Mission for agent i
by Thomas Edelmann
Feb 17, 2014

It’s fast, quiet, and above all electric: the new BMW i3. The spacious compact car is setting out to save the world, at least a little bit. And for its noble efforts it is being lauded by technicians and designers alike, most of whom are happily doling out high marks. As of spring 2014 it is destined to become a familiar sight on Europe’s roads; there is talk of some 11,000 orders having been placed here alone. The United States launch has been scheduled for May, with China and Japan set to follow by mid-year. Importantly, Germany’s first premium electric car is far more than just a new model. Indeed, the BMW i3 is part of a mobility network that may soon come to replace the coveted motto “free driving for free citizens”, which has been steering German consciousness ever since the country’s economic miracle. BMW’s i3 is continuing a trend that started with the digital networking of cars, and that is to link up wholly disparate value added chains. The experiment, which is being widely commended for its courage, is not intended to create any losses for BMW, but aside from providing valuable knock-on effects, is expected to tap new sources of revenue in saturated markets.

Small i: Looking to Apple for inspiration

The BMW “i” project got off the ground in 2007 – the year Apple launched its first iPhone. Interestingly, this particular gadget was not intended to be a sophisticated high-end product, all it did was recombine familiar technologies, resulting in new ways of usage and, as we now know, new interdependencies between user and manufacturer to emerge. Like so many other brands, BMW, too, was inspired by the small “i”, which is far more a capital. It denotes a world of networking that serves to bolster the ego while at the same time locking it in a firm grip. And yet, unlike the many firms following in Apple’s footsteps, the Bavarians went to greater lengths in terms of research and thinking things through before turning their “i” strategy into products proper. Should they succeed in establishing their new product on the market, carmakers will no longer be suppliers of cars and spare parts, with a bit of service thrown in, but will be all-embracing service providers. In the case of BMW’s “i” sub-brand the scenario is as follows: Aside from the usual features such as Internet connectivity and car rental for distances that electric cars were to date unable to handle, there will be solar carports, electrical connections for the garage, energy contracts for private ports at home and for refueling en route. “BMW i 360° Electric” is the name of the program that is destined to offer electric customers maximum flexibility – and demands brand loyalty. All components have been customized for the i3 and come at an extra cost. Moreover, Internet sales and selected dealers (or “i-agents”) are setting new standards in the auto industry.

Dependent on the price of electricity

A “pioneering premium characteristic that scores high on sustainability” is BMW’s promise, not more and not less, and “a product substance that is unique among its peers”, a result of consolidated research and development efforts. In short, according to BMW, the i3 is the “chimes that ring in a new era of electric mobility”. Are these merely over-inflated promises? Those of us who know little about electricity other than that it comes out of sockets and light switches, will be hard pressed to understand the complex intricacies in electric mobility. Did you know that around 1900 there was a whole fleet of electric taxis driving round New York? A short while later Ferdinand Porsche designed a chunky electric vehicle for Lohner, long before he put his mind to mass motorization. Today, the crucial factor that will decide on the (re-)introduction of electric cars is neither future forecasts nor pipe dreams, nor advancements in battery technology, but how the oil price fares in relation to the costs of producing and storing electricity. Only if electric cars as a system start to be more economic than conventional cars do they stand a chance of really catching on. So unless the oil price soars to unprecedented heights, they will remain only side options, for example in cities seeking to curb noise and pollution.

The exterior: unusual, but not over the top

The i3 comprises two separate units, namely the passenger cell (“LifeModule”) and the chassis (“DriveModule”) complete with batteries, wheels and electric engine in the tail – a trailblazing and convincing concept. The “LifeModule” consists of a carbon frame, a lightweight material that even in Formula One helps reduce weight and save lives. BMW’s i3 makes carbon suitable for mass production and this change in material alone is nothing short of revolutionary.

The BMW i3’s external shape is ambivalent. Its two-tone color scheme has been adopted from the Mini but jazzed up with a contemporary thrust that plays on contrast. At first glance, the front’s expectant, slightly aggressive design with outlined BMW kidneys is quite unusual for a compact car, but by no means over the top. The large 19-inch wheels make a great impression, provided the narrow cross-section remains concealed by the car body, which extends down low. Whether an electric car needs blue applications to assert its independence from other model series is a moot point, however. After all, with studies such as “Gina” (by Chris Bangle) and “Lovos” (by designer Anne Forschner), BMW has demonstrated that soon-to-be car design can be miles more attractive.

The visual “air flow” line around the i3’s window is nice but anything but aerodynamic, but with top speeds of 150 kph this is not a major problem. Along with the air stream our gaze is caught by the accentuated rear door, which, though it fosters recognizability, constitutes a small weakness of the i3. The concept of the semi “club door”, which provides access to the rear seats, was inspired by the Mini Clubman. Thanks to losing the B-column (which is obligatory in cars made of steel), the club door saves weight but requires careful attention once there are more than two passengers.

Horsepower comes in handy

So what’s it like to drive the BMW i3? You press the start key, slowly release the brake, push down on the accelerator – and the car’s full torque is there at an instant. There’s no noise from the transformer, which can be highly annoying in some other electric cars. Once you release the accelerator pedal the car slows down immediately. This is the moment, when driving downhill for example, energy starts to be fed back into the high-voltage battery beneath the underbody. The effect is visually illustrated on the digital speedometer. Careful you don’t drive too fast!, is the, for BMW drivers highly unusual, message. There is a choice of three driving modes: the extremely efficient “Eco pro+”- program (top speed of 90 kph, no aircon or other comfort functions), the moderate “Eco pro” energy-saving mode, and normal mode, which has no restrictions other than a limited range.

If you don’t want to run the battery down quickly you shouldn’t accelerate aggressively. Go with the flow of traffic instead of pulling away from it. Nonetheless, with 170 horsepower (125 kW) the electric engine designed by BMW proves very handy when it comes to steering clear of obstacles or avoiding dangerous situations.

Kissing goodbye to stuffy interiors

Once you step inside you find yourself in a frenzy of innovation and familiarity alike. It is mixed messages the “i”-project sends out to potential drivers. Style and materiality go far beyond that in standard compact cars. The fact that interior designer Daniel Starke looked to Grete Jalk’s plywood “GJ” chair (1963) for inspiration is readily discernible in the folding forms of the inner doors. “Atelier”, “Loft”, “Lodge” and “Suite” are the names of the four levels of interior comfort. “Atelier” (standard fittings with fabrics in different shades of dark gray with blue stripes) and “Suite” (natural leather tanned with olive leaves) keep within the darker tones. “Loft” and “Lodge”, by contrast, are wonderfully unconventional. Visible, firmly pressed flow materials in the doors are juxtaposed with finishes made of porous eucalyptus wood (“from sustainably managed forests”) and bright leather (“Lodge”) kiss goodbye to stuffy car interiors. Embellished with elegant interiors in “Carum Gray” (at a surcharge of 1,500 euros) and the “Comfort Package” (2,000 euros) as an additional compulsory feature, “Loft” is for big spenders. Aside from various compartments, a socket and a rain sensor, the package contains an automatic aircon and speed control with brake function. The 10-inch monitor in the center of the dashboard (important for navigation, range monitoring and the entertainment system) was only included in the basic price for the very first buyers. It now comes at a surcharge of 2,000 euros. Taken together, the extras for the compact car, the basic price of which is 34,950 euros, push the overall cost to slightly dizzying heights.

BMW’s i3 is an electric car and not a hybrid. Whether the additional 2-cylinder gas engine (the “Range Extender” – add 4,500 euros and 120 kilos weight) and the 9-liter tank are indeed must-haves, depends entirely on people’s driving style and need for security. After all, the engine and gasoline mean additional weight, which in turn impacts on the range. Distances that far exceed those of European cities and their commuter belts are virtually impossible to cover, even with range extension (max. total 340 km). If you must, drive slowly and allow for long breaks in between.

Rapid charge function an extra

It was not without reason that BMW launched the i3 in Amsterdam, a city that already has some 1,000 public charging stations in place on its roads and in its car parks. In addition, lots of regulations there favor electric car users. Should the German government actually intend to sponsor electric mobility in a similar way, it needs to invest sensibly in the refueling infrastructure. Direct current rapid charge stations (very expensive and often unsightly) in particular would be needed. These can recharge up to 80 percent of the battery in just half an hour, compared to “ordinary” charging processes which take up to eight hours. The rapid charge function for the BMW i3 costs an additional 1,600 euros, but is one of the extras that makes the car viable. BMW’s rival Tesla is already busy setting up a DC refueling network in Germany – but only for its own customers.

Bound car owners

BMW has learned from previous mistakes made in conjunction with the launch of electric cars and new types of vehicle like the Smart. If only enough city dwellers, and particularly those living on urban peripheries, are willing to embrace this coherent and well designed experiment, production and marketing of mobility could indeed be placed on a new footing in the near future. However, this new approach to flexibility comes at a cost, and that is customers’ far greater dependency on the manufacturer, and not only because the car keeps sending data on the battery status to the service center. The car as the epitome of limitless freedom we once believed in – those days are probably soon passé.