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.

Why We Need Electric Cars Now

By Steve Schaefer

Taking delivery of my Chevrolet Bolt EV in January 2017.

This post talks about electric cars, the climate crisis, and actions we all can take to help solve it, including driving electric vehicles (EVs).

A Quick EV History

The Nissan LEAF paved the way in 2010.

The first mainstream EVs in the U.S appeared a decade ago, as the all-electric Nissan LEAF and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. Today, major companies, including GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Hyundai/Kia, and Mercedes-Benz, are proudly announcing their upcoming models (while continuing to sell lots of internal combustion vehicles).  

EV sales, juiced by Tesla’s success, are increasing every year, but still represent a small percentage of the market. Tesla, of course, sells only EVs. Many countries (and even some states) are passing legislation to support the phasing out of gasoline-powered cars in the next 10-15 years.

EV Benefits and Challenges

Electric cars have a lot to offer. They are smooth and quiet. Electric motors deliver all of their torque the moment they are working, so acceleration is amazing, and the low center of gravity from the battery pack helps them handle well.

Electric drivetrains contain a lot fewer parts, so there is much less to go wrong, and routine service is minimal (forget oil changes, tune-ups, radiator flushes, and even brake pad replacement thanks to regenerative braking).

EVs have no tailpipe emissions, but are not 100 percent clean, of course, because like all cars, their production uses energy from various sources. Some companies, including GM, are working to use renewable energy in their vehicle production. Some of the materials for today’s EV batteries must be mined, sometimes in dangerous and unsustainable ways. This issue must be addressed and solved.

There can be some inconveniences. EVs take longer to charge, and there are fewer places to charge them today than there are gas stations. Although the charging networks are expanding, this uncertainty can create “range anxiety,” although most people hardly ever drive more than about 40 miles a day, and modern EVs feature more than 200 miles of range. The ideal place to charge your EV is at home, but some people live in apartments. Some workplaces provide charging, as well. The charging network is being built out and should not be much of an issue at some point in the future.

Right now, there are fewer category and style choices in EVs than there are in the overall market. However, that will change over the next few years, as more companies roll out a range of attractive and powerful models. There are a number of affordable choices today, such as the Kia Niro, Chevrolet Bolt and the second-generation Nissan LEAF. On the luxury side, you can get an electric Porsche (Taycan), Jaguar (i-Pace) and Audi (eTron) now. Mercedes-Benz and BMW have exciting EV models on their way. There are many more.

The second-hand EV market is filled with bargains, if you’re willing to drive a car with a shorter range. Three-year-old vehicles can change hands at a fraction of their initial price. I picked up my pristine three-year-old Fiat 500e, with 25,000 miles on it, for less than a third of its original 2017 retail price. However, its range is only 90 miles, which means I can’t use it for long trips. These older EVs make great commuter shuttles and second cars.

My Fiat 500e has a 90-mile range, so it doesn’t go on long trips.

Some brands now sell or plan to offer plug-in hybrids, which have an electric motor and a gasoline engine too. Unlike regular hybrids, plug-in hybrids can serve as pure electric vehicles for a limited range, say 20-50 miles, depending on battery size. Plug-in hybrids are not as clean and quiet as EVs, but will be helpful transition vehicles as we move to an all-EV world someday. When the fast charging network is built out and minimum vehicle range starts at 250-300 miles, plug-in hybrids will no longer be needed.

Today, electric cars usually cost more than equivalent gasoline vehicles. This is mainly because of the high price of their batteries. However, EVs cost significantly less to operate, so there is a break-even point at which they become less expensive to run than petrol-fed models. So, you have to consider total cost of ownership when you examine the numbers. And sale/lease prices are likely to drop over the next few years as battery costs are reduced, until they reach purchase price parity with gasoline vehicles in mid-decade. At that point, with lower maintenance costs, EVs will be the better deal.

But the most important reason you should drive an electric vehicle is to help fight climate change.

Climate Change

Image courtesy of the Climate Reality Project

Our planet is heating up. There may be some disagreement or confusion in the general population about what’s causing it and what we can or should do about it—and there are some climate deniers, too. But among trained scientists, it there is virtual unanimity about the cause—us—and the urgency of acting quickly. The United Nations’ IPCC Report clearly states how we must all work to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to avoid the worst crises. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was held to commit all countries on a path toward achieving that goal.  

Climate change is actually not news, because experts have known about it for decades and have spoken out. But we haven’t listened or done much about it. Now, scientists say that we have about 10 years to get it handled or it could spiral out of control.

How did this happen? With a population rapidly approaching 8 billion, human activities are now substantial enough to change the planet. Every day, we spew about 110 million tons of manmade global warming pollution into our atmosphere. It comes from various sources, but the major one is the burning of fossil fuels. The atmosphere is only a very thin shell around the earth. As more CO2 accumulates, the atmosphere traps more heat, causing global warming. The science is unambiguous on this.

So, what does it matter how warm the planet is? The problem with the earth heating up is that it disrupts the stable conditions we’ve lived with for the last 10,000 years or so. Global average temperatures have climbed significantly over the last 40 years. Scientists are concerned that we could eventually have some areas of the earth that are uninhabitable, and the people who have to leave there will create refugee crises.

One visible issue with global warming is the melting of glaciers, especially in the polar regions, where temperatures have risen alarmingly. The water from this melt will raise sea levels worldwide, flooding coastal cities.

Someone could ask, “so what do a couple of degrees matter?” Think of it like when a person is sick and has a fever. Even a couple of degrees of difference upsets the body’s processes, and if a fever is too high, death occurs.

Climate disruption also means that global air flows, such as the jet stream, slow down and get a little out of whack, for example, allowing cold air to move from the Arctic into places that are normally not frozen, like the middle of the U.S. Conversely, the Arctic gets 100-degree temperatures, speeding the melting of polar ice.

The oceans are absorbing a lot of the excess heat, and the warmer air above them holds more moisture. This leads to bigger, stronger storms. A lack of rain in the western U.S. causes draughts, so there are more dead trees, which along with rising temperatures, increases wildfires, as we’ve seen in the last few years. 2020 has already been disastrous, and the fire season isn’t over yet.

Disruption is insidious. What if the worms are ready before the birds arrive to eat them? What if the conditions for laying eggs are ideal before or after the turtles arrive? What if warmer temperatures send deadly virus-carrying mosquitos from equatorial areas to temperate regions where the population centers are? And because nature is an ecosystem, a disruption in one area affects many others. It’s all been predicted and is now beginning to happen. Scary.

The complex interactions of nature can’t be explained in a few paragraphs, but the experts who spend their lives studying the natural world and climate science are telling us that we must change our ways now to prevent the planet from accelerating its warming and becoming irreversible. The earth has a great capacity for regeneration, but we are overwhelming its ability to heal itself.

Green Transportation Is an Important Part of the Answer

Image courtesy of the Climate Reality Project

Transportation contributes the largest portion of CO2 to our atmosphere—38 percent in California, where I’m located. There are many other causes, including the production of fossil fuels and burning it to generate electricity. Buildings and agriculture make a significant contribution, too. We need new homes and commercial buildings to be much greener, without burning fossil fuels, and to retrofit the old ones for much greater efficiency. All of this creates many good jobs in a green economy.

To generate clean electricity to power the electric fleets of the future, we need to stop burning coal now and move off of natural gas, too. We need to replace it with solar, wind, and other sustainable technologies. This is doable today, but change is very hard. An encouraging fact is that EVs gets cleaner and cleaner as the energy to power them does. Feeding your EV from solar panels on your roof is the ideal option, if possible.

Fossil Fuel Industry Resistance/Auto Industry Sloth

There are powerful forces at work that want to preserve the status quo. Wealthy oil industry executives are hanging onto their business model—it’s been very successful for more than a century. You can hardly blame them, from a business standpoint. But, if a habit is killing you, you need to stop doing it. Smoking is a killer too—and the answer is to put down the cigarettes.

Another issue with the fossil fuel industry is that the people who run it aren’t suffering from the impacts of climate change nearly as much as the poor people who live near oil wells and refineries or in neighborhoods blighted by freeway traffic. This is why moving to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels is a social justice issue, too. Read this report from the American Lung Association about the benefits of clean air.

The auto companies are beginning to get on the EV bandwagon, but other than Tesla, it is not where their profits come from, so they have been moving slowly. However, based on what they are saying, the expectation is that EVs will play a major role in their future products. The questions are “how much?” and “when?” GM, for example, talks about “putting everyone in an EV,” but isn’t specific about a timeline. I believe that if consumers demand electric cars, manufacturers will be more than happy to provide them. So, they are getting prepared now but are still making their profits from the SUVs and trucks that have been sustaining them for years. We can make them move faster by demanding EVs!

Let’s All Take Action

Everyone is part of the problem—environmentalists included. I have an electric car and solar panels to  feed it, but my house still uses natural gas for heat, hot water, and cooking. It’s very difficult –and expensive–to change our ways, which is why providing a method for preserving your lifestyle in a more responsible way is an easy sale. We can’t expect everyone to simply stop driving, can we? EVs can replace gasoline vehicles, but it’s even better if we don’t drive as much, or start riding a bicycle, or walk, or take electrified public transportation. That becomes an urban planning priority, and a lot of work is being done now in this area.  

A Recent Peek at a Cleaner Future

HImalayas
With emissions temporarily curbed this Spring, the view opened up.

This Spring, when COVID-19 shut down the world for a while, the clear blue skies of yesteryear reappeared quickly. In India, people saw the Himalayas from home for the first time in decades. You could see the difference from space! But, as we’ve resumed more of our travel, the benefits, sadly, have faded away again.

Many Actions We Can Take

There are many things we can do to keep the earth habitable for humans beyond switching to electric vehicles, but getting rid of your gas-burning car is an easy one. Changing to a more plant-based diet is hugely beneficial, too, since the meat industry causes big environmental impacts. Insulating your home and replacing your natural gas furnace with a heat pump is a great way to make an impact, too. Project Drawdown is a great resource for learning more about the many ways you can help.

It’s hard for human beings to think big picture or long range. I consider myself a climate change activist (not an expert), but there are plenty of times I’d rather go have a beer and listen to music than send emails to my congressperson about climate action or improve my house or attend a city council meeting. We all need to do what we can, and urge our local, state, and national governments to do the right thing.

We need corporate responsibility, too. A large company can have a proportionally big impact. If Google moves to renewable electricity sources for keeping their cloud servers cool, it takes a big bite out of dirty energy production. See what Climate Voice is doing on that front.

Al Gore, who’s studied climate change since he was in college and has tirelessly advocated for climate action, founded the Climate Reality Project in 2006 to train others to share the facts about climate change that he presented in his award-winning An Inconvenient Truth slideshow. You can be part of this, too. Go to The Climate Reality Project website for more information about free online trainings. I attended mine in person in Los Angeles in August 2018 and it was a revelation.

Beyond EVs

Scooters have a very small carbon footprint.

Switching to an EV helps, but maybe you don’t need a car at all! In cities, there are many options, including public transportation and shared vehicles (when there’s not a pandemic). Many people are discovering the utility of electric scooters, bicycles, and mopeds—from shared fleets or owning their own. If you’ve ever visited Amsterdam, you know that bicycles, which generate no pollution whatsoever, can be a fine way to travel, especially if cities are designed to make them safe and convenient.

In suburban and rural communities, it’s definitely more of a challenge, but with a growing range of EV offerings, you should be able to switch over easily in the next few years. Electric pickup trucks are almost here!

The Bottom Line

Climate change is heavily driven by the burning of fossil fuels. It’s a real problem and we have to move away from it quickly. There are many things we can and must do, but one action we can take today to lower our consumption of fossil fuels is to drive an EV instead of a gasoline car. Bonus points for riding a bike instead.

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.

Volvo XC90 T8 Hybrid – Unique

The all-new Volvo XC90

The all-new Volvo XC90 is a handsome, luxurious, comfortable, fuel efficient, and expensive large crossover. All all new, it’s a huge step forward for the Chinese-owned Swedish brand.

The regular gasoline versions are badged T6’s, but my car I tested was a Volvo XC90 T8, the world’s first seven-passenger plug-in hybrid SUV.

All XC90s share a potent 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that uses both super- and turbo-charging to put out 313 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. The T8 adds an electric motor and a battery pack to deliver limited electric-only motoring and a total of 400 horsepower and 472 lb.-ft.  of torque. I drove my 18-mile commute entirely on electricity once, but normally achieved just under that. The center screen shows graphical and digital statistics, and where the power is flowing.

Hybrid system settings are Hybrid, the default mode, which switches back and forth from fuel to charge. Pure mode means all-electric. Power mode combines the motor’s instant torque and the gas engine’s size to provide V8 level performance. Save mode lets you retain the battery charge for later use.

An EV range in the teens is typical for plug-in hybrids, and remarkable for a 5,059-lb. vehicle. The EPA gives it a 53 MPGe rating (compare that to other battery vehicles). In pure EV mode, it’s much better. Gas-only delivers 25 MPG. My tester averaged 22.7 mpg over 63 hours and 1,578 miles, including previous journalist loans.

Green scores are 7 for Smog and a split number for the Fuel Economy/Greenhouse Gas rating—7 for MPG and an 8 for CO2.

Pricing for the T8 starts at $69,050. My tester, with the $3,500 Inscription level upgrade, plus a raft of safety, convenience, and style packages and features, came to $84,005. That’s a big price tag, but this car is a great experience.It’s filled with luxury features, including an Orefors crystal shift knob and some beautiful food trim.

The all-new Volvo XC90

The XC90 T8 was named Green Car Journal’s Luxury Green Car of the Year, and is part of what is a welcome resurgence for Volvo, a brand with a historic commitment to safety, today’s latest technology, and now, a greener way to move a family of seven.

Yeah, it’s not a full-fledged EV, but it’s a move in the right direction. I’m look forward to Volvo offering a full EV before too long.

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EVs and their Sociable Drivers

Call it a cult, but EV drivers, I’ve found, are a sociable bunch. We love to talk about our cars, look at each other’s rides, and learn more about the EVs we don’t have yet, such as the Tesla Model 3, which has received more than 325,000 $1,000 deposits in just a few days.

I like to group my little Fiat, Fidelio, with other cars, too. Then, I talk with the owners. Sometimes, I just park him near the other EVs and snap away. Here are a few recent shots.

This one just happened – One Fiat, two Nissan Leafs, in repose.

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And for good measure, here’s Fidelio with one  of his Tesla friends–also at the office.

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And, tonight, three members of the Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra brought their cars together for a photo after a two-hour rehearsal. From left to right, Esteban’s 2016 Tesla, Bev’s 2016 Chevy Volt, and Fidelio, my 2016 Fiat 500e.

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They’re lucky. Although we all just started driving these shiny new cars, they get to keep theirs. But Fidelio has to go  back to the fleet in 10 days. I’m sad. When you live with an EV for months, it grows on you. The smooth, quiet ride, the silent cabin where the radio plays so clearly. The never stopping at the gas station. The torque.

The Tesla and Fiat 500e are pure electrics, while the Volt–in the center above–is a plug-in hybrid. But the Volt will go up to 53 miles on a charge, so if you don’t travel too far, you can use it as an electric car virtually all the time. In fact, Bev tells me that the new Volt will burn off the gas automatically if it gets too old!

The Electric Car Club

When I started testing my little blue Fiat 500e a couple of months ago, I thought, that as part of my EV awareness, I’d attend meetings of some electric car enthusiast organization.I pictured meeting in a place like an old Hof Brau, and standing in the parking lot before going inside for beers and roast beef, looking over each others’ cars in the fading sun.

night

What I was picturing was the car club of the past. I met the Corvair owners club years ago that way.

Today, the action is in three places, for me. The first is at work, where I’ve created the Electriccars channel on Slack–our company instant messenger application. We have 12 members–most of the electric car drivers in the company. We post photos, talk about range and what we want to buy someday, and we’re pretty well represented. We have drivers of Teslas, Leafs, Volts, A Ford Focus Electric and a Fusion Hybrid, BMW i3s, and a couple of us with Fiats. Here’s our charging array. Fidelio, my blue Fiat 500e, is at the top of the picture, because my battery is full, and I’ve moved aside to let another driver charge up. With 15 EVs and 6 spots, it’s the only way to make it work.

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I’ve had numerous conversations in the hallway and in our “Cantina” food and party area. One guy proudly showed me his Volt app, where he could get lots of stats on his mileage and driving efficiency. Another wanted to talk about the differences between the different EVs on the market–or the difference between living with a plug-in hybrid versus a pure electric. Another is eagerly awaiting his opportunity to put money down on a Tesla Model 3–that he’ll receive in two years. That’s patience.

The second way I meet EV drivers is at charging stations. While most of my charging happens at home or at my six-slot office charger, I had a fine conversation with two Leaf drivers in front of the Whole Foods recently. A fellow auto journalist drove to meet me for lunch in his EV test car, and showed me where he went to plug it in while we were eating.

There’s lots of EV action online. I belong to the Fiat 500e group on Facebook. For now, I have a car to show photos of, and stories to relate. So do they. There are proud new car photos, oddball charging shots, and interesting customizations. One guy installed new, more powerful, but less energy-consuming, headlamps. Another posted a shot of his little Fiat next to a giant Chevy Suburban. I had recently taken a very similar shot of my colleague’s orange 500e next to the same kind of behemoth, and posted it in reply. We have fun.

Of course there are numerous websites to visit, too. And on Twitter, I post links to this blog, and have picked up a bunch of folks to follow–and who follow me–by going there.

I was expecting more camaraderie between EV drivers on the road, but so far, no-one has waved to me from their car. I, of course notice all of them. Maybe they just like not buying or burning gas and aren’t the social type. More (electric) power to them.

Walgreens

I did look around for an actual car club, and found the Electric Auto Association. They have various chapters, but from what I can tell, they are the old-fashioned kind of organization. These are the techie guys who used to install dozens of regular car batteries in an old Honda Civic years ago. They are hands-on, and less of a purely consumer group–although I bet that’s changing.

If it were September, I could participate in National Drive Electric Week, but who knows what I’ll be driving by then? I may own my own EV by the time any local events start on September 10.

I love the social part of  being an EV driver. Perhaps it’s the excitement about doing something special that brings some folks together like this. When you drive an electric car, you fit right into the flow of traffic, and especially if you own a model that also has a gas version, you may be invisible to the other drivers. But YOU know you’re battery powered, and that it all makes a difference. Someday, it’ll be the norm.