The open secret that was the BMW i3 is now official. Available late ’13 in Germany, early ’14 in the US (for $42,275 list). Less obvious is that the BMW i8 luxury/sport coupe will also arrive in 2014. And don’t forget the Bavarian e-scooters, the C evolution.
The i3 compact will be available as pure-BEV, and with a 2-cylinder range extender. Electric range will be in line with existing compact BEVs, about 80-90 miles depending. A few gallons in the tank will then take the range-extended model another 80-90 or so. The heavier i8 will only be sold as a plug-in hybrid; the gasser-banger will be the size of that in a compact car.
Part of the effort with the i3 is a carbon-fiber passenger cell. The BMW will have a marginally-longer range than the Nissan Leaf, despite a marginally-smaller pack. The difference is that the i3 will be many hundreds of pounds lighter. The carbon fiber will pass through Washington state in the supply chain; this is to piggyback off suppliers for the Boeing Dreamliner (787). Volkswagen, too, toyed with carbon fiber after Dreamliner production bust the carbon-fiber market wide open.
The i3’s optional extender engine is a parallel twin, derived from BMW’s scooters. Don’t sniff- BMW is quite serious about scooters, parallel twins, and engine technology in general. BMW’s C 650 and the “maxi scooter” or “super scoot” market as a whole are a phenomenon whether you’re aware of it or not, and BMW has been playing in this field for decades. BMW favors this engine layout, as it produces high torque and efficiency, while being easy to mass-produce. It can be made plenty smooth with counterbalancers; that’s what they’re using in their midrange motorcycles.
The weirdness with the i3’s extender is that its tank will barely hold two usable gallons. The actual figure is 2.3 US gallons, though you shouldn’t push that any more than a regular tank, or an EV pack. With two gallons, the extender isn’t meant to allow serious road trips; it simply exists for “bad days” when a pure BEV won’t do. And apparently you can’t fire up the 2-banger at the start of a trip you know is going to be long. The extender will kick in when the state of charge is getting low; it then extends you to the next recharge. (This also implies that the gasser is not a performance boost; it simply generates electricity which would otherwise have come from the depleted pack.)
This weirdness, it is speculated, is due to the i3’s anticipated European use as a “daily driver” in cities, and California’s rules defining what is and isn’t an “electric car.” Plenty of people have hybrids, but only “electric cars” as defined will qualify for a California HOV-exemption sticker. Apparently, the i3 is not legally “just another hybrid,” and gets that sticker. Meanwhile, Europeans take the train for long trips. BMW anticipates that most in the US market will spring for the 2-cylinder, at least at first.
The i8, on the other hand, will operate much like the Chevy Volt. No surprise here, as several key Volt staff were hired away by BMW. Except the i8 will be a halo car, drawing more stares than sales. One has to wonder whether the quasi-gullwing/scissor doors will be practical in the grocery parking lot. I suspect the point is to demonstrate that both BMW and electric drive are serious, and that the i3 is no compliance car. Audi and Honda, I’m looking at you. Also note that BMW has begun a network of roadside charging points, starting with their headquarters.
Still, BMW is no startup, putting all their chips down. Hence the C Evolution scooter is still in development. Despite being in the works, or Werkes, for years, the design will only hit the streets in limited demonstration fleets. I suspect that it’s a tug of war between beating the competitors, and waiting for supplier prices to drop. Wait too long, and you look like a copycat instead of a cheetah (or Panzer). There’s also expectation management: people have higher standards for a BMW than from some startup’s offering, and the project managers can’t let the engineers tarnish the company name.
BMW has always used the term “city car” in its reports. Like the other automakers, among others, BMW anticipates a future where many more people live in more mega-cities, more crowded than today. Staying relevant in this future requires not only electrification, but competition with car-sharing programs, public transportation, and scooters and bicycling. BMW is now producing the i3 as the fruition of its “mega city” project, along with car sharing (DriveNow™) and various motorcycles/scooters. Heck, they sold a skateboard for a few years. Doesn’t get much more megacity than that.
BMW is one of the few automakers in good financial shape. They intend to stay that way, and are searching for the new technologies that can keep them relevant, not relegated.