Next to Tesla, and, perhaps Renault-Nissan, there isn’t an automaker in the world that’s putting as much faith and money into electric mobility as BMW. The brand’s CEO, Norbert Reithofer, has invested massively in his new sub-brand, called “i,” plus R&D and production sites around the globe. Tied into the i brand is cutting-edge carbon-fiber technology, which is supposed to offset some of the extra weight of the batteries. This portion of the i program, at the very least, has merit beyond E-mobility.
At an event this spring in Leipzig, Germany, where the compact i3 EV and the upmarket i8 plug-in hybrid will be built, BMW spoke about the various aspects of its technological approach and production plans for its i sub-brand. In addition to our introduction to the way i works, we were put behind the wheel of a 1-series ActiveE yet again, a vehicle that now is on the road globally and driven by what BMW calls “electronauts”—picking up right where the Mini E left off. It accelerates well, if not spectacularly so, and the extra heft of the batteries is quite clearly felt. Energy recuperation is strong: when the driver takes his foot off the accelerator, the vehicle will slow down rapidly, and the brake lights illuminate. BMW says that drivers love the “one-pedal drive” experience; we’re not convinced.
The extra weight is where the specific architecture of the i models comes in. With carbon-fiber technology, BMW aims to offset the weight disadvantage of the electric drivetrain. While we weren’t able to drive the i3—we expect to get our first chance behind the wheel of that car shortly after the Frankfurt auto show in September—we were fed a steady diet of information about the Bavarians’ upcoming city car. Production will start within the next few months, and the first cars will arrive at dealerships before the end of the year at prices just below €40,000. (We expect U.S.-market i3s to sticker for around $40K, too.)
BMW’s sparkling Leipzig facility
BMW is adamant that i’s construction will lead to cost- and time savings down the road, thanks largely to the progression of carbon fiber. BMW’s i manager Wolfgang Hang says that repairs can be executed in about half of the time, and no painting is necessary as body panels are delivered to the dealer pre-painted. Bent aluminum frames can even be repaired in segments. We’re told that repair costs will be on the level of those associated with the 1-series; parts will be more expensive, but there will be less labor involved.
It appears the body will last forever: BMW says that carbon fiber only gets harder and better with time. And it makes a big weight difference, too. At 2755 pounds, the i3 is 1213 pounds lighter than the 1-series ActiveE, thanks mostly to the innovative carbon-fiber and aluminum structure. Safety is on the level of the 1-series and, in some aspects, superior, BMW tells us. The floor-mounted battery is in a remote position from the crumple zone, and interior trim protects driver and passengers from potential carbon-fiber splinters in the case of an accident. BMW will mass-produce the carbon-fiber elements; since 2000, its cost has halved and production time has been reduced by 30 percent, according to BMW.
As for the range, it’s rated at 80 to 100 miles. (A gasoline-powered range-extender will be offered as an option on the i3, although BMW believes that many customers will order it on their first i3 but subsequently move away from it—the range-extender, not the i3—on future i purchases.) The i3′s batteries, built by BMW itself with Samsung cells (“that company won’t go bankrupt,” we’re told), will last for 10 years, or close to 100,000 miles.
Unfortunately, BMW’s i brand comes with an indigestible dose of green politics. It’s not enough, apparently, to build a car made from carbon fiber and aluminum. No, much more goes into making the i brand. The electricity at the Leipzig plant supposedly comes from four wind turbines next to the production site, although further questioning reveals that there is no direct connection between the site and the power generator. Instead, the subsidized wind energy is fed into the local grid, while much of the electricity flowing into the Zaha Hadid–penned Leipzig production site likely will come from coal-burning power stations. BMW insists that producing an i3 consumes half the energy and a third of the water as it does to make a 1-series. Perhaps more noteworthy than that—we must emphasize the word “perhaps”—is that partitions separating each area of the production plant are not made of steel, but rather burlap. Maybe we’ve become a bit jaded with the inundation of green marketing lately, but being lectured using environmental buzz words has detracted from the project’s credibility.
BMW won’t provide figures, but we estimate that investment in the i project could amount to significantly more than $2 billion. That cost has been “digested within the group,” we’re told, and because of this accounting, BMW claims to make money on each i3 and i8 that rolls off the line. Nevertheless, there is a lot at stake for BMW and its CEO; in fact, we get the feeling that the brand is divided between skeptics and proponents.
We’re hopeful that a lot of the technology developed within this project will find its way into the brand’s traditionally propelled lineup, too. While we still have reservations about electrification and the flamboyant styling of the i models, the carbon-fiber diet will befit every conventionally powered BMW as well.