BMW i3 all-electric makes three-continent debut…and it’s a big deal

BMW i3 revealed at press intro in New York

BMW i3 revealed at press intro in New York

BMW today conducted a three-continent press debut that, instead of the usual twenty minutes at an auto show, went on for about four hours. What, one might ask, warranted such an extravaganza? Well, how about a compact all-electric city car?

To be brief, it’s the forthcoming BMW i3.

Actually, it’s more than just an all-electric from BMW. They’ve done that before with the Mini E and the BMW ActiveE, both adaptations of existing models, the Mini E a battery/electric motor version of the Mini Cooper. The BMW ActiveE  was an adaptation of the BMW 1-Series coupe.

The BMW i3, rolled out in Europe in the fourth quarter of 2013 and as production ramps up, in the U.S. in the second quarter of 2014, is BMW’s first series-production electric, the earlier models leased in limited numbers to provide BMW with real world owner experience. What “series-production” means isn’t wholly clear, as BMW isn’t even hinting what expected sales might be.

BMW i3 interior

The interior of the BMW i3 contains many recycled, recyclable or renewable materials, including a dash made from dry grass. (click to enlarge)

BMW has, however, designed not only a vehicle but a wholly-new purpose-built vehicle, it has developed a new supply chain with new manufacturing processes, and indeed, even windmills to power the BMW i3’s assembly plant.

The BMW i3 will have a carbon fiber-intensive body. Carbon fiber, or more accurately carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, is lighter and stronger than steel or aluminum (50 percent and 30 percent respectively), and is instrumental element in the i3. The carbon fiber itself is sourced in Japan, woven into a carbon fiber cloth in Washington state (with hydroelectric power, by the way), and then shipped to Germany where it is cut, shaped and molded into parts (with a process that takes minutes to cure rather than the traditional days) that are then glued together to form the i3’s body.

The advantage of the carbon fiber construction, of course, is reducing the weight of the i3 to compensate for the weight of the batteries. The 22-kWh lithium-ion battery themselves are positioned below the body in an all-aluminum drive module for a low center of gravity for BMW-like handling. As in the BMW ActiveE the electric motor (170-hp, 184 lb-ft hybrid-synchronous electric motor with maximum revs of 11,400 rpm) is located at the rear, driving the rear wheels.

BMW i3

The rear “coach” door of the BMW i3 will not open unless the front door is also open. (click to enlarge)

With the batteries under the passenger floor, however, the BWM i3 rides higher than a typical BMW might, and also has a higher roofline. The i3 is adapted primarily for “megacity” use, and therefore places occupants in a higher-off-the-floor seating position allowing a shorter overall vehicle, about the footprint of a BMW 1-Series, without compromising headroom or legroom. The floor of the i3 is also flat, with no drive tunnel, which allows passengers to slide in and across from either side, beneficial in urban locations where loading areas might be constrained.

The rear doors are rear-hinged (“coach door”) to ease access as well, eliminating the B-pillar to make it easier for back seat passengers to get their big size nines in. BMW interior designers have also developed an extra-thin seatback for the front seats for extra rear-seat knee room while keeping the front seats comfortable. We tried. They did.

BMW claims the i3 will have a range of 80 to 100 miles in real world conditions with real world drivers. That range was deliberately chosen, as based on the earlier experiments with the Mini E and BMW ActiveE proved to be adequate for day-to-day use. While added batteries could add range, they would also make the BMW i3 heavier and therefore less efficient in daily use where most driving is 40 miles or less. The U.S. market i3 will weigh about 2,700 lbs, 450 lb battery and all.

BMW i3 rear quarter

The dip in the window sill of the BMW i3 allows greater around view for the driver. (click to enlarge)

For the range anxious, BMW will make available a “range extender,” an onboard 650cc, 34 horsepower, two-cylinder, gasoline-fueled which roughly doubles the vehicle’s range  without recharging…and indefinitely with refueling. BMW doesn’t expect to sell many range extender-equipped i3s, however.

BMW was coy about recharge time, incidentally, saying it takes “seven seconds,” or the amount of time to plug the car into a charger, saying that the i3 will charge while you are doing something else. In reality, the numbers are pretty good, with 3 hour 220 V at32 amps charging time, with an extra-cost charger that your friendly BMW dealer will install in your garage. An optional SAE DC Combo Fast Charging will provide an 80 percent charge in 20 minutes, and 100 percent charge in 30 minutes.