The BMW i3 & The Future of Motoring

BMW’s foray into electric vehicles began in the early ’70s. Since then, the company has dabbled in electric powered vehicles in proof-of-concept form for motor shows and even internal engineering studies. However it wasn’t until the formation of the “Megacity” program, MINI E trial and ultimately BMWi that things got serious. With the learnings of the MINI E and the BMW Active E, BMWi is now ready to launch its first product – the BMW i3

The i3 will arrive in showrooms early next spring with base price of $41,350. However with the US $7500 tax credit the adjusted price will be a surprisingly affordable $34,725 (destination included). Moderately equipped the i3 will go out the door for $40,000 and in turn BMW hopes will usher in the start of an electric mobility revolution. To us that could be one of the best values in all of the automotive world not just because of the price. In our eyes, what makes the i3 so interesting is the packaging, platform technology and of course how it will likely perform as real world, premium transportation.

Why should MINI owners care? Let’s talk about some of the formulas the i3 follows, both new and fundamentally old.

On the face of it, a $40,000 BMW isn’t news. However the i3 represents both a future-forward philosophy, as well as a reliance on a few crucial automotive formulas. The i3 will be the world’s first mass-produced car to utilize a carbon fiber chassis. This brings the weight down dramatically to levels unheard of in the electric car world. The use of carbon fiber effectively cancels out the extra weight contributed by the lithium-ion battery, while the low, central positioning of the battery pack enhances the car’s agility while preserving the BMW typical, near-perfect 50:50 weight distribution. The final weight is an astonishing 2,630 lbs – lighter than any recent MINI. Couple that with 170hp and peak torque of 184 lb-ft (on tap immediately) and you have what could be a surprisingly quick urban runabout.

P90108322_highRes

Yet speed is just one part of the equation. The driving characteristics of the BMW i3 are dominated by maneuverability. The instantaneous power, stiff suspension set-up, precise steering and surprisingly small turning circle (just 32.3 ft ) produces something that looks like a hell of a lot of fun on paper. It also sounds surprisingly like the formula that has made MINI so successful over the past 50 years.

Unlike most cars in the marketplace, the i3 literally has its wheels at the corner of the vehicle. This results was stability, maneuverability and a surprisingly amount of space inside. Again, all core attributes of the MINI over the years.

P90127388_highRes

The achilles heel of the electric cars has always been the perceived lack of real world usability. Here there are some trade-offs. The lithium-ion battery enables the BMW i3 to achieve a range of 80 – 100 miles in everyday driving. This can be increased by up to 12% in ECO PRO mode, and by the same amount again in ECO PRO+ mode. Not bad but that’s clearly going to be a barrier for more than a few of us.

The BMW i3 is also available with a range-extender engine, a 650cc two-cylinder gasoline engine developing 34 hp. It increases the car’s maximum range in day-to-day driving to around 160 – 180 miles and has no effect on luggage capacity.

P90108325_highRes

Furthermore, Range Assistant is engaged both for route planning and during journeys already under way. If the destination programmed into the navigation system is beyond the car’s range, the system suggests switching to ECO PRO or ECO PRO+ mode and calculates a more efficient route. But the really interesting part of the i3 program is what BMW is prepared to do for owners who really need to go further than the range allows. If the BMW i3 concept fails to meet mobility requirements in a specific situation, BMW will provide alternative vehicles from a local dealership.

The sum of this is not just a new car but a new way of thinking about transportation. The funny thing is that we haven’t even seen the car yet. We have plenty of indications of what it will look like thanks to recent lightly cladded prototypes and a thinly veiled concept, but we’ve been told by those who have seen the final product that it’s simply unlike anything else on the road when you see it in person. Is that good or bad? That will be up to you, but it’s clear that BMW’s billions invested in BMWi and electric mobility is about to be dissected and discussed in a big way very soon.

P90128008_highRes

What does this mean for MINI? We fully expect BMW’s investment in carbon fiber to pay off in the fourth generation MINI, scheduled for release around 2020. Unfortunately the F56 and its derivatives were too far along they’re development process to take advantage of it. Meanwhile, much of the i3’s advancements will be seen in other BMWi products and then eventually in BMW and BMW M vehicles.

We’ll be on-hand at the worldwide introduction of the i3 in NYC next week and will have driving impressions later this year.