Which major automaker has sold the highest percentage of plug-in vehicles relative to its overall US sales? You may be surprised to learn that it’s BMW – aside from Tesla, of course, which sells 100% EVs.
In the first half of 2016, BMW’s four plug-in vehicles – the i3, i8, X5 xDrive40e and 330e iPerformance – accounted for about 3.5% of its total vehicle sales in the US.
We’re still talking about a very small fraction of the overall cars sold, but a lead is a lead, right? Let’s give credit where it’s due. According to a recent article published by Green Car Reports, BMW’s 3.5% lead is followed by Volvo with 2.8% PEVs, GM with 0.8% PEVs, and Nissan with 0.7% PEVs.
EV advocates have long argued that you can build better cars by adding more electric components, and BMW appears to be proving that to its customer base. Its strategy of adding PHEV variants to its most popular models is paying off. From January to July 2016, about 13% of BMW’s X5 SUVs sold in the US were the xDrive40e plug-in variant (3,226 of 24,948 total US X5 sales).
In Europe, BMW reports that PHEV sales have surpassed even the company’s own expectations. Overall, about 4% of 2016 BMW European sales were plug-ins, similar to the US. But in EV hotspots with favorable incentives, the numbers were much higher. In the Netherlands, 43% of BMW 3 Series registrations are for the plug-in 330e version, and 26% of 2 Series Active Tourer registrations are for the 225xe (not available in the US). In Scandinavia, PHEV versions account for 45% of 3 Series sales and 55% of 2 Series Active Tourer sales.
330e, fully loaded
Back in March, Charged did a cover story on the launch of the X5 xDrive40e, detailing BMW’s plan to redefine plug-in capabilities as the latest and greatest premium option. Adding PHEVs to its high-volume vehicle models makes perfect sense for the luxury brand. Plugging in offers an array of new driving modes and performance upgrades like more torque, superior acceleration and smooth and totally silent driving modes. If BMW can effectively communicate those advantages to its high-end customer base, it could continue to expand its lead in a fast-growing new segment of the auto industry.
The 330e iPerformance PHEV arrived in the US in March. The 2016 model got off to a slow start, selling only a few hundred in the first five months, but BMW assured us that it had planned a “soft launch,” and that we should see more and more 330e sales as the company ramps up US production for the 2017 model.
First introduced in 1975, the 3 Series has grown into BMW’s best-selling model, and now represents about 30% of the brand’s annual total sales. “The 3 Series really epitomizes what BMW is in terms of sportiness and driving dynamics,” John Shipley – BMW’s Manager, Product Planning and Strategy for 3 Series – told Charged. “It really is the heart of the BMW line-up.”
The arrival of the 330e also carried BMW’s latest branding strategy in the new iPerformance model designation. Shipley explained how the company will use it on PHEVs in the future.
John Shipley: iPerformance is the way we want to communicate to our customers that this is technology that’s derived from BMW i.
Imagine in your head you have the core model of BMW. On one side of the spectrum you have M vehicles, like M3 and M4, and on the other side of the spectrum you have the BMW i brand: i3 and i8. So, slotted in between M and the BMW core models you have what we call M performance, like the M235i and the X4 M40i.
And iPerformance is the same type of strategy, where we have the 330e and the X5 xDrive40e as well as the 740e slotted in between the BMW core models and the i3 and i8 brand. So the iPerformance strategy is basically plug-in hybrid vehicle variants of our most iconic models, and it’s enhanced with BMW i technology.
It is a perfect combination of dynamics and efficiency. And certainly it’s important to the future of the BMW brand. We really wanted to make a commitment to these vehicles, and this is why we created the iPerformance strategy.
The market for low electric range
The 330e has an official all-electric range of 14 miles at speeds up to 75 MPH, according to BMW. That is relatively low among current PHEVs. However, BMW appears to be proving that, contrary to the opinion of EV devotees, there may be a strong market for low all-electric range PHEVs. BMW’s X5 xDrive40e also has a 14-mile EV range, and it’s selling pretty well for a plug-in.
So, while it’s hard to imagine for hardcore EV drivers that value long range above all, there are many car buyers out there who don’t seem to care, or are confused by, what’s actually fueling the vehicle. The advantages of electrification are plentiful, and there are other meaningful ways to tempt these buyers to plug in. Shipley described the tradeoffs that drove the design of the iPerformance models.
John Shipley: I think there are a lot of things that we needed to take into account when we created these vehicles. Certainly we needed to balance the size of the battery with the space constraints that we have. And the overall costs of the batteries and the technology that we’re putting into the car. We had to be mindful of what our consumers want to pay.
Certainly we’re trying to get higher numbers and longer range, but we need to balance the size, the cost, the space and the technology.
I think one of the appeals of [the 330e] is the fact that it is driving without compromise. So you’ve got the performance that BMW is widely recognized for, and certainly we have the substance to back it up with eBoost, which gives you this higher [gas engine and electric motor] combined horsepower and torque figures. If you haven’t driven the car, once you do you’ll become a believer in eBoost and how it works.
We also deliver on efficiency. The 71 MPGe is great for the 330e. This car is also very adaptable. You can choose between drive modes. You can refuel at a regular gas station.
You can charge when you want, and it really is adaptable to our customer lifestyles.
330e vs 330i
The idea of more efficient driving without compromise leads to a comparison between the 330e and its gasoline counterpart, the 2017 330i (which replaced the 2016 328i). On most of the important metrics, the two vehicles are neck and neck. The engine and electric motor in the 330e produce a combined 248 hp, equal to 248 hp in the 330i as well. But thanks to the attributes of EVs, the 330e produces more torque – 310 lb-ft versus 258 lb-ft. The 0-60 mph times are also very close: 5.5 seconds for the 330i and 5.9 seconds for the 330e.
There is a price premium for plugging in – the 330e has an MSRP of $44,100 (before the federal tax credit of $4,001) compared to the 330i’s MSRP of $38,750. So for an extra $1,349 after tax credits, customers are offered all the electric advantages of the 330e, including all-electric driving modes, more torque and significantly higher fuel economy. The 330e’s official EPA rating is 72 MPGe, but as other PHEV drivers have learned, if you maximize the EV mode you can average higher figures. And if, for some strange reason, someone buys a 330e and doesn’t ever want to be bothered with plugging it in, it will still achieve 31 MPG, which is higher than the 330i’s 27 MPG.
Nice car, what’s with the marketing?
A few years ago, when the major automakers first started to bring new plug-in vehicles to the market, the press would inevitably pit them against other plug-ins. When BMW unveiled the i3, many headlines asked, “How will this affect sales of the LEAF, Volt and Model S?” At that time, most automakers were quick to dismiss the idea of a head-to-head competition. BMW, for example, would say that the i3 is in a different price range than those vehicles, and its REx range-extender option is unlike anything else on the market. In 2013, while the press was calling Porsche’s new Panamera PHEV a potential Tesla-killer, the company told Charged that it viewed the vehicle largely as a competitor to other Panamera options.
Nowadays, however, the automakers are coming out swinging with ads promoting one plug-in model while attacking their competitors. And to the chagrin of those who would like to see increased electrification across the board, many of these ads seem to feature very odd messaging choices, with hybrids attacking EVs or vice versa.
In 2014, an ad for Lexus hybrids poked fun at BMW i3 drivers who had to stop to plug in the car on a road trip. The ad neglected to mention that the i3 is also available with a gas engine range extender for those who expect to take trips outside the EV’s range.
In 2015, EV proponents were not thrilled to find that Chevrolet decided to present the new Volt’s PHEV system as superior to other forms of electrification, with head-to-head attacks on the specific technology used in the LEAF and Prius. The company produced videos that ignored the fact that GM also sells hybrids and EVs that use technology that’s almost identical to what they were attacking.
With the 330e, BMW is the latest to join in the absurdity. The company recently released a pair of video spots that targeted Tesla reservation holders, implying that, instead of waiting for a Model 3, folks might prefer to buy a BMW 330e PHEV, which is available now.
The first problem with this is that a PHEV and an EV are two quite different products, which are going to appeal to two different types of drivers. “It’s the car you’ve been waiting for, without the wait,” says one of the spots. But it’s not. As many Tesla reservation holders were quick to point out, BMW is missing the point by implying that the type of customer who will put down a $1,000 deposit years in advance for a Tesla is going to be persuaded to buy a plug-in hybrid with a minimal electric range.
Second, Tesla’s brand ranks very high in surveys. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to hitch your wagon to theirs, instead of going at them head-on?
“It nearly always looks overly snarky and defensive for one of the other premium brands to go after Tesla, in part because the tone is usually wrong,” Chelsea Sexton, the venerable EV advocate, recently told Charged.
When we asked BMW about the negative reaction to the ads, a spokesman suggested that it was just a light-hearted attempt to help build awareness for the company’s new plug-ins.
“iPerformance branding is something that is new for us,” said Phil DiIanni, BMW Corporate Communications Manager. “It’s something that’s obviously a big focus for us and, really, that was the simple reason for the spots. We want to showcase our plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and the iPerformance branding, and we just wanted to showcase that in a fun and creative way.”
“If you didn’t know 330e existed before, you do now,” Shipley later told Forbes.
Perhaps there is something to be said for the idea that all press is good press, but Chelsea Sexton is not buying it. “Well, that’s an interesting spin…and a little odd that they’d claim that as the launch of iPerformance branding, since there was nothing really performance-oriented or fun (about the 330e) portrayed.”
“BMW also showed that it misunderstands the market it’s aiming at with the 330e – most won’t get the ‘joke’ they think they were trying to tell,” she added. “Lastly, and worst of all, BMW is the third automaker I’ve seen take the ‘don’t wait for Model 3, buy our plug-in car instead’ tack…so they weren’t even original in this strategy.”
In the past, BMW has been ahead of the curve with creative EV advertising. During the launch of the i3, the company made some big investments in marketing (which can’t be said for all automakers that claim they’re serious about selling plug-ins). BMW even ponied up big bucks to run a very clever Super Bowl ad for the i3 that implied that EVs are as innovative as the internet.
We hope the company returns to that style of messaging. Adding a plug to the 3 Series makes it a better vehicle in a few very cool ways. Why not focus resources on explaining those advantages to the hordes of 3 Series fans? Smooth, silent, clean, efficient and fast as ever. The ultimate no-compromise driving machine.
This article originally appeared in Charged Issue 27 – September/October 2016. – Subscribe now.