunny early April day in New York.

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Lucid started life back in 2007 as a battery and electric drive unit supplier but set its sights on becoming a car maker in its own right in the middle of the last decade. By that point, former Jaguar and Lotus engineer Peter Rawlinson was heading the firm’s technical operations, having joined from Tesla where he had led development of the Tesla Model S. Rawlinson has been CEO of Lucid Motors since 2019, and he knows a thing or two about developing an electric saloon, good and bad.

Our first drive last year confirmed that the Air was ultimately on the path of becoming a good car that’s interesting to look at and sit in, and explosive in its performance. But it lacked a final level of dynamic polish and suffered from a few software gremlins and quality issues that you would understand, if not make excuses for, given that it was the product of a start-up company making its first cars in a new factory.

The car that awaits us parked in front of the Classic Car Club Manhattan looks much more solidly put together on close inspection, and it demands attention even with a whole host of period exotica from Porsche, Ferrari and BMW peering through the gap of the Club’s warehouse door behind it.

The Air looks like nothing else on the road. It’s not as big as it might appear in pictures (it’s just under five metres long, so a smidge more than a BMW 5 Series), and it has a modern sci-fi look that is not shouty, garish or ostentatious. Cool – that’s the word. It doesn’t seek to shock but will turn heads with its sleek, low-slung and atypical proportions. I think it will age well, too.

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Much of the technology in the Air is Lucid’s own work. It is built on the firm’s own skateboard electric architecture that is designed to allow for the best packaging possible to maximise interior space above. The compact twin electric motors are of Lucid’s own design, with the transmission, differential and inverter all integrated within the motor. Combined, these motors produce 808bhp and 885lb ft, which are quite remarkable figures that explain the 3.0sec 0-60mph time in spite of the all-aluminium Air’s 2360kg kerb weight. If that power output in our four-wheel-drive Grand Touring model isn’t enough, Lucid also offers a Performance version, which has 1036bhp and a 0-60mph time of 2.6sec.

The focus of the Air is not only on performance but efficiency, too. The battery, again designed in-house by Lucid, is a vast 112kWh, which gives it a range on the US EPA testing cycle of up to 516 miles, depending on the model. The battery can also be replenished as quickly as almost any EV yet seen, thanks to its 300kW charging speed. Find a 350kW DC charger and 300 miles ofrange can be added in just 21 minutes.

Lucid has focused obsessively on maximising efficiency to achieve that range, not only through its battery chemistry but also through giving it a slippery shape, optimised aero and, as the car’s designer Derek Jenkins says, “reducing and minimising absolutely everything”. Examples include the headlights, which at just 27mm tall are the lowest in the industry, and the fact that the Air sits around 4cm lower than a typical saloon, which is a by-product of the compact design of the drivetrain. The result of all this work is a drag coefficient of just 0.2 – another remarkable figure in this most intriguing of cars.

We have a route planned that takes in the busiest Manhattan roads and then some more remote ones upstate, to really get to know the car. “You’re not going into downtown Manhattan, are you?” asks one of the Lucid team. Why, that’s our first stop, of course. “Ah, well, the traffic shouldn’t be too bad yet. He’s not due for a few hours.”

Who was ‘he’, then? Only ex-president Donald J Trump, whose appearance in a New York courtroom was the biggest story in the world that day. Roads would be closed, traffic would be chaos, and getting in the way of an Autocar magazine story would be the latest item that could be added to the man’s ‘against’ column.

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Still, we had a plan, a route and a schedule so we headed downtown – and the traffic immediately slowed to a crawl as the skies above filled with news helicopters to capture Trump’s movements. Probably all the fault of the mainstream media, or something...

The slow start to the day allowed plenty of time to get to know the Air’s cabin, which, like the exterior, has a really refreshing feel to it. There’s an excellent mix of craftsmanship and technology, the former coming from trim and materials that include nappa leather, alpaca wool, Alcantara and carbon oak. Perceived quality is high, with none of the iffy panel gaps we found in the early-build car we drove last year.

There is also great distinction in the colour palette between the front and the rear, the former being sportier and darker, while the latter is lighter and even more luxurious feeling. It’s what Lucid calls the ‘Tahoe’ interior colour scheme, and it feels both concept car-like and coherent. It’s a resounding success.

While Tesla pushes for minimalism by seemingly compressing the entire interior of its cars onto a single touchscreen, and the German brands go for all-out showiness and technology, the Air sits somewhere between the two. Running across the dashboard is a slim, curved 32in ‘Glass Cockpit’, which is used for a driver display and infotainment screen, all in 5K resolution. This works with, and is largely controlled by, a lower centre console-mounted tablet-style touchscreen (with haptic feedback), which is able to disappear back into the console with a swipe for a bit of extra theatre. The graphics are slick, the layout is nice and it all works well, with none of the lag we experienced a year ago – although Apple CarPlay connectivity was intermittent. Pleasingly, physical buttons remain for the temperature and fan controls.

We make it through downtown and over the Brooklyn Bridge, again that panoramic roof coming in handy for taking in the surroundings. But as the day warms up, all of that skyward- facing glass has a greenhouse effect on the cabin, forcing the air conditioning to work a bit harder. It’s a shame, too, that the sun visors look almost like an afterthought, cheapening slightly what is otherwise a remarkable spectacle. (Yes, I know, we had a similar glass roof on the Citroën C4 Grand Picasso...)

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It’s not just the camera of photographer Mike trained on the Air as we drive along the cobbled streets of Brooklyn – many lenses of tourists are pointed at the car too. Lucids are still relatively rare sights, but the brand awareness is good, made more so by starring roles for the Air in the US TV shows Goliath and Succession. For those who have never seen or heard of an Air, its looks alone make you want to know more.

Around town, it’s an easy car to place, drive and manoeuvre. It rides nicely, too. There’s a precise lightness to the controls, and all of that glass makes visibility excellent, even if you do sit lower than you would in most similarly sized EVs.

The Lucid isn’t stupidly wide, either, like many cars have become, and it sits comfortably inside the dreaded two-metre mark that starts causing problems. One of Lucid’s goals for the Air was for it to be usable every day, and things such as a car’s footprint play a key part in that.

You get a hint of the performance potential at low speeds just from the amount of torque it clearly has in reserve, but experiencing that in full is to come later. What the Air has in common with most EVs is that sense of calm refinement from the drivetrain, only here there’s a far nicer environment in which to sit back and enjoy it.

We work our way back across the Brooklyn Bridge and against the Trump traffic (two words I never expected to write) out of Manhattan, stopping for photos in the Meatpacking District before leaving the city to the north. Half of the meat packed there apparently ends up in my turkey sandwich as we take a break for lunch on the New York city limit. The stop makes me a bit nervous, because at first I’m unsure whether the Air is locked or not – it is one of those cars that does the locking, unlocking, starting and stopping for you as you enter and leave. But it’s still there when we get back.

The quiet, scenic roads of the Bear Mountain State Park help to reveal the Air’s extraordinary performance. It’s as fast an EV as we have ever experienced outside of more rarefied exotica, stunning and shocking in just how quickly it can cover ground. The force of the acceleration never seems to relent as the speeds climb and traction refuses to break. As a showcase forwhat Lucid can do with electric drivetrains it is pretty mighty, if ultimately a bit pointless in a car like this, and it actually makes you – and your passengers – feel a little nauseous after a while. I’m sure even 500bhp would have been plenty, and we could happily do without the slightly intrusive and irritating artificial whine that goes with the acceleration.

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All this has been experienced in the most sedate and power-limiting Smooth mode, with both Swift and Sprint unlocking full power and also performing the usual driving mode changes, such as firming up the steering and dampers. Sprint in particular alters the character in an ultimately unnecessary direction: more power and less comfort moves the Air away from what this car is all about. Smooth mode allows it to be enjoyed at its best on almost all roads and under most conditions.

As with so many electric cars, weight becomes the limiting factor when really pushing on in the Air. In the bends it feels like the big, heavy car it actually is, but the handling is always predictable and the steering is precise. It’s not especially fun or rewarding when really pushed, yet hold back a touch and it’s still an enjoyable car to flow through a series of corners. A Tesla Model 3 Performance remains a more engaging steer.

Our Air test car feels like something of a novelty, being ‘only’ on 19in alloys (up to 21in are optional) and 245/45 tyres. As well as helping to boost the overall range, they improve the ride too – and the Air’s secondary ride is particularly impressive. Some of the roads on Bear Mountain had UK levels of scarring, but the imperfections didn’t unsettle the car or send shocks through its cabin. The Air uses double-wishbone suspension and adaptive dampers all round; air suspension remains in development.

So no nasty surprises in the way it handles, then, and we are left to drive back to the city along the interstate roads on which the Air is able to do what it does best: make quiet and quick progress in supreme comfort. In many ways this is reminiscent of the Mercedes S-Classes you would get with V12 engines but no AMG badging.

The Air ticks plenty of practical boxes, too. The 200 miles or so we have covered dent the battery capacity by barely 50%, even with some choked city traffic and hard driving within that. Efficiency is a coming battleground for electric cars, and Lucid is well placed to do well in it.

There are also S-Class levels of leg room and comfort for passengers in the rear (an 88kWh entry-level Air Pure model gets even more rear room than this Grand Touring, because the latter’s extra battery cells are built up in the rear footwells). It’s a further benefit of the clever cab-forward packaging that unlocks extra interior space. Despite being further forward, there’s still room for a decent ‘frunk’ storage area and a large boot with a super-wide opening that will even swallow a 7ft surfboard.

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It’s easy to understand why Lucid has endeavoured to create a car that is as much high-performance GT as it is luxury saloon, and one you can use every day. It is a new company, so it wants to make plenty of noise and show just how much it can do and how big its numbers can be. The Air does its best work as a truly innovative, efficient and desirable luxury saloon, and this is the direction in which Lucid should hone the car – a bit like a BMW i7 you actually want to be seen in. Electric power has always been ripe for this type of car, and Lucid is already well placed to exploit it with what is a hugely impressive debut offering.

The elephant in the room remains the fact that right-hand-drive Airs are for now only a goal rather than a confirmed part of the model plan, despite the conversion being a technical possibility. Still, the EV world is already a far more interesting and less homogenised place for having Lucid in it, and we hope that one day soon its cars will grace our roads too.

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Mark Tisshaw

Title: Editor

Mark is a journalist with more than a decade of top-level experience in the automotive industry. He first joined Autocar in 2009, having previously worked in local newspapers. He has held several roles at Autocar, including news editor, deputy editor, digital editor and his current position of editor, one he has held since 2017.

From this position he oversees all of Autocar’s content across the print magazine, autocar.co.uk website, social media, video, and podcast channels, as well as our recent launch, Autocar Business. Mark regularly interviews the very top global executives in the automotive industry, telling their stories and holding them to account, meeting them at shows and events around the world.

Mark is a Car of the Year juror, a prestigious annual award that Autocar is one of the main sponsors of. He has made media appearances on the likes of the BBC, and contributed to titles including What Car?Move Electric and Pistonheads, and has written a column for The Sun.