BMW brings i3 electric vehicle stateside with Massachusetts launch

(Matthew J. Lee / Boston Globe)
(Matthew J. Lee / Boston Globe)

BMW’s first production level electric vehicle rolled out of Herb Chamber’s BMW garage Friday afternoon. Tufts professor Charlie Rabie and his wife Ruty Bakor now own the first BMW i3 sold in the U.S. and a matching bicycle, compliments of ze Germans.

“It looks like a car of the future,” said Herb Chambers, who was on hand for the occasion.

Indeed, between minivan, egg, and spaceship, looking futuristic definitely fits somewhere. The i3 — and many other electric vehicles — routinely receive criticism for their unsexy lines.

“The look of this car is very radically different than other BMWs,” said Rabie.

His wife agrees, it’s not their favorite.

“But you drive this car, it’s a BMW,” Rabie said.

The i3 is Rabie’s fourth Bimmer in a row. Prior to the i3 he owned BMW’s “pilot” electric car the ActiveE, a mashup of powerful batteries and the German automaker’s 1 Series model.

“One of you guys know how to fix this thing,” Rabie joked with the mechanics and staff who stood watching the pomp and circumstance.

Rabie joked around a lot. His personality and smile put the room at ease. Nothing about Rabie would land him among the ranks or reputation of the stereotypical BMW driver, instead leaving him grinning for endless photo-ops.

“What is this, wedding photos?” Rabie said.

After photos, Rabie chatted car specs, standing with BMW i Product Manager Jose Guerrero, in front of the black, white and blue i3 profile.

The electric motor barely scratches the surface of sustainability initiatives put into the i3. From parts generated by production facilities that use hydro and wind power as their sole energy source to interior trim cut from sustainably farmed eucalyptus, the car makes a commitment to treating Mother Earth well.

The EPA recently rated the car for 81 miles on a single charge, 138 miles per gallon equivalent in the city and 111 highway.

Another major feature of the i3 is the carbon fiber body, the first of it’s kind in a mass production vehicle, Guerrero said.

Bakor inquired about the long charge times with the standard plug on their ActiveE.

Guerrero assured her that the i3 improved on this metric but that it would still take 14 hours to charge when not using the dedicated wall mounted charging station.

The charging improvements should only start the list of upgrades. Unlike the ActiveE, BMW built the i3 from the ground up with the intention of using electric power.

The ActiveE and many other recent attempts at creating an electric car involve shoving an array of heavy batteries into the body and frame of a car designed to carry a gas or diesel engine, giving a clunky and unpolished result.

BMW’s more deliberate effort took careful planning and resulted in a very lightweight car intended to run on electricity from the start.

But Rabie stays mindful of early adoption.

“Like anything else that’s new it’s kind of a work in progress,” he said.

Still, his faith in the electric vehicle is strong. While the i3 might not be Chamber’s “car of the future” — especially with a $41,350 MSRP sticker — Rabie thinks that once the price point on deliberately engineered electric vehicles drops below the $20,000 mark, we’ll begin to see them all over cities. And as more and more urban residents look to transportation solutions that are fossil fuel free, Rabie might be right.

Already the Chevrolet Spark EV offers a competitive bid for city dweller dollars with packages that start below the $20,000 mark. Add a $7,500 tax credit and the absence of overpriced liquid dinosaur and the offer starts to resemble one Marlon Brando might make.

However, range on the batteries used in electric vehicles remains a barrier for many consumers. You still can’t take the i3 or any other electric cars on long road trips because most of them max out well before 100 miles and in the absence of a charging station, you’re staring at that 14 hour trickle charge time.

But for Rabie, this is a secondary car. Further, he lives just around the block from Herb Chambers, making his commute to Tufts a whopping 5.4 miles.

From their electric experience with the ActiveE, Rabie and Bakor are “acclimated to a lifestyle”, he said, one where they use the electric car to put around the city, plug it in at night, and wake up to a full charge.

While talking to reporters, Rabie pulled out an app that displays parking spaces throughout the city where he can plug the i3 in.

Bakor drove the i3 straight toward Rabie and me while we talked about his history with BMW. I barely heard it move. She waved and turned out of the Herb Chambers garage.

“Let’s see if I can get as much applause riding out of here on the bike,” Rabie said.

He hopped on the gift bike and pedaled after Bakor.

“He’s so awesome,” said swooning BMW service advisor Mark Ravin. “Such a sweetheart of a guy.”

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at george.levines@gmail.com.
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