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Green Wheels: BMW aims for EV with status

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The latest concept version of BMW?s i3 electric car ?representing more than 90 per cent of how the production model will look in about a year ? is a thing of beauty.

More important, it comes loaded with great engineering and some fascinating ideas.

First, the basics, as described at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show:

As in the original concept, a strong, light carbon-fibre ?Life Cell? passenger compartment is bolted and glued to an aluminum chassis that contains the battery pack and absorbs impact energy in a collision.

It?s powered, through the rear wheels, by a BMW-designed electric motor with 170 hp and 184 lb.-ft. of torque. The lithium-ion battery pack, likely 20 to 22 kilowatt-hours and with liquid thermal management, provides a range up to 160 km. That number will depend heavily on drivers? aggressiveness and which of three modes ? comfort, EcoPro or EcoPro+ (which limits throttle response and top speed) ? they select.

An optional ?range extender? gasoline engine will let the car travel an additional 160 or so kilometres before needing a plug or pump ? that distance dictated by a tiny fuel tank designed to conserve space and emphasize that this is a city vehicle, not a long-distance hauler.

The clear doors of the first concept are gone; replaced by more flowing, sculpted panels in a wider, lower body. The original had a hatch and four passenger doors ? installed ?suicide style,? with the rear doors opening toward the back. The new version is a three-door coupe. The production model will revert to five doors, but it?s not yet clear whether the suicide design will return, BMW executives said in L.A.

With (I?m guessing) a likely base price of about $55,000, the i3 won?t be for most people.

As Helmut Stadler, a project manager at BMW Canada, said in a recent interview in Montreal: ?It won?t be cheap ? it?s still a premium car.?

He suggested it?s aimed at ?people who have one or two cars already ? wealthy, successful people, in all kinds of industries, with a daily commute in or out of the city.?

The target market includes those who might have a Prius or its equivalent, but ?hate it? because it lacks status.

BMW also hopes the i3 will induce well-heeled commuters to leave their big BMW 7 or Mercedes-Benz S Class in the garage. That?s ?a big challenge,? Stadler says.

Sure, it sounds snooty. But this is a fascinating car and some of what makes it so intriguing might eventually trickle down to lesser vehicles.

BMW hasn?t announced the price or battery capacity, and it?s uncertain how many buyers will opt for the gasoline extender engine. ?We guess there will be a 50-per-cent ?take rate,? ? Stadler says. ?I?d try to limit that as much as possible, keep it down and not actively promote it. Otherwise you?re not telling the story right.?

That?s part of the challenge in getting drivers into EVs, he says. ?By 2030, 60 per cent of the population will live in cities. This will dramatically change our driving behaviour. We have to re-educate ourselves completely.?

Although BMW figures the i3 offers worry-free commuting, range anxiety could hobble sales. But Stadler doesn?t view public charging stations as a solution,

He says tests with Mini E and ActiveE prototypes showed charging isn?t an issue once drivers realize it?s easily done at home. There?s little need for public stations, and it would be hard to make a business case for them. ?The amount you need to invest; you?ll never make money out of it.?

Nevertheless, Stadler admits there?s a perception problem among potential customers: ?If I?m driving and there?s not a decent amount of public charging stations, the chance of me being stranded is unbelievably high, so I?m not buying an EV.?

BMW is considering several solutions for EV resistance:

Offer a gas-powered car for occasional longer trips as part of an i3 lease.

Provide 240-volt Level 2 chargers for both home and workplace.

Display the remaining range clearly and accurately.

View charging not as a fuelling stop but as part of parking with, perhaps, connections to public transit, advance booking of spots, or a service that lets EV commuters park and charge all day in downtown residential driveways.

Use EVs for car sharing: BMW recently launched its DriveNow system in San Francisco, with ActiveE models available for $12 per half-hour or $90 a day.

Such things are totally new for us, Stadler says. ?And they will be deal makers or deal breakers for EVs.?

  • Green Wheels: BMW aims for EV with status

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