The high cost of electric vehicles is driving small automakers into the arms of the big boys.
With demand for EVs low, manufacturers like Subaru, Mazda and Honda are pairing with larger, more capitalized rivals Toyota and General Motors. The alliances enable smaller producers to meet government electric vehicle regulations and get their feet wet in the EV market without making massive expenditures.
Subaru, for example, will make its first electric SUV, the Solterra, in tandem with a similar Toyota model. Subaru announced Tuesday that the 2023 model will go on sale next year, Only luxury brand Tesla has sold EVs in significant numbers, and most battery-powered vehicles in the pipeline are upscale vehicles.
Electrified vehicles have gotten little traction with Subaru's off-road, price-conscious customer base, but the company, like its peers, is facing escalating government fines if they don't make them. After years of dictating mpg numbers to automakers, governments from California to Europe are now mandating what drivetrains automakers use.
"The challenge is cost and range for any company trying electrification," said Michael Reddick, car-line planner for the Subaru Forester SUV, WRX sedan, and BRZ sportscar models, in an interview. "We're working through packaging costs and packaging constraints. Whatever (our EV model) is, it will be a Subaru first. It will be able to make it to the trail; it will be able to be used for outdoor adventure."
Though its core northwest America demographic is environmentally conscious, Subaru has only brought to market one electrified vehicle, the Crosstrek SUV plug-in hybrid. With 17 miles of range before its gas engine kicks in, the hybrid's $36,395 sticker price is well above a comparably-equipped, $29,045, gas-powered Crosstrek — a tough ask for Subaru's price-aware customers.
Pairing with Toyota helps Subaru mitigate cost. Other industry players like Mazda (also partnered with Toyota) and Honda (GM) are forming Big Auto partnerships.
"Automakers don't see a lot of volume in EVs in the next several years," said auto consultant and former Wall Street analyst Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting. "Not until you can fill an entire auto plant with EV production, then it becomes economical. So the smaller guys have to partner with someone over time."
He said the partner relationship is symbiotic.
"Toyota has made tremendous investments in electrification in the last 20 years. So the partnership helps the big guys, too," continued Phillippi. "With a partner on board, Toyota's piece cost goes down. The big companies need lots of volume to make EVs profitable."
He said that, given the small market penetration of EVs, the huge investments in electrification would likely not be happening without government regulation. Subaru and other automakers face millions in fines this decade if they do not meet government electrification targets (they have already paid money in emissions credits to Tesla, the only EV-only automaker, in order to avoid fines).
Analysts do not see government's fixation on global warming regulations going away, therefore companies have to develop business models that can make EVs profitable. Partnerships sharing the costs have become common across the industry beyond the small-big auto tie-ups. Ford, for example, has partnered with VW in Europe while also investing in EV-trucker Rivian here at home.
It's not the first time that small automakers have paired with their big brethren to pare cost.
Halo sportscars are key products to differentiate small brands like Subaru and Mazda. But, given their low sales volume, they have become increasingly expensive to develop as safety and environmental regulations have grown in recent decades. Developing an all-new platform can cost as much as $1 billion.
In the last decade, Subaru partnered with Toyota to produce the BRZ and 86 sportscars, respectively. Mazda's signature, fourth-generation MX-5 Miata was co-developed with corporate giant Fiat Chrysler (now part of Stellantis), which produced its own Fiat 124.
Subaru's Reddick said the Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 partnership worked well. "We both know our customers, and we both are strong in motorsports. So it was a natural fit for us to work with Toyota." A second generation of both cars is coming to market this year and Subaru is now developing its first battery-electric vehicle, the Solerra SUV, on a shared platform with Toyota's bZ4X.
"Without a partnership, small-volume vehicles like the Miata likely wouldn't happen," said IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley. "And the partnerships have also proven the ability of the companies to work together."
The pairings, analysts say, also reveal automakers' uncertainty about an electric future. Partnerships on sportscars after all, are low-volume affairs — as are EVs so far.
"The EV market is not here yet. The initial rate of customer acceptance is very small," said Brinley. "Automakers are hedging their bets out of concern that there may not be a market there. EV partnerships are a bridge to when there is higher volume."
IHS predicts that 32% of vehicles in the U.S. market will be electric by 2030. But the gas engine — particularly with cheap gas expected for decades to come — has proven resilient against repeated predictions buyers would adopt alternative fuels. (Earlier this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected an average pump price of $3.23 a gallon in 2050.)