Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Continental: Impressions from BMW’s i3 Launch, Plus a Note on Benz’s Nine-Speed ‘Box

The Continental

Each week, our German correspondent slices and dices the latest rumblings, news, and quick-hit driving impressions from the other side of the pond. His byline may say Jens Meiners, but we simply call him . . . the Continental.

Schwarzenbauer i3 quote

We understand companies should be proud of their newest wares, but some of the rhetoric that came out of the BMW i3 launch last week—which happened simultaneously in London, New York, and Beijing—was a bit much. Take, for example, these quotes from BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer’s big speech:

“What the mobile phone did for communication, electric mobility will do for individual mobility.”

“This is more than the birth of a unique car. It’s a milestone in the automotive history.”

“Today, the BMW i3 begins a new era: The era of true sustainable mobility.”

And Peter Schwarzenbauer, BMW’s board member responsible for Mini, Rolls-Royce, and aftersales, actually claimed: “Never before has the BMW Group been so proud to present a car to the world.” (From 1994 to 2012, Schwarzenbauer worked for Porsche and Audi, but I assume he asked around in Munich prior to his bold statement.)

2014 BMW i3

Indeed, the question of whether automotive history was made on the morning of July 29 remains wide open. Personally, I was present at the New York i3 event, participating amongst a sizable number of BMW Group executives and the usual group of journalists and bloggers. Outgoing mayor Bloomberg, who prides himself on promoting “sustainability,” made an appearance as well. After the speeches were delivered, we proceeded to take a closer look at the actual car on stage, and another one on the rooftop of the impressive Center 548 in the Chelsea arts district.

2014 BMW i3

The series production car is unusually close to the concept cars we’ve seen over the last two years. It will be one of the most futuristic vehicles on the road, both in overall shape and in the execution of the details. It was surprising, however, to see one of the two cars (the orange example pictured above) fitted with halogen, reflector-type headlights. This low-cost, traditional technology won’t be offered in the U.S. market. Carbon fiber is visible throughout the vehicle, and in sometimes unusual patterns. Exterior panels like the doors and fenders are made from conventional plastic. They are painted, but BMW has considered dyed-through plastics, and I am told that such parts may be offered on future i models. The gaps are not as tight as on other BMW vehicles, undoubtedly due to the manufacturing challenges of the carbon-fiber-and-aluminum architecture of this car.

2014 BMW i3

Inside, the i3 displays an unusual material mix with optional open-pore wood and supposedly eco-friendly materials. The look is futuristic, but traditionally minded customers might perceive some of the materials as being on the cheap side. Personally, I appreciate the i3′s design, both outside and especially inside. It’s a new and refreshing take on the modern urban car: Radiating cold precision, it probably is the most convincing electric vehicle yet. BMW chief designer Adrian van Hooydonk said that the i design language will remain distinct: “I do not want to take these design elements to the main brand.” Ulrich Kranz, who leads the “i” product line, agrees: “As long as it is an i, you will recognize a specific i shape.” He also said that i would be treated similar to BMW’s M GmbH high-performance division, but won’t enjoy Mini’s independent standing.

BMW executives said that a battery-changing system, like the one Tesla is working to offer on the Model S, is presently not an option: “The battery is an integral part of the vehicle and we have found the optimal position,” says head of BMW i production Daniel Schäfer. But the company is still looking at inductive charging, according to spokesman Cypselus von Frankenberg. As to future models, BMW executives say that with the i3 and the upcoming i8, “there is room below, between, and above.” And they hint that the most likely model to follow is a family car positioned right between the i3 and i8. Moreover, there could be electric Minis: “Of course I can imagine an electric Mini,” says BMW chief designer Adrian van Hooydonk.

The i3 goes on sale in Europe in November 2013, but U.S.-market customers will have to wait until the second quarter of 2014. BMW USA chief Ludwig Willisch tells me he expects a conquest rate “pretty close to 100 percent;” dealers can “opt out,” although the investment to offer the i3 barely exceeds $100,000—”not a hurdle, really,” as Willisch says. Interestingly, in the U.S., the i3 and the i8 will launch “almost simultaneously.”

Hyperbole aside, the i3 is a fairly significant step for electric mobility: With its semi-affordable entry-level price, and the weight and support of BMW, it may be the best shot at re-educating the fuel-wasting public yet. It also is a massive step for BMW, for better or for worse: The project is rumored to have consumed funds in the order of $2.7 billion, and if it doesn’t take off on the marketplace, it will go down as one of the gravest poor investments in automotive history. Whether last week’s launch was BMW’s proudest ever or not, it is clear that there will be a lot of future events with a clear focus on “Motoren” as if nothing had ever happened. 

Mercedes-Benz 9-speed automatic transmission

More Paddling, Marginal Gains

Call me backwards, but I tend to dislike transmissions with more than six speeds. In fact, I am perfectly content with a five-speed unit, but six speeds seem to be a happy compromise between offering seamless connections, a wide overall spread, and a workable palette of gears for any situation. Of course, we have moved into a world of seven-speed manuals and automatics with up to ten gears. One of the reasons provided is the supposed improvement in fuel economy; allegations that the “more-is-better” approach to the number of gears is marketing-induced are of course vehemently denied. Mercedes-Benz now offers a nine-speed automatic in the diesel-powered, rear-wheel-drive E350 BlueTec, at least in Europe; U.S.-market models so equipped will follow.

How great are these efficiency gains? Marginal. Using European-cycle numbers, the E350 improves from 42.8 mpg with the seven-speed ‘box to 44.4 mpg with the nine-speed transmission. But at the same time, the official numbers for the all-wheel-drive E350 BlueTec 4MATIC, which keeps the seven-speed, have also quietly changed from 39.2 mpg to 39.9 mpg. No explanation is given, but it suggests that the rear-driver’s improvement must at least partially be attributable to other factors, whether technical or measurement-induced. On a different note, Mercedes-Benz says that the nine-speed transmission will be offered with a “manual mode.” Do you like paddling? 

Meanwhile, changes in the European emissions regulation may put a halt to the proliferation of start-stop systems. Speaking with a German-based Hyundai/Kia executive at length, I learned that the anticipated next set of rules means that start-stop systems have little effect on certified consumption and emissions anymore. If they are to have a positive effect, it would largely be through “credits” awarded to carmakers that take their pick from a menu of pre-selected, “good” technologies. You can’t blame carmakers for taking a wait-and-see attitude.

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