BMW Takes the Middle Path to Electrification

By Steve Schaefer

BMW EVs — note upcoming i4 in the middle, MINI in the foreground.

The auto industry has been slowly transitioning toward battery-powered transportation, but each company has its own way of doing it. BMW, which jumped in early with the all-electric i3 and plug-in hybrid i8 in 2014, has been slow to move to pure electrics, but now offers plug-in hybrid options on several popular models, including the midsize 530e sedan and X5 xDrive45e crossover, which I recently tested.

Three Different Paths a Company Can Take to Move Towards Electric

Before diving into the two Bimmers, let’s look at the different ways that car companies can approach the gasoline to electricity transition, from all-in to not quite ready yet, or the middle path. I’m just hitting high spots here to make the point.

All-in is how Tesla, a California startup, has done it since day one. First, they electrified a small two-seat sports car on a borrowed Lotus platform. Then, they took what they learned and introduced their mass market flagship Model S sedan. The smaller, more affordable Model 3 sedan and Model Y hatchback followed, putting Teslas—every one all-electric—into the hands of a much wider clientele.

The middle path recognizes that electric cars are not profitable yet, but companies like General Motors, Ford, Nissan, and Volkswagen don’t want to be left out in the future. Things started rolling about a decade ago, when Nissan bravely introduced the all-electric LEAF and GM brought out the clever Volt plug-in hybrid. Ford and VW electrified existing compact hatchbacks, replacing engines with motors in the compact Focus and Golf, respectively. There are other examples, such as Mercedes-Benz’s B-class EV and more recent offerings from Audi.

Things have moved forward for the mainstream companies over the decade. GM debuted the all-new Bolt EV four years ago, and recently announced its all-electric future, with some desirable cars in the works, from GMC/Hummer and Cadillac as well as the Bolt EUV crossover. Ford is debuting its beautiful and powerful Mustang now and has put a hybrid in the F-150 pickup, with a full EV version on the way. VW is finally rolling out the excellent ID.4 crossover. The Nissan Ariya crossover is imminent. So, there’s progress.

Another way to take the middle path is to avoid EVs but proliferate hybrids. Toyota has taken this approach, spreading its pioneering Prius hybrid technology across its model mix, including the Avalon, Camry, and Corolla sedans and RAV4 and Highlander crossovers.  

A few years ago, the Korean brands introduced the Hyundai Ioniq and Kona and Kia Niro models that let you choose hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or battery electric flavors. Both companies have recently committed to full lines of EVs over the next few years.

On the “just getting started” side you’ll find worthy manufacturers like Subaru and Mazda, who don’t have the cash to build an all-electric car. However, they can collaborate with big companies and join the party eventually, as Subaru has already done with Toyota on its Crosstrek Hybrid. Mazda has just introduced an electric version of its MX30 crossover, but it’s not available in the U.S yet. It will be Mazda’s first EV in America when it arrives.

BMW’s Plug-In Hybrids

Getting back to BMW, they have their plug-in hybrids and plans for new all-electric models, including the i4 sedan and iX crossover, and currently offer the iX3 small electric crossover in Europe. Today, you can contact your American BMW retailer and buy or lease a 530e or X5 xDrive45e plug-in hybrid. I drove both over the last few weeks.

Unlike Tesla, BMW has no identity to establish. Since the 1970’s they’ve built a reputation as “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” and while that may not really apply anymore, the brand still retains a lot of desirability and panache. So, while they slowly introduce new members of their electric “I” vehicles, they have taken popular models and cleaned them up a bit.

Both the X5 xDrive 45e and the 530e plug-in hybrids retain gasoline engines and the components that support them, like radiators, motor oil, and exhaust systems, while installing a motor, battery and an extra port to charge it. But unlike standard hybrids, which have small batteries that charge only when you step on the brake pedal, a plug-in hybrid lets you actively charge your car like an EV—for a limited range.

The 530e has an official EPA electric range of 21 miles; the larger battery on the X5 provides 30. What this means in real life is that if you’re willing to plug in your car  regularly, for most driving you can go electrically, since statistically, most people don’t drive more than 40 miles a day.

The upsides include lower CO2 emissions, smooth, silent driving, and no range anxiety. Once you get past the local electric range, the car converts into hybrid mode and uses gasoline or electricity as efficiently as it can. That means on a freeway trip, if you’re not in stop-and-go traffic, you’ll be using mostly gasoline, while in town, with frequent braking, you may be mostly electric, even if the electrons you put into the battery overnight are used up.

The X5 xDrive45e Crossover

Second generation X5 xDrive is more powerful and has more than twice the electric range.

My Arctic Grey Metallic test unit came packed with extras, making it a seriously luxurious ride. Inside, it wore the ivory White Vernasca Leather—“non-animal-derived “SensaTec” is standard.

The 2021 X5 xDrive45e is a second-generation model, updated significantly from the previous X5 xDrive40e. A more powerful six-cylinder turbo engine replaces the 2.0-liter four from the old car, and the battery doubles in size to 24 kWh. That means you get up to 30 miles of electric-only range vs. just 12 before (I saw the gauge read “32”). That’s significant, because it means  a lot more of your local driving will be electric-powered.

The combined horsepower, with the electric motor, is 389 horsepower, a bump of 81 from the old car. Torque jumps as well, to 443 lb.ft., a rise of 111. That lets the 5,672-pound hauler sprint from 0 to 60 in just 5.3 seconds.

It takes four hours to charge the battery from empty to 80 percent and 5.3 hours to fill it to 100 percent using a level 2, 240-volt charger. Using standard household current takes considerably longer (13.3 and 17.7 hours respectively). As a plug-in hybrid, it will never need an emergency charging stop while traveling.

The crossover comes standard with BMW’s Intelligent xDrive all-wheel drive system and an eight-speed Sport Steptronic transmission. It’s smart enough to adjust for your route and driving situation. The double wishbone front and five-link rear suspension are designed for comfort as well as traction when surfaces are less than ideal. The two-axle air suspension balances loads.

The interior looks rugged and luxurious like a BMW crossover should. It features Live Cockpit Professional, with 12.3-inch screens for the instrument panel and in the middle of the dash, where you can control all the sophisticated BMW driving and entertainment options.

My test week was during a quiet February, and with nowhere to go, I took no long rides. But, with its gorgeous chairs, crystal shift knob, and sparkling trim, the car felt quite posh when I did.

Three Drive Modes

Choices–I picked Electric, but Hybrid is the default.

There are three drive modes—Hybrid, Electric, and Sport. Hybrid, the default, electronically monitors the route and the road and selects the most efficient or performance-oriented balance of gas or electrons. Electric—my choice—is selectable from a center console button, and I had to do that every time because of the default Hybrid setting.

The car can go up to a law-breaking 84 mph on electricity alone, so short freeway hops work just fine. On longer trips you’ll end up in Hybrid mode. If, for some reason, you want to storm back roads for fun, the Sport setting keeps the engine on all the time for extra power.

Since this is nominally an offroad vehicle, you can set five levels of ride height. Although I had no need to use this, it could come in handy for clearance when you leave the highway.

Fuel economy per the EPA is 50 MPGe when you’re using electricity and it drops way down to 20 mpg with gasoline.

The X5 xDrive45e base prices at $65,400, but my tester, loaded up with numerous options, plus $995 shipping from the Spartanburg, South Carolina factory, came to $81,695. That’s a lot, but it’s a lot of car, too.

The luxury crossover segment is becoming highly desirable these days—low slung sedans are no longer the rage. This car, with its rugged but sophisticated styling and pretty much anything you could want, will fill anyone’s needs and then some. As a plug-in hybrid, if it spends most of its time on local runs and gets charged up regularly, it will function as an EV much of the time. But with all-wheel drive and a gas engine, it will take you to the ski destination of your choice painlessly.

The 530e Sedan

7th generation 5 Series offers a plug-in hybrid, gets some visual tweaks for ’21.

The BMW 5 Series has enjoyed a long and happy life in the BMW lineup. The 2021 model marks the seventh generation of the “executive size” sedan that debuted in 1972. Larger than the compact 3 Series and smaller than the grand 7 Series, it’s perfect for any driving occasion.

The 530e brings plug-in hybrid power. While both the standard 530i and the 530e have 2.0-liter gas engines, the 530e gets an electric motor with 107 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque, making the “e” more powerful, with a total of 288 horsepower and 310 lb.-ft. of torque. The “e” gets from 0-60 0.2 seconds faster as well, at 5.7 seconds.

While the EPA gives the 530i gas-only car fuel economy numbers of 25 City, 33 Highway, and 28 combined, the 530e gets 64 MPGe with electricity and gasoline and 26 miles per gallon with gas only. EPA Green scores are 7 for Smog and 8 for Greenhouse Gas.

The 12-kWh battery is tucked out of sight, but it does steal 4 cubic feet of trunk space, while adding weight that makes the 530e about 450 pounds heavier than the 530i.

However, it’s still the same 5 Series experience, except you can drive locally without burning gas! With 21 miles of range, the car functions as an electric car around town and for short freeway commutes. You can charge it up at home, at work, or while shopping at Whole Foods.

Option it Up the Way You Want it

My tester wore a brilliant Phytonic Blue Metallic and featured Ivory White Nappa leather within. BMW leather always smells nice and conveys a premium feel. My tester had a number of packages that added to the luxury and comfort. Driving Assistance Plus includes Extended Traffic Jam Assistant, which, as I am working from home, I didn’t get to try. The Shadowline Package adds extra lighting. The M Sport package brings performance and design upgrades, including variable sport steering, the M Sport suspension, special 19- or 20-inch upgraded rims, and an aerodynamic kit. The Parking Assistance Package would have made parking easy, if I had needed it. The Premium Package includes pleasures like a Harman-Kardon audio system and gesture control.

As with any BMW, you can go wild with optional features. My tester base priced at $57,200, but with options plus shipping came to an eye-opening $70,485. For comparison, the base price of the fossil-fuel-only 530i, pre-shipping, is $54,200, $3,000 less than the 530e.

All 5-Series models receive some subtle updates this year, including a larger, taller set of twin kidney grilles along with resculpted LED headlamps up front. Trapezoidal tailpipe finishers perk up the tail end. Inside, Live Cockpit gives you generous 12.3-inch instrument panel and dash center screens. This blends modern computer screen controls with some of the classic feel of the BMWs drivers have loved over the decades.

Most EVs, being silent, can surprise unsuspecting walkers. So, BMW offers Acoustic Protection for Pedestrians, which makes what BMW calls an “unmistakable sound” at up to 19 miles per hour to warn the inattentive.

The 530e does its electric driving subtly, but cruising in it in silence can put you in your happy place, even if it’s not for an extended time. But soon, you’ll be able to enjoy an all-electric midsize sedan from BMW—the i4. Stay tuned.

Rare 2020 Treat – A Car Conversation with a Stranger

By Steve Schaefer

As I went outside to plug in the BMW 330e plug-in hybrid test car a little while ago, a man who was out walking his dog stopped and asked how I liked the car. While he stayed on the sidewalk, from the top of my driveway I told him that I was testing it, and yes, it was a plug-in hybrid, and that I had enjoyed driving it. I pointed out my Fiat 500e across the street, which had been evicted temporarily to accommodate the borrowed test vehicle.

Turns out, he’s David, a neighbor from around the corner whom I’ve never met before. And, he drives a Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid, so he’s already part of the electric car drivers’ club.

We talked briefly about how long he’s lived in the neighborhood (4 years). I told him I’d been here almost 19 (we both really like it here). He mentioned driving to work across the bay and I asked him for whom (it was a major bank). I told him about my new job at a software company. I told him the URL for this blog and he said he’d read it. I would have handed him my card if this wasn’t 2020. We stayed 15 feet apart.

I’m so happy now, because beyond the loss of lives and jobs and business and connection and a sense of “normal” this year, we are missing out on most of these chance conversations about common interests that used to happen in shopping center parking lots, at work, in line at the movies, and at the bar at your favorite craft brewery. For me, these connections are an important part of what gives life meaning.

So, let’s hope that in 2021, when this dreadful virus is controlled, we will return to having more of these happy chance encounters.

An Autumn Sampler of the Three Kinds of EVs

By Steve Schaefer

Photo courtesy DENISTANGNEYJR – GETTY IMAGES

Over the last few weeks, I’ve test driven all three types of battery-powered electric cars—full electric, plug-in hybrid, and hybrid. Frankly, with the pandemic and my decision to no longer test gas-only vehicles, I’ve had little chance to drive anything since March. However, I sampled a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid in the middle of November, spent 45 minutes on the last day of November driving the all-new, all-electric Volkswagen ID.4 crossover, and in my driveway sits a stunning BMW 330e plug-in hybrid.

If I had it my way, we’d all be driving gas-free electric cars today. But as we’ve seen lately, life throws you curveballs, and some things take a while longer to develop than we hoped. What’s most important is to set a clear direction and work towards the goal. In the case of the climate crisis, we have a limited amount of time to accomplish the task.

Yes, the climate crisis hasn’t gone away just because we’re in the middle of another immediate crisis.

Pure-electric, battery-powered cars don’t work well for every driver yet, which is why we need to have alternatives. That’s where hybrids and plug-in hybrids still have a role to play.

The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

All new Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is for sedan lovers.

The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is an all-new design that will suit anyone who still likes cars and is looking for a largish five-person sedan. Honda Accord and Toyota Camry owners, this means you! With its hybrid powertrain, the Sonata Hybrid earns up to 52 miles per gallon (Combined) per the EPA.

As with other hybrids, you never have to do anything except jump in, push Start, and go—no charging cables or plugs. Travel wherever you want, fill up at any gas station. You’ll find yourself there only half as often, of course. To have the most beneficial effect, you can drive gently, avoiding aggressive acceleration and hard braking. Regardless, if a hybrid replaces a standard gas sedan, it puts only half a car’s worth of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s not insignificant. Read my review on Clean Fleet Report.

Volkswagen ID.4 Battery Electric Crossover

All new ID.4 is perfect for America.

I had a masked, distanced 1-on-1 with the long-awaited Volkswagen ID.4 back in September. I got to look at it, sit in it, watch a PowerPoint, and chat with knowledgeable VW representatives. I was pretty impressed. Read my impressions on Clean Fleet Report.

The follow-up visit on November 30th was a real drive, and in the spirit of COVID-19 safety, I got a sanitized gleaming white preproduction car all to myself. They handed me a preset route map that took me through city traffic, freeway cruising and along empty, winding country roads.

The car was engaging to drive and was attractive out in the wild. The interior is up-to-the-minute stylish and airy. The ID.4 is VW’s second all-electric car in America, following the e-Golf, and is built on an all-new EV-specific platform. While the e-Golf, a motorized version of the popular gas version, could at best go 124 miles on a charge, the new ID.4 goes twice that far.

The e-Golf’s spiritual successor is actually the ID.3 hatchback, out in Europe and elsewhere already, but VW’s leaders wisely chose to give us a more spacious crossover in the U.S. of A., since that’s the kind of vehicle most of us in the States are buying. See my drive review of the new ID.4 on Clean Fleet Report.

BMW 330e Plug-in Hybrid

BMW’s Ultimate Driving Machine offers a partly electric option.

The BMW, in Alpine White, served as my ride to the ID.4 test, which was based out of a suburban VW dealership. As a plug-in hybrid, the BMW 330e uses an engine and a motor, and employs a much smaller battery than the all-electric VW, although its battery is larger than the one in the Sonata Hybrid. You plug the car in to charge, and it only takes a couple of hours at 240 volts (level 2) or overnight on regular household current (Level 1). The BMW is good for about 22 all-electric miles, so it’s perfect for local driving, such as commuting, shopping, and errands. When you take it on longer trips, it becomes a hybrid, using gas and electricity efficiently.

On my trip to the dealership for the ID.4 test, I set the car to “Electric” so it would use only electric power. When it ran out of juice, it automatically switched to “Hybrid” mode, informing me of the change on the large center screen. As my destination was 24 miles from home, I almost made it petrol free. If I had been able to use a charger at the dealership, I could have driven on battery power for most of the trip home. I’m pleased to say that the mostly gas-powered return trip was nearly as quiet as the electric leg of the trip, which shows that the gas engine is smooth and quiet, and that BMW has used plenty of sound insulation.

My second trip in the BMW was to spend a couple of hours rehearsing with my three bandmates, who, through careful planning, have become part of my COVID bubble. Because the drummer’s house is only 4.2 miles away, I was able to drive both ways without using any gasoline. That’s what makes plug-in hybrids so appealing—mostly electric driving, but never any range anxiety. The downside is that you may have the best of both worlds, but also must lug along the hardware of both words—engine + motor, battery + fuel tank, radiator, motor oil, etc. and occasionally take the car in for service on those components. Battery-electric cars have little service other than tire rotation.

I believe that people buy and love 3-Series BMWs because of the model’s long history as The Ultimate Driving Machine®, although it has become larger and less sprightly over the years, as most 45-year-olds tend to do. I drove my first BMW test car in 1992, shortly after I began my car column, and I was blown away. My older son enjoys his, and I’m hoping to move him into a 330e when his lease is up. While a hybrid can take half a car off the road, a plug-in hybrid, driven locally most of the time, can do much better.

The Bottom Line

With many auto manufacturers announcing big plans for EVs over the next few years, there will soon be a generous assortment of EVs in every category to choose from. Then, it’ll be up to consumers to buy or lease the cars over the next decade. Realistically, we won’t hit 100 percent EV penetration in new car sales by 2030, but we have to try—and it will accelerate once the marketplace is well stocked.

Yes, I’ve often wondered what we are going to do about all the perfectly good gas cars that will still be around. I foresee a massive recycling and repurposing operation, but they are not going to go away overnight. But we need to stop driving them.

Throwing down the gauntlet, the state of California, long a leader in clean transportation and higher fuel economy standards (and home of Tesla) has legislated that you won’t be able to sell or buy a new non-electric car in the state after 2035. That gives us 15 years to get the deal done. You can expect more states to follow, and perhaps a national mandate at some point. But the most powerful selling point will not be an appeal to saving the planet, but getting to drive a better, quieter, smoother, car that costs less to operate.

To support widespread EV adoption, we must build out a robust and widespread charging network and support home charging fed by rooftop solar panels where possible. We must work to ensure that the energy to power the fleet comes from 100 percent sustainable sources. This means no more coal and a swift reduction in natural gas for power plants. Solar and wind energy are already cheaper than the old school fuels, and with good battery storage, they can provide a steady and reliable energy supply for everybody. We also have other options, including mass transit and micromobility like scooters and e-bikes. And there’s always walking, if you’re close enough to your destination. No car is always cleaner than any car.

The move to replacing the internal-combustion car fleet not going to be simple or easy, but driving an electric car is going to become easier. I’m looking forward to the day when we’ll look around and suddenly realize that the EVs have taken over. The roads will be much quieter.

But first, let’s get ourselves out of this COVID-19 pandemic. Stay home, wear your mask when you go out, socially distance, and please stay healthy.

Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid–One of 3 Gas-Saving Flavors

By Steve Schaefer

Kia has been good about offering “Neopolitan” choices for a few of its models. In ice cream, Neopolitan means strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. With a Kia Niro, it means Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid, and pure EV. If the flavors are laid out that way, it would be the “vanilla” selection—the PHEV—that visited my driveway recently.

I have sampled the other flavors of Niro. The hybrid, like all other hybrids, is a way to drive further on less gas, thanks to an electric motor that automatically regenerates power from regenerative braking and stores it in a small battery. There’s no effort required on the driver’s part. With the all-electric model, the Niro challenges other EVs with a high level of equipment and a terrific 239-mile range in a crowd-pleasing SUV shape.

As a PHEV, the Niro offers significantly more electric range than the hybrid, but is still lugging around a gas tank, engine, radiator, etc., which you’ll need for when you want to drive more than 26 miles without a charge. However, you can drive anywhere you want to, anytime.

As they say in the software business, it depends on your “use case.” If you travel long distances a lot, a hybrid is a no-brainer. The plug-in hybrid is great if you occasionally want to drive hundreds of miles unimpeded by a charging stop, but you get nearly full-electric motoring for your short trips around town. The EV is the most environmentally friendly, and you can go over 200 miles before needing an electron fill-up, but charging still takes time.

The beauty is, all three version look and drive about the same. The EV is missing the 1.6-liter, 139-horsepower engine, and its 64-kWh battery is much larger and heavier than the one in the PHEV. The PHEV, like my Horizon Blue tester, has a much smaller 8.9 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery for its more modest range, so it’s in the middle somewhere.

You can spec the PHEV at the LXS, EX, or EX Premium level. My tester was the EX Premium, so it came with some extras that even the regular EX didn’t get. These include a 10.25-inch dash screen instead of the standard 8-inch, a power tilt/slide sunroof, a Harman Kardon 8-speaker upgraded audio system, heated artificial leather seats (new this year), LED interior cabin and cargo lighting, deluxe scuff plates, and more.

The driving experience for the Niro is pleasant, as it cruises silently around town on electricity. The engine comes in when you run out of juice, but during my COVID-19-reduced driving regimen, I rarely heard it. What I did hear, though, was a strange artificial swishing sound below around 20 miles per hour. This is provided to alert oblivious pedestrians, who can’t hear the electric motor in parking lots.

The design of the Niro owes something to the hand and the vision of former Audi stylist Peter Schreyer. He has been at Hyundai/Kia for a while now, so the satisfying balance and distinctive look is now part of all Kia products. For 2020, the instrument panel gets an update, but without a ’19 next to it I can’t say what’s different.

Inside, the controls are typical Kia—easy to use and understand. The oversize screen in my tester featured large displays and setting up Apple CarPlay was a snap. The leather-wrapped wheel feels nice, the seats are comfortable, and it’s all carefully planned to make driving nearly effortless.

Easy to read and easy to use.

The exterior receives midcycle grille and fascia upgrades up front and some upgrades to the tail, too, but nothing too different. This is a nice-looking, if not eye-popping vehicle, so there was no reason to mess with that.

A fresh face for 2020.

Environmentally speaking, the car gets fuel economy numbers of 48 City, 44 Highway, 46 Combined mpg as a hybrid. As a plug-in, it’s rated 105 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) if you charge it up. A full charge from zero on Level 2 240-volt current takes about two hours and 15 minutes.

The EPA green scores are 7 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Fuel Economy/Greenhouse Gas. The Niro PHEV emits just 90 grams of CO2 per mile, which isn’t very much considering some gasoline vehicles I’ve tested spew out well over 300. The more you use the battery the lower that actual number will be, of course.

Prices, including shipping, start at $30,610 for the LXS and range up through the EX at $34,350 and EX Premium at $37,510. My tester came to $37,790 with additional cargo mats and net.

Unlike some Hyundais and Kias, which are built in the U.S., this one is assembled in Hwasung, Korea. These days that doesn’t really mean much, but now you know.

As a reasonably roomy, high-utility crossover, any Kia Niro is a perfect choice for many people. You pick the battery size for what suits you.

BMW X3 xDrive30e – Luxury SUV with Some EV Cred

By Steve Schaefer

BMW’s midsize plug-in hybrid SUV lives in the trendy part of the marketplace. In the BMW stable, the X3 is “right-sized,” with the smaller X1 as the entry point and the larger and more expensive X5 and X7 above it.

You can get the X3 xDrive30i, with a gasoline-only powertrain, but opting for the xDrive30e means your vehicle combines a 2.0-liter turbo-charged four-cylinder gasoline engine with an integrated electric motor and a 12-kWh battery. Officially, you can plug in your car and then drive about 18 miles on electricity alone, making a big impact on local trips.

Getting more specific, the X3’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor together generate 288 total horsepower and 310 pounds-feet of torque, good for an under-six-second time to push the 4,586-pound SUV from zero to 60. So, although it’s taller than a 3-Series sedan, it still gives you the performance you seek from a vehicle that wears the blue-and-white BMW roundel.

My tester came in a typical BMW gray shade called “Dark Graphite Metallic.” Numerous other colors are available, including the Phytonic Blue Metallic I’d likely choose. The twin kidney grille sits prominently up front, and the styling is typical of today’s BMWs.

You can get the gasoline-only X3 with rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, but plugins are all-wheel-drive only. This isn’t so much for climbing rocks as providing extra traction in inclement weather and heightened security on the dirt road to your summer cabin.

You’ll know you’re entering a BMW the moment you open the door. The traditional two-tone theme prevails, the nickel-finish metallic trim gleams softly, the Cognac Vernasca leather smells great, and the Fineline Cove Matte Finish wood trim is bumpy and fake-looking. In my tester, the black headliner helped create a cozy feeling while the fat leather wheel was great to grip. BMWs have to look and feel like BMWs or what’s the point?

There’s little downside to adding the electric powertrain, although the base price for the plug-in is $4,600 higher and you lose 1.5 cubic feet of cargo space, since the battery protrudes a little from the cargo hold where it lives. The cargo reduction shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but it’s something to be aware of.

A little cargo space is taken up by the battery.

The seventh generation of iDrive delivers a 12.3-inch high-res screen that you can interface with using voice, touch, and haptic controls. There’s all the tech you could want, with some of that complex German engineering that means you have to figure out things rather than just learning them intuitively.

As a luxury brand, BMW follows the “but wait, there’s more” approach to options. My $48,550 test vehicle topped out at $65,020 when all was said and done. Large pieces of this included the M Sport design upgrade ($5,000) and 15-item Executive Package ($4,500), and there was plenty more. Check out the website for details. An upgrade to double-spoke bi-color 20-inch wheels added another $950. I certainly enjoyed the audio upgrade to the Harman Kardon surround sound system ($875).

The whole purpose of having a plug-in hybrid is to increase efficiency, so how do the numbers stack up? The xDrive30e earns 60 MPGe combined city/highway when using gasoline and electricity. If you don’t charge up, the combined number is 24 mpg. If you opt for the all-wheel-drive version of the gas-only xDrive30i, it’s 24 City, 29 Highway, and 26 Combined. The EPA Green scores are 7 for Smog and 9 for Greenhouse Gas for the plugin and 7/5 respectively for the standard gas model. The plugin earns the EPA’s SmartWay designation, while putting out 204 grams of CO2 per mile versus 345 grams for the gas model. That’s not insignificant.

The point being, make sure to plug in the car to get maximum benefits. With the small battery, you should be able to use regular household current in your garage to fill it up overnight—you don’t need to install a more expensive (but faster) 240-volt Level 2 charger.

Cars are meant to be driven, and I hate to say it, but during a pandemic, not a lot of driving gets done. I put few miles on this car but tried to make most of them electric. The motor is responsive, smooth, and silent, as expected. The driving experience is not especially sporty, but the BMW ambiance makes it seem so. If you like BMWs and want a crossover, this is a good option. Competition is fierce in this market segment, and plug-in hybrids are likely to be popular in the 2020s until full EVs take over. This car can give you unlimited travel options with zero range anxiety, however, it is only incrementally helping to solve our climate crisis. It is a good way to learn about plugging in and visiting the gas station less.

PHEV or not PHEV – That Is the Question

Why I’m resuming testing cars that are not pure EVs.

By Steve Schaefer

2020 Niro PHEV

On April 25th of this year, with COVID-19 causing massive lockdowns and cars sitting parked, the skies around the world cleared up! This happy and unexpected news inspired me to declare to the world, in this blog, the following:

I have decided, after 28 years of automotive testing and writing, that I will now test and review only pure, all-electric vehicles. It completes the move away from testing gasoline-only cars that I made after my Climate Reality Leadership Training in August of 2018.

This bold, emotionally fueled statement meant I was giving up on hybrids, including the plug-in ones with chargeable batteries.

Well, since then, I have tested a single car—the delightful if range-impaired Mini Cooper SE. I’ve also had time to think about what is likely to happen in the 2020s. The fact is, regardless of how much I love EVs, barring some miracle yet to happen, they are not going to constitute 100 percent of new car sales anytime soon, except perhaps in Norway. In my home country, the United States of America, there will still be some people who choose not to drive electric, and there presumably will be some manufacturers willing to indulge them if profits can be made.

We don’t need a 100% electric fleet by 2030, as wonderful (and clean and quiet) as that sounds. We need a 50% electric fleet, with an eventual movement to 100% electric new vehicles, with the older ones eventually dwindling away as they are retired or massively disappearing if a program can be devised to do that.

Based on this line of reasoning, there is no reason why some people can’t opt for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) now instead of BEVs if they need them. And why would they need them? Perhaps they don’t have their own roof for solar and worry about access to public charging. Perhaps they need to drive long distances periodically, which in 2020 only a gas vehicle can do without stops that last under 10 minutes.

Although PHEVs are still saddled with not only a motor but a gasoline engine, fuel tank, radiator, and all that, because they have a chargeable battery, if driven locally within their much shorter range, they can serve nicely as EVs most of the time, only sipping fuel when needed. And that is MUCH better than a gasoline burner, or even a regular hybrid, which switches from gas to battery and back again and can’t be charged. Even a regular hybrid delivers twice the fuel economy of an internal combustion engine (ICE) car, which essentially takes half a car off the road. A PHEV can remove 90%, once again, depending on use.

Do I want to promote PHEVs, then? I’d rather entice someone to buy a BEV, because they are so silent and clean and wonderful, but realistically, we can still have some PHEVs in the fleet in the ‘20s until electric/gas price parity is achieved, the charging network is built out, and the 400-mile battery is invented. Instead of “all-or-nothing” thinking, this means looking at the overall goal of cutting our CO2 emissions in half by 2030 and finding a workable strategy for eventually making the fossil fuel industry history.

Yes, I would like to have a few more test cars, too, although I don’t need one every week. Many exciting electrified vehicles are arriving in the next couple of years that are plug-in hybrids, and it would be a shame for me to miss out on testing those cars.  I need to be able to guide readers to the best transportation solution for them now, and in the future.

For a great example of the wonders of plug-in hybrids, see this story on the Kia Niro PHEV by freelance auto writer Mike Hagerty. I’ll plan to serve up a few PHEV stories myself once I let my test fleets know my change of heart. Stay tuned.

Toyota Prius Hybrid Endures

By Steve Schaefer

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The 2020 Prius is out, and it’s, well, a lot like last year’s model. There is a new Limited version, though, that’s a bit more luxurious. Read my full story here.

The big story with the Prius, however, is its longevity and sales success. It dates from the late 1990s, and millions have found homes, replacing, we hope, regular gas burners.

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The first generation Prius

And to drive even cleaner, you can opt for the plug-in Prius Prime. It goes up to 25 miles on battery-power alone–enough for many of the trips folks take every day.

I appreciate the proliferation of Toyota’s hybrids (they sell an array of models), but am hoping for an all-electric Toyota someday soon (besides the hydrogen fuel-cell Mirai). For now, a half-step in the right direction is still movement, especially in volume. And with the new Limited, driving a Prius is even more enjoyable.

 

National Drive Electric Week – Cupertino 2019

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My Chevrolet Bolt EV

National Drive Electric Week is a nine-day celebration of the electric car. Now in its second decade, it grows annually, and spanning two weekends and the days between in the middle of September, offers EV enthusiasts a chance to meet and compare notes as well non-EV drivers a chance to look at, and sometimes even drive, the current crop of plug-ins outside of a dealership environment.

I attended the Cupertino, California event on Saturday, September 14–the first day of NDEW 2019. I brought my Chevrolet Bolt EV, which I’ve enjoyed–and showed–since I got it in January of 2017. With its three-year lease running out on 1/8/2020, it’s likely the last chance I’ll have to share it before switching to another EV next year.

The Cupertino event has a long history, and there is where you can still see some of what EVs used to be–labor-of-love science projects. I’ll talk about a few shortly.

EVs You Can Buy or Lease Now

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Hyundai Kona  Electric

With a bit smaller number of display cars than it was last time I attended, and a thin crowd, it was a little disappointing, but many of today’s pure EV options were there. I saw three Chevrolet Bolt EVs, including my own. A compelling new entry, the Hyundai Kona Electric (shown above), was there, sporting a white top over its jaunty blue-green.

The Kona, with a 258-mile range, is the next-best thing to a Tesla for range, and probably today’s best deal for range. This base model, at about $36,000, sat mere steps away from a 2019 Jaguar i-Pace, which starts about about twice that price. The Jaguar offers great style and luxury, and with 220 miles in the big battery and all-wheel-drive, has its own, different, buyer.

Nissan brought a new LEAF to show, and from its booth awarded prizes throughout the six-hour event. It was the one chance you had to ride in a car. Some NDEW events are more experience-oriented, but this one was more of a show and meet-up.

I saw a BMW i3 down at the far end, and a couple of Tesla Model 3s. Also nearby was a plug-in hybrid Ford Fusion, flanked by two Ford Focus electrics. These EVs, with just 76 miles of range, would make cheap used cars if you wanted a stealth EV.

At the other end was a Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid. It’s actually a significant vehicle, since it’s the only PHEV minivan available in the U.S. Its 33 miles of electric range is plenty for local soccer practice shuttles and commuting. This one sported a little extra flair.

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EVs are not just cars, of course. I saw some electric motorcycles and bicycles there, too, but as I stayed near my car much of the time, I didn’t spend time with them. I have ridden a few, and they are a fine option for some people under particular circumstances (good weather, short trip, no baggage, etc.). I did hear one motorcycle zoom past a few times with its electric whine. I’ve considered getting my motorcycle driver license just so I can test these in the future.

Here’s Roberta Lynn Power with her folding Blix electric bike from Sweden.

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Historic EVs

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EVs have been available in major manufacturers’ showrooms since 2010, when the 2011 Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt came out. But before that, besides the conversion projects, there were few. One model that had two representatives there at the show was the Toyota RAV4. Built just around the turn of the century, it put Toyota ahead of the crowd. Too bad they didn’t keep building them, because the RAV4 is a very popular body style now. You can get a new one as a hybrid today.

A pair of cute little Corbin Sparrows sat together. Not much more than shrouded motorcycles, these little pods would make perfect little errand-runners or last-mile transit connection vehicles.

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The tiny German 1993 City-EL weighs a mere 575 pounds and can shuttle one person for about 40 miles at up to 45 miles per hour. This one is nicknamed “Lemon Wedge.”

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Pioneers, Projects and Conversions

As long as there have been cars there have been tinkerers–people (mostly, but not exclusively, men) who enjoy a tough project. While some folks like to make a classic Mustang faster and louder, others enjoy electrifying an old gasoline car. The man displaying the Jaguar i-Pace had converted a Mazda Miata before.

I spent some quality time with George Stuckert, a retired engineer who also serves as secretary of the San Jose chapter of the Electric Auto Association. This group, a major sponsor of NDEW, was founded way back in 1967. They used to host a Cupertino event that was all project cars. George is glad that you can buy a new EV at a dealership today, but his pride and joy at this event was his 1996 Volkswagen Golf, which he converted ten years ago. It looks like an old Golf, but has a clever pinstriped design with a plug along the side (that I somehow managed to forget to photograph). It’s filled with electronic tech.

George proudly displayed a large card with photos of the project, and showed me his notebooks of carefully documented steps and the book that got him started.

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It was not a smooth process, and included a few spectacular explosions, but he showed the grit and determination that’s what I admire about people willing to get their hands dirty and triumph over failure to ultimate success. The fact that you can buy a used 2015 VW e-Golf that is superior in every way to George’s car is completely missing the point.

In the front corner of the exhibit were two fascinating displays that, along with George’s Golf, gave a look at what a Cupertino Electric Auto Association event was like before the NDEW and mass market EVs. Bob Schneeveis, a local legend, showed off his two-wheeled inventions, including a prototype steam-powered bike.

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Yes–you read that right. Although it’s not quite in the “drive it around the lot” stage, it is a beautiful piece. His electric motorcycle featured a fascinating front fork that made the ride soft and smooth. As a novelty, he had a “chariot” with a horse up front with “legs” made from brushes that capably gave rides to lucky attendees.

I enjoyed an extended conversation with Jerrold Kormin, who brought two displays: his converted Honda Insight and his prototype solar panel trailer. The former, besides swapping its engine for a motor and batteries, had new fiberglass nose and radically changed tail (and just one rear wheel). These design changes, per Kormin, gave the car a 15 percent improvement in its coefficient of drag.

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The car was being charged by Kormin’s fascinating portable solar generator. The inventor’s goal is to replace dirty, noisy Diesel generators. He is renting his prototypes out now. One appeal of replacing Diesel, Kormin told me, was that companies can avoid the major inconvenience of refueling Diesel generators, which adds complexity and expense. He claims customers can save $500 a month in fuel costs with a solar generator working just a 40-hour week. The trailer folds up for easy towing and takes about 5-6 minutes to open up. Learn more at his website.

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I met Joseph, an entrepreneur who was showing his Cirkit electric bike prototype. Looking clean and simple, it reminded me a bit of early minibikes, that you would assemble from a kit and the engine from your lawnmower! Click the link above to go to his website for more information.

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Vendors and Services

EVs need to be charged, which is why you’ll always find a friendly ChargePoint booth at EV shows. ChargePoint is a leader in chargers (I have one in my garage).

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I also met Shane Sansen, the owner of DRIVEN EV. His company works directly with manufacturers to acquire their lease returns and sell or lease them directly to customers. A great idea, and one I’m considering for my next EV. You can learn more at their website.

Besides seeing the vehicles and booths, I had a chance to network with some other folks who are working on EVs and climate action. I met up with my friend Greg Bell, who told me about his exciting new job working with Home Energy Analytics. Offering the Home Intel program, Greg meets with homeowners and shows them how they can reduce their energy consumption and save money. It can be as simple as replacing incandescent bulbs with LED ones, or more. Find out more at their website.

So, having consumed 3-1/2 pints of water and all my snacks, I packed up and drove home. It was a good day.

You can attend an NDEW event in your area through Sunday, September 22. Check their website for details.

America, at 243, is Slow to Adopt EVs

By Steve Schaefer

2013 Nissan LEAF

Red Generation 1 LEAF

Two days ago, I received an email from Plug In America, inviting me to join in the First Annual Independence Day EV Count. Modeled after the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, it’s meant to be a non-scientific study of what’s going on around you.

I’ve hosted and attended the group’s Drive Electric Week events and they’re a great organization, so why not?

Today, July 4th, after lunch, I decided to join the EV count. I needed the exercise anyway, so  I grabbed my trusty pad and a ballpoint pen and headed out into my Castro Valley, California neighborhood. It was clear and in the low 70’s–perfect.

The rules of the EV Count are simple:

  1. Walk or drive in your neighborhood and count all the cars you see
  2. Note the all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids
  3. Tally it up, fill out the online form, and send it in

The group doesn’t include regular plugless hybrids (their name is Plug In America, after all), but I noted them anyway, just to satisfy my own curiosity.

I walked a loop that I often take to add a couple thousand steps to my Fitbit. I started out well, as I could count my personal Chevrolet Bolt EV and the Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid I’m currently testing right away. However, as I walked and wrote, the bad news piled up.

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White Generation 2 LEAF

When I returned home and tallied up the numbers, I had:

  • 118 cars total
  • 3 EVs (my Bolt and two Nissan LEAFs)
  • 2 plug-in hybrids
  • 7 regular hybrids

That’s pretty disappointing.

Perhaps Castro Valley is a little behind–I know I see more EVs in San Francisco, where I work. And it wasn’t a scientific study–just a small sample. But it means that I need to work harder to get the word out on the many benefits of EVs–and the necessity of stopping using fossil fuels now to help control the effects of the climate crisis.

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My Blue Bolt EV

In 2019, as the U.S. turns 243, we have a long way to go to significant EV adoption. At least in my neighborhood.

 

 

National Drive Electric Week 2018

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Since 2011, a national electric car event has been held every year. Originally called National Plug In Day, it later expanded to become National Drive Electric Week. It’s actually nine days long, as it includes weekends on both ends.

This year, I participated in two events. First, I hosted one at work for fellow employees, and later, I attended another, larger event, where I let people drive my 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV to experience electric motoring firsthand.

Marketo Event, San Mateo, CA

Marketo hosted its second annual National Drive Electric Week event on Thursday, September 13th. The weather cooperated, and the event went off without a hitch, although attendance was lower than anticipated. It’s understandable, though—people are working!

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Me with my Chevrolet Bolt EV–now an NDEW show veteran.

Display cars included three Tesla Model 3s, a Tesla Model X, my freshly washed Chevrolet Bolt EV, a Nissan LEAF, a Volkswagen e-Golf, a BMW i3, and a Chevrolet Volt. One of the Model 3s was available for rides.

Allyson Gaarder from the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project showed attendees how they could receive California rebates for buying a variety of electric cars.

Vehicle owners gave attendees a tour of their cars and enjoyed talking with each other about the pleasures of electric motoring.

Nissan supplied some swag, including water bottles, mini backbacks, pens, and tiny fans that attach to your phone. Attendees received a red token good for a $5 discount at the adjacent food trucks.

Acterra Event, Palo Alto, CA

On the last Sunday of Summer, Acterra, the Palo Alto environmental nonprofit, hosted its third annual National Drive Electric Week event. Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet, and they always put on a great show.

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Nissan brought a fleet of LEAFs for show and driving.

EV enthusiasts shared their favorite electric rides with eager attendees. Booths provided information about rebates, vehicle charging, and a solar energy vendor presented solar options. Allyson was there with her booth and California rebate information. Event sponsor Nissan brought a small fleet of new LEAFs for show and drives.

I watched the parking lot fill with Chevrolet Bolt EVs, BMW i3s, Nissan LEAFs, Tesla Model 3s, and even a low, sleek Fisker Karma. One guy brought his now rare Honda Fit Electric, and there was at least one tiny Chevy Spark EV and a cute little Fiat 500e.

This was a popular event. Altogether there were 70 vehicles, representing 15 makes and models. More than 260 people registered and vehicle owners and fleets conducted more than 520 rides or drives!

The beauty of these events, which Acterra hosts year-round, is the chance to learn about and sample multiple EVs in the same location, away from aggressive salespeople. With EVs, the owners are often more knowledgeable about the cars than a typical dealership employee, and they can certainly talk about day-to-day life with a plug-in vehicle.

This event is both a car show and a ride-and-drive. Although it’s a little annoying to have to to readjust my seat and mirror settings when the day’s over, and having strangers drive your car can be a little nerve wracking, I like to let attendees get a personal feel for what driving an electric car is like.

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Luckily, all the people who took the wheel of my car were competent, responsible motorists, so I didn’t have any worry the entire afternoon. With high demand, I was busy non-stop.

In most cases, I took the people for a ride around the short test loop, and then had them drive it. I felt it would make them more comfortable, and it let me explain the features first. Luckily, the Bolt itself is pretty straightforward and controls are where you expect them.

People were surprised at the Bolt’s spacious interior, especially the generous headroom. One 6-4 gentleman pulled the seat all the way back and then forward a little! My drivers were also impressed with the video camera rear-view mirror, which gives a wider, clearer view than a regular mirror.

When driving, my guests were fascinated by the low or high brake regeneration. If the transmission lever is in “D,” when you lift your foot off the accelerator, you keep rolling along, like with a normal automatic. In “L” mode, as you lift up your foot, the electricity flow is reduced, slowing the car. This lets you do “one-pedal driving.” It’s a wonderful way to maintain extra control of your car while generating extra battery power and saving your brake pads.

At 4 p.m., we assembled inside the Acterra offices for the official launch of the newly renamed Karl Knapp Go EV program. Knapp, a beloved Stanford science professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, promoted electrified cars and motorcycles for many years, and has been an inspiration to many. We had some food and drinks and watched a short video about Karl. Sadly, Professor Knapp is ill and was unable to attend.

After the reception, I gave three more people rides, so I was one of the last to leave. It’s fun to share your EV, and I hope all of my drivers will go out and get their own! Electric cars are the future, and soon there will be many more choices.

National Drive Electric Week is presented by Plug In America, the Sierra Club, and the Electric Auto Association. Sponsors include the Nissan LEAF (Platinum), Clipper Creek (Silver), and eMotorWerks (California Regional).