In an effort to meet the demands of a new world, every major automaker is scurrying to pony up offerings in the electric car arena. Some, such as Nissan and Chevy, have taken the early lead, while others have been somewhat slower to commit to what they still view as a risky market - and very few of them have been slower than the German brands.
But with BMW's much-anticipated unveiling of the i3 concept at a fanfare-laden event in Germany last week, it appears the late entry was worth the wait. The i3 concept is loaded with cutting edge technology and design, and it embraces somewhat radical thinking for a carmaker known for its love of high performance combustion engines and the enthusiastic pursuit of the open road.
When it goes on sale in 2013, the i3 will be a four-seater that BMW says is designed to be especially useful in urban environments. It will have a range of approximately 95 miles on one charge using electricity stored in about 21 kilowatt-hours of batteries. While these statistics are very similar to Nissan's Leaf, BMW promises its 170 horsepower electric motor will scoot the i3 from 0-60 in less than 8 seconds-more than 2 seconds faster than the Leaf.
The i3 will also have something that neither the Leaf nor the Chevy Volt will be able to offer: an optional tiny combustion engine that does nothing else but charge the battery to extend its range. While the base i3 won't come with this range extender, it will be offered as an upgrade for those customers who need to travel more than 95 miles between charges. Indeed the Volt has a range extender as well, but it is a feature that is integral to that vehicle and can't be removed. Think of the i3 as having the ability to be ordered as either a Leaf or a Volt, depending on preference.
The i3 concept is loaded with glass panels: the roof, the entire rear hatch, and most of the door panels. At the unveil in Germany, BMW representatives said this design feature provides the visibility that drivers need when maneuvering in urban environments, but also said the amount of glass the concept sports would be entirely impractical for a production vehicle. Safety, air conditioning, heating, repair and production cost all were cited as reasons why that much glass won't make it into production. Even so, the same BMW representatives said that the vehicle would have much more glass and higher visibility than any other mass-produced vehicle.
While the vast quantities of glass in the concept i3 are certainly not going to be carried over-and neither will most of the Blade Runner inspired interior-the other exterior proportions and design features as well as the skinny, weight-saving seats will make it to production, according to BMW.
Another futuristic feature that will arguably be the i3's most significant contribution to the car world is its carbon fiber composite frame. Most mass-produced vehicles currently have steel frames, some even venturing so far as to include aluminum elements, but in the continuous quest to make cars lighter and more efficient, there is no material better suited to that job than carbon fiber reinforced plastic. However, to this point carbon fiber has been a material that was out of the realm of reality for all but some of the most expensive sports cars on the market due to its rarity and incredibly long curing times.
To make carbon fiber composites at a price acceptable for mass-production, BMW, working with SGL Carbon, has opened a plant in Moses Lake, Wash., that will produce all of the carbon fiber the i3 requires. The company also claims it has figured out how to reduce curing times from several hours to a matter of several minutes.
The i3 even reaches far outside the box when it comes to connected mobility-providing navigation directions that calculate the fastest route to a particular destination which sometimes includes ditching the car altogether and hopping on public transportation. While that may sound somewhat mundane to those of us who use online mapping tools, when a carmaker-a performance and luxury one at that-happily proclaims that a car might not always be the best method for getting around, it is incredibly different.
BMW provided no hint as to what the i3 might cost, but did say that it would be "affordable." However, given its extensive use of carbon fiber composites, large battery pack, powerful electric motor and high-performance heritage, we can likely expect that in this case "affordable" is a relative term.