Special Coverage

Greater L.A. Auto Show

LOS ANGELES – BMW AG tests the waters of fuel-efficient luxury with the unveiling here of hybrid-electric versions of its 7-Series flagship sedan and X6 cross/utility vehicle, as well as a dramatically styled plug-in/turbodiesel coupe concept.

Hybrid powertrains fit neatly in BMW’s suite of EfficientDynamics eco-friendly technologies, but the Bavarian auto maker will continue pursuing several paths to reduce fuel consumption, rather than banking heavily on HEVs, Ian Robertson, BMW board member-sales and marketing, says at the Los Angeles auto show.

BMW’s first two production hybrids, making their U.S. debuts, will be branded as “ActiveHybrids.”

The hybrid X6 is powered by a twin-turbo 4.4L 400-hp V-8 and two electric synchronous motors, allowing the vehicle to run purely on electricity at speeds up to 37 mph (60 km/h). The vehicle goes on sale next week in the U.S. and in Europe early next year. The range in EV mode is 1.6 miles (2.6 km).

The hybrid 7-Series pairs the same V-8 and 8-speed automatic transmission with an electric motor wedged between the engine and torque converter to act as a stop/start system that shuts down the engine when idling at traffic lights. A lithium-ion battery provides energy to the electric motor and vehicle accessories.

The hybrid powertrains improve X6 and 7-Series fuel economy 20% and 15%, respectively. BMW says the 7-Series hybrid will start at $103,125 and the long-wheelbase version of the car will base at $107,025.

While BMW is focusing its hybrid intentions on the upper range of its lineup, Robertson says a cascading down to less expensive vehicles such as the 1-Series and 3-Series sedans is inevitable. Timing is uncertain, however, because “we don’t see the demand” at this time, the executive says.

“We do see, obviously, a consciousness about fuel economy and emissions, but our engines are very effective in that instance anyway,” Robertson tells Ward’s in an interview.

Even well-heeled BMW buyers are realigning their priorities as they shop for new vehicles, he says. “It used to be that performance was measured in the numbers of cylinders and how big they are,” he says. “That’s not really relevant anymore.”

Without naming them, he says some rivals are investing heavily in hybrids at the exclusion of other technologies, such as diesels.

“For us, that’s not the case,” Robertson says. “We believe the internal-combustion engine, and diesel engines in particular, have a long way to go in improving the fuel economy and reducing carbon-dioxide emissions for the foreseeable future.”

BMW management is encouraged by the latest U.S. sales numbers, which show diesel take-rates climbing steadily.

Some 25% of X5 CUVs sold with 3.0L diesel engines in November, up from 14% in October. And about 10% of 3-Series sedans sold with the same engine, up from 7% in the prior month. Both offerings were new in the market this year.

Overall, the BMW brand sold 15,708 vehicles in the U.S. in November, up 3.2% from like-2008. Year-to-date sales were down 23.7% from year-ago to 176,374 vehicles.

Robertson says a diesel 1-Series is expected in the U.S. in “a few years.” BMW executives told Ward's recently the auto maker is evaluating for the U.S. a small 4-cyl. turbodiesel, which would be well suited for the entry-level 1-Series.

A pint-sized 3-cyl. turbodiesel in the wildly styled Vision EfficientDynamics concept works in tandem with an electric motor on each axle to deliver a combined 356 hp and peak torque of 590 lb.-ft. (799 Nm), while achieving 62 mpg (3.7 L/100 km).

Combined, the motors and 3-cyl. engine allow all-wheel drive in pure electric mode. BMW says the concept can sprint to 62 mph (100 km/h) in 4.8 seconds.

The futuristic 2+2 coupe makes a bold styling statement, but Robertson says BMW customers also will find the Vision’s remarkable fuel economy equally attractive.

“One thing we think is certain is that sustainability is here to stay,” he says, confident interest in conserving energy will not be a passing fad.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com