Crown fleet starts diesel-electric showdown

Government’s desire to take its electric car charge to the very top has sparked a trial of a special version of its favoured VIP limo.


THAT they’ve barely settled into latest diesel rides that aren’t going to be traded until 2020 mightn’t keep our politicians and VIPs soon permanently enjoying BMW’s large luxury limo in an electric format well.

The Crown VIP fleet begun to trial an extra-special version of the 7-Series they now know so well.

The tester is the 740Le, a model that heads the Munich make’s iPerformance plug-in petrol-electric hybrid line.

A variant that blends a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a lithium ion battery-fed electric motor to become a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) is going head to head with same-generation lookalike six-cylinder turbodiesels that already undertake state limo duty.

The latest of three 730d allocations is still relatively new to the Crown car beat. The 32 cars began duty only16 months ago and, the Government agency conducting the trial admits, are not actually set for replacement until 2020.

However, the Department of Internal Affairs has signalled potential for the electric model to also join the fleet before then, assuming the type proves its value.

The trial machine has the same drivetrain as the 740e BMW New Zealand has in the showroom for just under $200,000 and like that car – and unlike the 730d – also has four-wheel-drive. However, it’s in a long-wheelbase format favoured for VIP use and also seems to have been trimmed to meet the Government’s tastes.

What it’s worth is a closely guarded secret. The 740Le in private sector specification carries a hefty premium over the standard wheelbase car. However, if it has lost some luxuries – as the 730d cars did – then that might hit the sticker.

More relevant are two other factors: How much BMW is willing to sell the cars to maintain a highly-prized contract and how much the Government is happy to pay. It is thought – though never confirmed – that BMW has always been happy to provide Sevens at extremely compelling prices (there’s talk, which the distributor does not substantiate, that the factory achieves German Government assistance for these sorts of deals).

Internal Affairs, for its part, makes no secret that it expects to pay much less than the private sector. In a release about the 740Le trial, it boasted that it buys cars “at prices that are exceptionally good against the recommended retail price.”

Officially, the trial is nothing more than a tyre-kicking exercise. Yet with diesel having becoming something of a dirty word international, and with Government on an electric car push, going to the 740Le increasingly looks politically correct.

Government wants to double the numbers of EVs in New Zealand every year to reach approximately 64,000 by the end of 2021 and is leading the charge, with implementation of EVs into departmental fleets now official policy.

The Department of Internal Affairs admits enthusiasm about determining if electric vehicles could serve as Crown cars “in the near future.”

However, in discussion with MotoringNetwork about the test, it also agrees this does not exactly time in with the fleet refreshment schedule, because the current 730d fleet is still fairly new and is expected to stay in service until the VIP contract comes up for review in mid-2020.

“The VIP fleet is a lease arrangement of 45 months’ duration,” says Steve Dyhrberg, manager of the VIP fleet (he's the guy on the right in the handover photo also showing BMW NZ boss Florian Renndorfer).  “This is via the All of Government Vehicles contract, which expires 30 June, 2020." 

So, they cannot buy the electric-assist car until then? Dyhrberg disagrees.

Asked what potential there was for the VIP fleet to introduce the PHEV alongside the diesel cars, he said:

"There is potential. The trial is in the early stage so we will need to review the data post trial before making any decisions. We are aware technology is continuingly being developed, and will potentially assist us in shaping our future requirements."  

It’s easy to understand why the brand is so eager to pander to any Beehive whim.

Since its groundbreaking i8 hybrid sports car in 2014, the brand has sought to push production car boundaries in plug-in hybrid and carbonfibre technology. Also, BMW NZ enjoys special privilege in sitting on the All-of-Government Vehicles Panel and being part of the New Zealand Government Procurement’s new Electric Vehicles Panel.

Does that leave it in the box seat and, further, is it being given an opportunity to demonstrate latest equipment ahead of rival brands with similar technology?

When asked if there was any potential that the VIP fleet might trial other similarly high-end, equipped and dimensioned EV/PHEV products other than the 740Le, Dyhrberg said this:

"As mentioned, we are very aware of the advances in technology so we will continue to consider all of the options available at the appropriate time.

“When the contract comes up for tender, suppliers on the All of Government Vehicles panel will be invited to put forward any vehicles that meet the requirements of the VIP fleet."

The 730d cars could be considered to be barely run in. Dyhrberg told MotoringNetwork that, at this point, the 32 vehicles “are averaging 19,250km for the first 12 months.”

You might imagine apparent aim of a trial set to span three to six months seems to be to assess not only which provides better cost per cushy kilometre but which lends strongest Green goodness credential.

On paper at least, the 740Le would seem to have an immediate edge. Even though the 730d model has an optimal fuel burn of 4.9 litres per 100km (against 5.6 litres from the preceding version they also used), BMW says the PHEV can clock just 2.2 litres per 100km in the same in-house bench test. It also produces lower exhaust emissions, 50g of CO2 per kilometre.

Of course, the real world is far different to a lab evaluation. Independent tests of those models overseas tend to relate that the electric-assisted Seven is at its best in city running whereas the diesel becomes more efficient at open road speed.

Interested to know which environment the Government limos experienced most? Dyhrberg was happy to tell us.

"In Wellington the majority is inner-city urban commutes with some open road travels, and in Auckland it is mainly urban commutes either on the motorway or urban routes. In the South Island, it is a mixture of rural open road driving and mixed urban commutes."

The 730d is more of a long distance running expert than the 740Le. BMW estimates a light-footed driver might eke 1500kms’ running out of the diesel car’s tank, whereas the 740Le will require replenishment after around 600kms’ running.

However, the EV is a smart cookie, too. There are numerous driving modes and suspension settings, including two eco-focused ones, called Auto xDrive and Max eDrive. ‘Auto’ is like a traditional hybrid, switching between electric and petrol motors where necessary. ‘Max’ keeps it purely in electric up to 140kmh, or until the batteries are flat.

The full EV only range is just 50km but BMW Germany says tbat’s enough tfor most plutocrat owners to make their daily trip to and from work on electric power only with a drivetrain that can be recharged in five hours.

When the 2.0-litre engine lends a hand to the 83kW/250Nm electric motor integrated into the drive line, it’s quite a powerhouse. With 190kW and 400Nm of torque, the 740Le has identical power and 160Nm less torque than the 730d, yet this petrol engine is the most powerful four-cylinder BMW has ever built.

Accordingly, it lays down those outputs in so much more – well, ‘electrifying’ – manner that no Minister will ever fear making a meeting in time.

When joining forces with the electric motor the combined output hits 240kW, enough to enable the trial car to hit 100kmh from standstill in 5.3 seconds, 3s better than the desel and hugely nifty for a 5.2 metre, two-tonne car.

Drawbacks? With diesel it comes back squarely to the fuel type; even though diesel engines produce less carbon dioxide than petrols and despite BMW running particularly good exhaust filters and technology to meet the latest Euro 6 standard, diesels express exhaust nasties.

Notably nitrogen oxcide, the main ingredient of smog, and particulates, which are known carcinogens with clear links to lung health issues.

These problems have always been identified, but the fallout from the Volkswagen emissions cheat issue has sparked fresh debate, in Europe especially, about the long-term tenability of diesel.

Inner city emissions legislation is becoming tougher. In the future, some cities may only allow in zero-emissions cars and, already, some are starting to seriously restrict diesel vehicles. Also, tougher emissions tests that implement in Europe from next year, will enforce engineering design changes that are so far-reaching that diesel will simply become too expensive for some categories of car.

Not that EVs are penalty-free, either. Though they are much cleaner cars, plug-in electrics are still, at heart, fossil-fuelled. They also are hit by weight and cost. Also, while batteries are becoming cheaper and more efficient, they are still a major cost factor. Certainly, that liquid-cooled 9.2kWh lithium ion battery that resides under the 740Le’s back seat is a very expensive item.

The test is going to give some consideration to economy and running costs, Dhyrberg says, but that’s not the sole consideration.

"The trial will assess the vehicles suitability as a front line operational vehicle. The trial will look at fuel economy, however it does not include emissions testing as testing equipment is not available." He adds that his people are intending to be open-minded about all this. “We are not going into the evaluation with any set expectations around the results."

Keen to keep an eye out for this car?  Dyherberg says it will certainly be out and about.

“We will be testing the vehicle in various locations across New Zealand and it will be trialled for as long as necessary to determine if the vehicle is fit for purpose.”

Car spotters might be challenged to pick it out from the diesels. The most salient design change is the addition of an extra ‘fuel’ flap that’s an access panel to the recharging port: Not something easy to spot at a glance.

In every other respect, it has the same look as the regular Crown cars, colour included. BMW NZ took care to provision its loaner in the same light silver-grey that is special to the Government fleet.