The BMW i3 and Tesla Model S were pioneers in terms of modern, mass produced electric vehicles. Since then, Tesla has yet to turn a profit, while BMW has earned a record $8.25 billion. Despite this discrepancy, the stock market value of two companies is about the same.
“It must be wonderful to be a new player in this business,” grumbles BMW CTO Klaus Fröhlich. “Why? Because you have no legacy to take care of.”
In the case of BMW, those legacies include a large workforce trained to complete tasks that may soon become obsolete, an assembly network designed to build conventional vehicles with internal combustion engines, a hungry dealer network that needs to be fed, and an EV line-up comprised only of the slow-selling i3.
BMW may have moved to producing EVs and advanced hybrids before many of its rivals. But while the i3 and the i8 are in many ways compelling cars, their hyper-complex and expensive engineering concepts seriously dented the bottom line. The experience steered BMW away from making cars with featherweight carbon-fiber uppers riding on aluminum chassis. Instead, almost all future-generation zero-emission BMWs are to be based on evolutions of the two existing mainstay architectures.
BMW’s first completely new EV, known as iNext, will debut in 2021. That’s may be four more years of waiting, but the trickle of electric BMWs will quickly turn to a flood, with 11 more EVs set to join iNext by 2025. Here’s how they’ll roll out.
You saw the concept car at the Frankfurt Show, but you won’t be able to buy the production version of the second Mini E before 2019—a decade after the first, a limited production effort used for field testing. It’s not a rebodied i3, though the idea was under consideration until cost killed it. Instead, the new Mini E sits on a comprehensively adapted version of the UKL platform that underpins regular Minis so it can be built on the same assembly line as its brethren.
In essence, the Mini E adopts a decontented and downsized version of the e-motor assembly that drives the front wheels of the i8. The 38-kW/hr battery, which fills all the cavities in the floorpan, powers a motor rated at 128 hp and 184lb-ft of torque. This arrangement should deliver plenty of forward motion, but when driven like a Cooper, the Mini E might still struggle to cover more than 125 miles on a single charge. But the use of the UKL structure means the Mini E may be up to $12,000 less expensive than the i3.
The model designation is not final (X3i is one of the options), but the project is set in stone. Like the Mini E, this is a version of an existing product, namely the new BMW X3 (pictured). Due to arrive in 2020, it’ll get different sheet metal with a grille similar to that previewed by the i Vision Dynamics concept at Frankfurt. A front-mounted motor will drive the rear wheels and there won’t be an AWD option. Insiders predict a 70-kW/hr lithium-ion battery, a 301-hp power unit, and a real-world range of 160 miles. This model was originally intended only for the Chinese market, but to plug the gap until the arrival of iNext, i3X will now reportedly go global.
The current timeline suggests that the i8 will be discontinued in 2022. Its replacement, however, is not due before 2024. Why the gap? It apparently has a lot to do with the on-off-on sports car project with McLaren. Due in 2021 and recently confirmed by internal and supplier sources, the BMW-McLaren deal is not unlike the BMW-Toyota arrangement that’s producing the Z4/Supra, except this time, McLaren is doing most of the groundwork.
The BMW version of the high-performance hybrid coupe features unique body panels, seats, and cockpit accents, as well as an evolution of the McLaren 4.0-liter V-8 boasting cylinder heads designed in Munich. BMW will supply bespoke energy cells and performance electronics.
Where does this leave the i8? It’s still early days, but the plan is to go fully electric by means of three 335-hp motors, two in the rear and one up front. The new i8 would also pioneer breakthrough solid-state energy cells that promise huge performance improvements, including a ten-minute quick charge mode. Depending on battery size and driving style, range reportedly varies between 250 and 500 miles.
Here things get complicated, because this familiar designation is destined to switch from today’s i3 to a model based on the 3 Series. (To get the hierarchy back in order, the next i3 will be named i1.) It is not quite clear exactly when the all-new and radically different i3 will start rolling off the line. Some say 2020, some say 2021, and some even say the launch may be delayed until 2025.
The new i3 will be built on an evolution of BMW’s current rear-wheel drive matrix known as CLAR WE. This architecture is modular and fully scalable in terms of powertrain, able to accommodate internal combustion engine, plug-in hybrid or pure electric powertrains. Where needed the batteries reside in the transmission tunnel, under the rear seat, and in place of the fuel tank, and buyers can choose between batteries optimized for range or sport. CLAR WE is claimed to provide the flexibility required to manage the transition of technology and the fluctuation of demand.
The grapevine in Munich is predicting that a replacement for the current i3 will arrive in late 2022 or early 2023, which is another way of saying that the odd-yet-charming MkI has five years of life left in it. The five-door hatch i1 will be prettier, cheaper, and more practical than the current i3, swapping that car’s expensive high-tech underpinnings for a much more conventional layout based on the FAAR WE front-drive architecture that will be shared with the next generation 1 Series, X1 SUV, and all future Minis.
The i1 thus bids farewell to the rear-mounted motor and rear-wheel drive of the current i3, which takes away one important USP, but works wonders for the budget. To keep the price down, the body will be made of steel and the platform will be re-engineered to accommodate the battery trays. Expect two models, the entry-level i1e and the sporty i1s.
The iNext, which may be badged i20 when it arrives in 2021, is not only a new EV but also a key innovation tool. It will be the first BMW capable of driving autonomously, even if several restrictions still apply. True, it comes with pedals and a steering wheel, but provision has been made to integrate up to 30 sensors, and to integrate mandatory redundancies with regard to steering and brakes. Having said that, even this high-tech piece of kit won’t be ready for full autonomous operation before 2025 at the earliest.
As far as measurements and proportions are concerned, the iNext is allegedly a dead ringer for the Jaguar I-Pace, which happens to be the brainchild of several former BMW executives. “We are not interested in making safety a competitively relevant differentiator,” says Klaus Fröhlich. “Our in-house competence is instead reflected by batteries and e-motors, by the driving strategy, and by vehicle control all the way to the limit.”
This is the production version of the i Vision Dynamics concept shown at Frankfurt. The i4 is a cleverly redesigned 4 Series Gran Coupe equipped with a choice of zero-emission power packs, and is set to go on sale within a couple of months of the iNext.
Like the i3, the i4 will be built on the CLAR WE architecture. Expect two e-motors, all-wheel drive, torque vectoring, and probably even rear-wheel steering and semi-active air suspension. The mainstay variant likely combines a 134-hp front motor with a 214-hp unit propelling the rear wheels. A source from BMW marketing indicates that the i4 will be available with three different performance levels, provisionally labeled standard, sport, and supersport. As in the top-of-the-line iNext, the latter version drives each rear wheel with its own e-motor.
Also known as i6, this is the big brother of today’s i3. It has been in the making for over five years, changing from a car built using the same ultra-light, carbon intensive concepts as the current i3 and i8 to one based on CLAR WE. Sort of a crossover, but with coupe, wagon and sedan styling elements, i5 sits between X3 and X5 in terms of size. In terms of space utilization inside, however, it comes close to the X7.
Raising the roofline by about 5.9-inches compared with the i4 has created ample room for big battery packs. At the same time, the crossover stance facilitates easier entry and exit, and it improves the visibility. BMW has not yet defined the final battery sizes, but the two bundles mentioned most often by insiders are rated at 60/80/100/120-kW/hr and 70/90/110/130-kW/hr. Since the batteries’ energy density is set to improve by about five percent year on year, there should be some windfall driving range and performance benefits available by the time the i5 puts in an appearance in 2023.
No, this is not an i5 with four driven wheels. Instead, i5X (or X5i) denotes the EV version of the next-generation X5, and is scheduled for 2024. Thanks to the flat-floor design of the tall-roof SUV, there is plenty of space between the axles to slide in flat battery packs, Tesla-style.
Like its up-market stablemates (and the Audi e-tron and Mercedes EQ-E), the i5X will be offered with two or three motors, and with different battery configurations. What about a fuel cell option, you ask? Well, the X7 show car was originally going to be fuel cell powered, but since batteries are improving in leaps and bounds, BMW now considers the fuel cell to be best suited for buses and trucks.
Tesla keeps updating the Model S, Mercedes is readying the full-size EQ-S, and Audi will electrify the next A8. Meanwhile BMW has no choice but to ask customers for patience as the current 7 Series does not even have a humble 48-volt system, let alone the option of an all-electric drivetrain. That’s why we’ll have to wait until the next-gen 7 Series, due in 2023, for an all-electric BMW luxury liner.
In theory, the 8 Series Gran Coupé, which has been heralded as the brand’s future flagship model, could step in three years earlier. In practice, however, the 8 Series is so tightly packaged that it would take a magic wand (or much smaller batteries) to squeeze in a decent-format power pack. In terms of e-motors, the i7 can reportedly mix and match five different units good for 214 hp to 429 hp.
First the good news: The plug-in i1X won’t cost more that a well equipped X1 20i xDrive. Now the bad news: According to the current game plan (which these days is reviewed on a bi-weekly basis), the e-version of the smallest X model will be built and sold exclusively in China, starting in 2022, and the powertrain will probably be reserved for the China-only long-wheelbase varant.
The reasoning behind this strategy is the aggressive timing imposed by the Chinese government, which wants to put an end to the combustion engine as soon as possible.
Currently another China-only project, the long wheelbase i5X offers three rows of seats, a very popular option in the world’s biggest car market. At a later stage, however, this BEV may also be built in Spartanburg for the American market, where Daimler has just announced a $1bn investment in the production of BEVs, PHEVs and batteries.
Like all BMW i models out after 2021, the i5X LWB, due in 2023, will be capable of inductive fast charging, and its most significant advantage here may be BMW’s unique cell chemistry.