NEW YORK—I must have been to five different launches at different stages of the BMW i3 urban mobility electric car, but the food is always good, so I’m not complaining.
This latest event was the honest-to-god, no-fooling unveiling of the production car in New York, complete with a visit from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The latter praised BMW for “leading the way with environmentally friendly products. Your success is our success.” I asked him if he wants to see electric versions of New York’s Taxi of Tomorrow. “That would be great,” he said.
Simultaneous events were held in London and Beijing, so this was a real gala. Here's what it looked like on video:
Journalists were flown in, though not me because I live here (or nearby, anyway). To tell the truth, we already know the salient details about BMW’s first production electric. The car, with a carbon fiber passenger compartment, aluminum chassis and plastic body panels, goes on sale in Europe late this year and in the U.S. early in 2014.
With 80 to 100-mile range, it will cost $42,275 in battery-only form (including destination costs), and $45,200 with a two-cylinder, 650-cc “range extender” (acting as a generator) that will add another 100 miles. The car, which has a 22-kilowatt-hour, 450-pound battery pack, can be fast charged (50 percent capacity in 20 minutes). And a U.S.-spec fast-charging “combo” plug will be an optional extra, BMW’s Tom Plucinsky told me. The lease price will be important, since there are many $199 a month electrics out there. BMW is working on leasing details, but Plucinsky told me that $199 seems "a bit low."
Journalists won’t get to drive the 170-horsepower i3 until November around the Los Angeles Auto Show, but I did the next-best thing: I drove one of the company’s ActiveE electric cars, with the i3’s drivetrain, on a loop around Manhattan. It’s a blast to drive, because it offers BMW’s trademark rapid transit system, plus turned-to-11 regenerative braking. What that means, in effect, is one-pedal driving: When you back off the accelerator, the car slows down dramatically as electricity flows to the pack. There’s practically no “creep,” so it’s all down to hitting that loud pedal.
After I got out of the ActiveE, I ran into Ulrich Kranz, the project chief for the i series (which also includes the high-performance i8 plug-in hybrid). I asked him if the i3 drives similarly. “Imagine the same powertrain in a car that weighs 800 pounds less,” he said. The i3 will be sporty (zero to 60 in seven seconds), and people will love driving it, the same way they love the Tesla Model S. Kranz told me the brake lights will come on when the i3’s regen is really singing. It makes sense to me.
There was a lot of talk about the carbon fiber structure, but I’ve already written about that here and here. It’s cool, yes. Did you know about BMW’s partnership with Boeing, which uses carbon fiber in the fuselage of 787 Dreamliners?
I was able to sit down with Peter Schwarzenbauer, a Porsche and Audi veteran who’s now a member of BMW’s board of management. BMW’s i3 research, he said, shows that Americans drive only about 30 miles a day—even though they think they cover more ground than that. “Given that, we feel that 80 to 100 miles is adequate range for a car intended primarily for urban use,” he said. “If you want more, we have the range-extender model.”
Here’s BMW’s outlook reduced to its essence, courtesy of Schwarzenbauer: “We are not launching a car, we’re launching a change in mobility.” He thinks the price is competitive. “A lot of people were surprised; they expected it to be higher,” he said, noting that the car comes loaded. And he said BMW will be making money with every i3 it sells. “All the development costs have been absorbed,” he said. I guess it matters how you look at the numbers.
“In 10 years, it will be difficult to find a gas station in New York,” Schwarzenbauer said. Of course, it’s already hard to find one in Manhattan, given real-estate values. The same challenge applies to locating urban charging stations, but BMW is confident that they’ll soon become ubiquitous as the electric car takes over the global city.