Last week BMW showed its vision for the future of motoring as illustrated by its i3 family hatchback and i8 sports car, the first of a range of vehicles that will become its new eco sub-brand ‘i’, and will go on sale in 2013. Both cars are clean sheet designs, designed from the tyres up with the key focus on maximising their potential for environmental sustainability. Built using advanced, lightweight construction methods more commonly utilised in motorsport. The resulting cars are quite unlike any BMW yet seen.
Innovative and ground breaking is how BMW sees its ‘i’ cars, a fact that’s well communicated by their futuristic styling. The design team under Adrian van Hooydonk, Senior Vice President of BMW Group, has created a new design language for the cars based on clear, simple surfaces juxtaposed with the more advanced technical elements of each car. The cars keep the classic kidney grille, albeit in blue, but otherwise represent a radical departure for the BMW brand.
The i3 is BMW’s future hatchback for megacity commuting. Formally known as the Megacity Vehicle, the i3 is a premium, zero emission, all-electric city car constructed from carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) and aluminium. It is BMW’s first series production all-electric car and is targeted specifically for minimum impact urban use. Thanks to its innovative construction the i3 is lightweight, safe, dynamic and capable of travelling extended distances between charges. For now BMW claim a range of 140 miles but expect this figure to grow.
Up until now the majority of electric and hybrid cars we’ve seen have been developed by converting existing bodies and components used for conventionally-powered cars. Which is why the resulting cars are heavy and require a raft of (heavy) batteries to power them. Such cars use large amounts of energy just to move themselves around. The i3‘s carbon fibre body structure – which BMW calls the ‘Life module’ – weighs about half as much as a steel equivalent and sits atop the ‘Drive module’ which houses the car’s suspension, battery and drive system. The battery sits under the floor in the centre of the car so handling should be well-balanced thanks to a low centre of gravity and even weight distribution.
Because the car’s body weight is lower the additional weight of its batteries are offset. What’s more – depending on BMW’s ultimate range goals – the i3 and i8 should require less batteries to power them, further reducing weight, meaning we can expect better range and performance – than that quoted – when the cars go on sale. BMW says the i3‘s 168bhp electric motor will be capable of taking the car from 0-62mph in 7.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 93mph. Charging the car will take six hours but a fast charge will charge the car to 80 percent in just an hour. The 140-mile range can also be increased by the addition of an optional range extending two-cylinder engine.
As the drive components are housed completely in the ‘Drive Module’ the interior of the i3 has no centre tunnel, the floor is flat and the cabin is spacious and airy as a result. This has allowed the two front and two rear seats to be connected with each other by an unbroken seat surface. There is also no B-pillar – as the CRFP Life Module is so strong – so entry and exit is easy. Inside BMW’s designers have used renewable raw materials, with natural fibres used in the doors and floating instrument panel.
Based on the BMW Vision EfficientDynamics concept car, the i8 is a sustainable, 2+2 seater, plug-in hybrid sportscar with extremely low fuel consumption and emissions. If the i3 is for weekday commuting the, i8 is for escaping the city as much as it is for getting to work. Its 129bhp electric motor – fitted over the front axle – is essentially the same as the one that powers the i3 but it has a turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine – located over the rear axle – producing 220bhp powering its rear wheels. An ‘energy tunnel’ houses the battery and connects the motor and engine through the centre of the car, ensuring a low centre of gravity and perfect 50:50 weight distribution, according to BMW.
This means the car can run on electric power alone for as much as 20 miles but it’s out on the open road with both the motor and engine working together that we will see the car at its most exciting. In this mode BMW says 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds and a top speed of 155mph will be possible. As for fuel economy, BMW claims the i8 will be capable of sports car performance but with the fuel consumption of a small city car. This could be as much as 104mpg with CO2 emissions of just 66g/km when the pre-production prototype makes it to production.
The most striking feature of the i8 is how striking and dynamic its design is. A design language that communicates the emotional but sustainable nature of the car somehow does so in an entirely non aggressive manner. Thanks to its dynamic proportions the i8 appears to surge forward. While its upward-swivelling butterfly doors doors – hinged at the A-pillars – adds even more drama. Technical elements – including the air inlets which allow air flow through and around the vehicle emphasise the aerodynamic nature and advanced futuristic character of the car. Inside the i8 has a driver-focused environment with three-dimensional displays supplying information to the driver only when needed. Even the tyres on the i8’s 19-inch wheels are narrow to improve aerodynamic efficiency.
Final specs and prices are not yet known. But remember these cars will represent a whole new premium eco brand for BMW so don’t expect them to be cheap. Figures of £30k for the i3 and £100k+ for the i8 seem realistic. Surely, such expressive design and engineering innovation comes at a price, but based on what we’ve seen it will be a price well worth paying.
Ryan Borroff is an automotive design writer, journalist and
psychologist. He continues to contribute to newspapers and magazines on automotive and design-related matters and has organized and chaired various design-related conferences and awards competitions around the world.