NEW YORK — BMW, eager to show off its electric babies, unveiled its i3 and i8 concept cars here ahead of their North American premier at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and all we can say is, Wow. These things are cool.
Yes, yes, we know. They’re concept cars. But BMW stressed that these beautiful, efficient and fast (in the case of the i8) cars with cords are just a few years from production. While the technology underpinning these cars is pretty slick — electric drivetrains, carbon fiber-reinforced plastic bodywork and an innovative platform — it’s the design that is truly mesmerizing.
BMW is making a push into more sustainable motoring with its new BMW “i” brand, and it therefore wanted something unique, something that stood out from everything else on the road.
“This was a dream project in 2008,” vehicle exterior designer Richard Kim told us. “We had the opportunity to reinvent and redefine the car.”
BMW was so serious about setting these cars apart from the pack that it housed Kim and the rest of the team working on the “i” cars in a separate studio. The designers were told to let their imaginations roam, and the concepts were born of a sketch competition.
Although the i3 electric city car and i8 plug-in hybrid sports car represent a new direction for BMW, their styling clearly draws some cues from the automaker’s palette.
The electric i3 (shown above), also known as the “megacity vehicle,” is BMW’s riff on the city car. Though at first glance it may resemble other commuter vehicles, a few key features set it apart.
The wheels are way out at the corners, allowing maximum interior space and great stability. They’re also tall and narrow, to minimize drag and maximize aerodynamic efficiency — imperative to maximizing range.
The i3 resembles the X3. It features coach doors — lawyers and marketing types don’t like calling them suicide doors — where the rear doors open opposite of those up front. That makes getting in and out a snap. Extensive use of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic ensured the body was rigid enough to allow ditching the B-pillar that usually divides the front and rear doors.
Although futuristic, the i3 is still very much a BMW, so it shares design cues with other models. The first is, of course, the kidney grilles, and the rondel on the hood.
“It’s still a BMW, it’s still exciting,” Kim says.
Two main lines define the shape of the car. The first starts below the wheel, goes under the door and shoots out the back. The second is the wedge line from the hood that curves up and over the windows and off the back end, a design Kim envisioned giving the feeling of moving forward. This signature BMW “streamflow” is the i Series’ answer to the normal BMW line.
Out back, the bumper and the diffuser are combined into a single piece. This design also appears on the i8, but in a much more stylish manner. The dash is extremely lightweight and juts out, as if floating, and the interior appears roomy because the i3 lacks the transmission tunnel that bisects most cars.
Whereas the i3 is a riff on a city car and therefore a bit, well, pedestrian, the i8 (shown above) is all about emotion. It evokes the 6-Series, and Kim called it the perfect balance of efficiency and emotion.
That said, it shares similarities with the i3. Both were driven by aerodynamics, because half of the energy you need to go 55 mph is needed to simply push the air out of your way. But the i8 looks sleeker. Attribute that to the “air curtains” that direct air around the side of the car to the rear, which is highlighted by U-shaped taillights. The design gives the i8 a slick shape.
The i8 has a sports car persona, low and wide with doors that open upward. It uses the same headlights as the i3, but has twice as many of them. The lights use laser technology, which BMW says have 1,000 times the intensity of LEDs and use half as much energy.
The cars were able to be designed with so much freedom due to a structural and technical changes, said Rich Steinberg, manager of EV operations and strategy. Previous electric BMWs — the Active-E, based on the 1-Series coupe, and the Mini E, based on the Mini — simpy stuffed a motor, a battery and the associated electronics into an existing package. Effective, but crude.
But the “i” cars were designed from the ground up as electric vehicles. That allowed the engineers to put the batteries low across the floor of the car, while stacking the motor and electronics in optimal locations.
As to the specs, BMW says the motor in the i3 is good for 170 horsepower (peak) and 184 foot-pounds. Acceleration is acceptable for a city car, with 62 mph coming in less an 8 seconds. Top speed is limited to 93 mph, a move common among electric vehicles. All the hardware is mounted over the rear axle to maximize interior space.
BMW is keeping mum on the battery specs but promises a range of 80 to 100 miles and says it can be recharged in about six hours, presumably at 220 volts. We’d guess the pack to be around 20 to 24 kilowatt-hours, similar to that of the Nissan Leaf. It’s also saying we might see a range-extended electric version much like the Chevrolet Volt. Such a vehicle would use a small gasoline engine to drive a generator to keep the car going when the battery wound down.
The i8 is a plug-in hybrid, and BMW says it was designed for performance without sacrificing frugality.
The same motor used in the i3 drives the front wheels of the i8, while a turbocharged three-cylinder engine good for 220 horsepower drives the rear wheels. Together they’ll propel the car to a claimed top speed of 155 mph. Look for the i8 to hit 62 mph in less than five seconds while consuming less than 3 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers. That’s 78 mpg here in the states. The i8 also can be driven under electric power alone for up to 20 miles.
Although the two cars making the rounds of auto shows are concepts, the production cars will look much like the cars you see here. There won’t be nearly so much glass for safety reasons, Kim said, but the cars will still feature quite a bit of it.
BMW says we can expect to see the i3 by the end of 2013 and the i8 the following year. No word on price, but BMW has said we could see the i3 priced below the 5-Series, which starts at around $47,000. Pricey, yes, especially compared to a car like the Nissan Leaf.
Photos: BMW. Video: Wired.com