Deep Dive: BMW's Project i Becomes Reality

#BMW, #Golf

The BMW i program is so big one could almost be forgiven for calling it the reinvention of the car; not only because of the revolutionary engineering and design concepts, but also because of the scale of the whole operation. Project i is way past the point of no return.

The task force headed by Ulrich Kranz is already knee-deep in prototyping with both i3 and i8 undergoing early on-road trials in Miramas (BMW's proving ground near Marseilles, France) and near the Artic Circle. First spy shots show heavily camouflaged cars, but not even the swirly shower curtain foil can disguise the radical proportions, the large-diameter skinny wheels, and the extroverted aerodynamics.

More Models in the Pipeline

The installed production capacity will stretch close to 100,000 units per year; the expertise in the field of carbon fiber, battery technology, and performance electronics is believed to yield a significant competitive advantage. The impact on the emerging green-car market is reflected by the proposed model range which features these four offerings: the i3 four-door hatchback, due in late 2013; the two-door i8 two-plus-two-seater coupe, due in early 2014; the i5 high-roof, long-wheelbase five-seater wagon/MPV hybrid, tentatively set for 2015; and the i1, a two-plus-two-seat, short-wheelbase city car, in 2016, assuming it gets the green light. The size gaps between i1, i3, and i5 is said to resemble the kind of familial relation that Volkswagen has with its Polo, Golf, and Golf Plus/Touran. i8, on the other hand, is a completely different animal than the smaller people moves

i3 was a tiny two-seater aimed squarely at the Smart ForTwo, at one point. In the next step, it morphed into a three-seater with a transverse accommodation for the rear passenger. Now that smart has kicked off the second-generation ForFour featuring rear suicide doors, BMW seems happy to settle for a more conventional two-plus-two layout. The i3 will have to compete against the allegedly even more frugal Audi A2 earmarked for 2014.

i5 is essentially a stretched i3 with a slightly taller roof and a longer rear overhang for added cargo capacity. Its main rival in the marketplace should be the upcoming Toyota Prius PHEV MPV.

While the mainstay models are expected to gather in the [euro]35,000 to [euro]55,000 price bracket, the plug-in hybrid i8 sports care will cost in excess of [euro]100,000. BMW nonetheless expects the racy gullwing crowd-puller to attract around 10,000 customers per year.


High-Tech Construction

Common to all BMW i vehicles are the so-called life and drive modules, denoting the carbon fiber body and the rolling chassis made of aluminum. Unlike the company's other products, the i1, i3, and i5 are rear-engined. This sounds dynamically challenging, but the engineers claim that the cleverly packaged battery kit -- dubbed energy wedge -- warrants a perfect 50:50 weight distribution. Other benefits are said to include a low center of gravity, a tight turning circle, a clear traction and grip advantage, and the excellent crash performance masterminded by fifteen different load paths.

All three rear-engined models and the mid-engined i8 sport a spring strut front axle and a multilink rear setup. Supported by innovative kinematics and state-of-the-art electronics, BMW promises entertaining yet totally failsafe handling qualities.

The i1, i3, and i5 will be available will be available in battery-electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle forms. The BEV relies solely on its 170-hp electric motor, which propels the 2756-pound i3 from 0 to 62 mph in 7.9 seconds. As a range-protecting measure, the top speed is limited to about 95 mph. While the i1 is slightly quicker off the mark but not faster overall, the i5 needs three tenths longer to get going, sources say.

Customers suffering from severe range anxiety or who need more than 100 miles between charge-ups can specify a range extender. The REX model employs a normally-aspirated 1.5-liter three-cylinder petrol engine rated at about 80 hp to generate an extra 50 miles. The range extender charges the battery, but does not drive the wheels.

All i models come with such innovative driver assistance systems as One Pedal Control (accelerate, decelerate, and coast by throttle pressure), Active Brake Control (works at up to 40 mph and includes pedestrian detection), Park Assist (including automatic self-parking), Congestion Assist that helps brake and accelerate the car in traffic, and will work at up to 25 mph and includes active steering), Range Assist to show all available charge points and takes you there on demand, Precondition Assist (cooling down, heating up, and charging - all by smartphone), and Navigation Assist that will connect with public transit services - just in case.

Detailing the i8 Flagship

Tipping the scales at 3197 pounds, the i8 will be exclusively available as a PHEV. A long-slung, two-plus-two seater equipped with pop-up doors and wing-like rear spoilers, the BMW i halo car mates a 170-hp electric motor, which drives the front wheels, to a turbocharged 1.5-liter three good for 223 hp and 295 lb-ft, which drives the rear wheels. The M version, which would have relied instead on a big-bore V-8 or even on the outgoing V-10 from the E60 M5, is not longer part of the program.

Thanks to a very clever black box, the i8 can be a front-wheel drive zero-emissions vehicle, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive. With a little help from the torque vectoring chips, this is said to be an extremely dynamic piece of kit that knows all the power oversteer tricks of the trade. Fully charged, the coupe can -- at the push of a button -- cover about 20 miles in near-silent, zero-emissions mode. When all 393 horses work together and dish up an aggregate 406 lb-ft of torque, the driving cycle, which happens to ignore the energy required to charge the battery, the average fuel consumption works out at a miserly estimated 104 mpg on the European cycle.

Unlike the i1/i3/i5, which rely on a single-speed transmission mated directly to the electric motor, the i8 has a four-speed gearbox to deal with its much broader performance range. Recharging the battery is typically a six-hour affair, but access to high-voltage mains will get the job done in less than 60 minutes.

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