BBC Autos

The Roundabout Blog

BMW i3: The game-changing EV?

About the author

Deputy editor of BBC Autos, Jonathan was formerly the editor of The New York Times' Wheels blog. His automotive writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Details, Surface, Intersection and Design Observer. He has an affinity for the Citroën DS and Toyota pickup trucks of the early 1990s.

HIDE CAPTION

The EV market has just become a lot more interesting.

With a starting price under $43,000 in the US, a car exists – and not just any car, but a BMW – that contains technology heretofore found only in concepts and supercars.

The BMW i3 was unveiled on 29 July during simultaneous press events in London, Beijing and New York. It is the first electric vehicle to be sold by BMW, a brand that to date has only dipped its toes in the EV marketplace via lease programmes for its 1 Series-based ActiveE and, from its Mini division, the Mini-E. BMW has invested heavily in its i project, a fact appreciable by the roll call of executives present in New York: Adrian van Hooydonk, design chief for BMW Group; Ulrich Kranz, project manager for the company’s i sub-brand; and Dr Norbert Reithofer, member of the board.

There are other from-scratch EVs that undercut the BMW’s price point, the Nissan Leaf most readily, but none match the i3 for virtuosity – be it in design, materials or engineering.

A skeleton built from carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer (CFRP), the first application in a mass-production passenger car, replicates the tensile strength of steel at roughly half the weight. CFRP is related to the stuff found in the $400,000 Lexus LF-A and $250,000 McLaren MP4-12C supercars, and it does not come cheaply. The lateral-impact strength is also sufficient to forego a B-pillar – the brace that would typically separate the front- and rear-passenger windows. Consequently, when the front and rear coach-style doors open wide, the aperture is massive.

Indeed, the story of the i3 is just as much about what’s not there. Outside, the car looks no bigger than a Ford Focus, but through savvy packaging, the impression inside is that of a minivan. Rare is the family-mover, though, that integrates compressed dry grass into the dashboard structure, or recycled soda bottles into the seat covers.

A 22-kilowatt-hour battery pack, roughly the size of that in the Leaf, feeds power to a 170-horsepower electric motor mounted over the rear axle. The purely electric powertrain is estimated to provide driving range of 80 to 100 miles. That kind of performance does not stave off range anxiety, but an optional range-extending 650cc two-cylinder gasoline engine derived from a BMW scooter can feed power back into the battery pack, effectively doubling the range, BMW claims.

Champions of EVs have long preached that the average one-way trip among motorists worldwide is fewer than eight miles – a built-in argument for the practicality of electric cars, which could merely charge at the driver’s home or a parking lot. But as the public’s hot-cold relationship with the Leaf has proved, range anxiety is real, not a catchphrase cooked up by General Motors to sell its gasoline-electric Chevrolet Volt (also marketed as the Opel/Vauxhall Ampera in Europe). BMW’s decision to offer, if not aggressively market, the range extender seems a shrewd hedge.

BMW purists will argue endlessly about whether the i3 is a true Bimmer. Few design cues beyond the traditional dual-kidney grille would lead an onlooker back to the blue and white roundel badge. But clumsy stabs at brand heritage are not what the i3 seems to be about. “The design should indicate that the future starts now,” van Hooydonk, the BMW Group design chief, said in New York. It was as much a retort to the purists as it was a challenge to competitors. For now, however, it would appear the i3 stands alone.

The design should indicate that the future starts now. — Adrian van Hooydonk