BMW wants to make car sharing classier. Its premium-level ReachNow service launched in Seattle today with BMW 3 Series, i3s and Mini Coopers scattered throughout the downtown area. Its closest vehicle-sharing competitor Car2Go has already filled the city streets with Smart Fortwos. But those tiny cars provide more utility than luxury.
While it may seem logical to assume that BMW is competing with Car2Go, the carmaker doesn't see it that way. It's appealing to a different sort of user — the type who wants to commute (or just cruise) around town in style. I drove a few of the German automakers swanky cars in Seattle and while the experience was indeed fancy, it still needs a bit of polish.
One of the self-professed key features of the service is how quickly users can register for it — accounts are supposed to be verified within two minutes. Because you take photos of your credit card and driver's license, the sign-up process moves quickly. And while it did take about two minutes to finish the entire process, I was verified before I even got my mailing address plugged into the app.
Reservations are equally painless thanks to a map that shows all available vehicles in the area. Tapping on a desired car shows its per-minute rate and license plate number, and if you like what you see, another tap on 'reserve' makes it yours. While you wait for the app to confirm your reservation, it displays a blue walking trail to the vehicle. Should you prefer Google or Apple Maps, you can tap the automobile's location to launch your navigation of choice. You have 30 minutes to get to the rental before the reservation expires.
Once you arrive at your car you can unlock the vehicle with either the app or your membership card, but both take just long enough that, if you're impatient like me, you might think it's not working. A few times I kept pressing the card against the windshield again and again trying to unlock the doors. Right when I was about to give up, the car unlocked with two chirps. Frustration, apparently, is part of the luxury experience.
Once inside, the center display walks you through the process to start the vehicle -- that includes inputting the PIN you had to create during the registration process to unlock the engine. It even shows you how to start the car. For example, the start/stop button for the Mini Cooper is in the center console and not on or near the steering column. I own a 2011 Mini and was not aware they had moved the button.
Once you've jumped through all those hoops, all that's left is to drive the car and enjoy the BMW experience without the corresponding car payments. Of course the company is hoping ReachNow will turn BMW renters into BMW buyers. It even noted that the 70 i3s it added to the Seattle fleet will give anyone wary of electric vehicles the opportunity to actually drive one without having to visit a dealer. BMW may be branching out into mobility, but it still wants to sell cars.
While you're using one of these cars, street parking is free. Well, not really. You don't have to pay the meter, but you're charged $0.30 a minute while in away mode. When you park and turn off the car, you're given the option of ending the trip or parking and keeping the car on your account. If you're just going to quickly run into a store, the parking feature is cool. But if you plan on spending any time in a restaurant or shop, it might be better to end the trip and find a another car when you're done.
That parking feature conundrum also illuminates one of the other issues with the app. Once you're tied to a vehicle, you can't see if other cars are available in the area until you end your trip. That's fine when a ton of ReachNow rentals are available in the area, but if there aren't, you could let go of your ride and have another user grab it. Then you're left to find another way to get around.
If you do decide to bite the bullet and keep paying for the car while it's parked, you can't change your mind once you're out of the vehicle. You have to return to the rental, unlock it, input your PIN and then end the trip. You can't do it from the app.
Another weird issue is that while it's very cool that you can set a destination in the app and send it to your reserved car, you can't do it more than once per trip. The BMW in-car navigation system works fine enough, but it's still easier to input addresses on your smartphone.
Although the service has its problems, it's still pretty good. At $0.49 a minute with the price capped at $50 for three hours, it's not that much more expensive than Car2Go's $0.41 per minute rate, and ReachNow is even matching Car2Go's rate for a limited time. Is ReachNow worth the extra 8 cents an hour? It is... if you're looking for a fancier driving experience with the odd issue or two.