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Sienna Miller and James Franco unveil the BMW i3 electric car, for some reason

Celebrity vehicle unveilings are nothing new. Just this spring, Daniel Craig was paid $1-million to pull the covers off the new Range Rover Sport. A couple years before that, Sharon Stone and a Baldwin brother were hired to debut the new Lotus models that, sadly, will likely never see the light of day.

This latest unveiling has got me a bit puzzled, though. Why do automakers hire celebrities to unveil cars? Makes me wonder if they’re trying to make up for something.

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Take the all-new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which was just unveiled in May. It had no celebrity premier, though many celebrities will likely purchase it. Often considered the greatest car in the world, one might think the S-Class prestigious enough to warrant a cameo from Kanye West or Bill Gates. Instead, Mercedes let the car speak for itself.

Maybe, though, prestige has nothing to do with it. Perhaps automakers fear the car itself isn’t enough of a story to have its curtains drawn by a homely company chairman or product manager. Let’s look at the bones of the BMW i3 and see how it holds up to this theory.

The i3 stands as BMW’s first electric production car. Although BMW’s history with electric cars dates back to the 1600 model and continues clear up through the ActiveE model of late, it’s just never sold an EV to the public.

The i3 features a carbon-fiber body and an aluminum chassis, both of which are big news for BMW. The i3 is powered by a 170-horsepower electric motor that can propel the i3 to 62mph in 7.2 seconds.

Distinctively, customers can option the i3 with an onboard 650cc two-cylinder gasoline generator, which has been borrowed from the BMW Motorrad line. This engine can be fired up and used to create electricity, which is piped to the onboard battery pack and effectively doubles the driving range of the i3 from 81-99 miles to 180 miles.

No other electric car offers this option. The Chevrolet Volt comes with an engine whether you want one or not. Inversely, the Nissan LEAF does not come with an engine, even if you want one.

Step outside the drivetrain for a moment and study the bodylines of the i3 closely and I think it’s rather good looking. It’s no Tesla Model S in terms of visual appeal but for a compact electric car, it’s chic. It looks rounded and yet chunky and a bit futuristic.

It’s also been priced right. In Europe the i3 will cost 34,950 EUR ($46,406). This is more than a Nissan LEAF. But, hey, wouldn’t you rather have a BMW than a Nissan? I would.

So what is it then about the i3 needs the help of a couple handsome celebs? Honestly, I think BMW is a bit frightened by the i3.

At the unveil, when asked why an 81-99-mile range, BMW said that it felt customers didn’t need/want more range than that. A few weeks ago, though, BMW wagered that electric car driving range could double in the next three years. By its own logic, though, EV customers don’t want more than 90 miles of range – so why make such a claim? It’s a bit strange.

Move on from there and the i3 story gets even more confusing. BMW will be selling the i3 through different channels, including; online; at the dealership; or through a Customer Interaction Center (CIC). BMW reassures buyers that “all sales channels will be fully integrated and customers will be able to choose their own individual customer journey. Customers can easily switch between all four channels.” While this is a clever marketing plan, it’s new for BMW.

Taking all parts into consideration and something tells me there are some very worried men in dark grey suits back in Bavaria. “Put some pretty people in front of ze car and perhaps zey von’t notice how vorried ve are.”

When it comes down to it, the i3 is a big step forward for EVs and one that legitimized the breed better than anything before it. The LEAF was a gamble and the Tesla Model S, for as good as it is, still faces a shaky future. The i3, though, shows that EVs are here to stay, as a very serious company has now taken the EV leap.

Regardless of the legitimacy of the i3 and its forward-thinking technology and marketing plan, we’re still forced to see some B-level celebs pose in front of it, as if they know or care at all about the product. After giving it some thought, though, I finally understand why: The i3 is scary for BMW, but it really shouldn’t be.

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