A visionary BMW? It doesn’t seem so long ago.
It has become customary nowadays to discuss the carmaking giant of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG in anguished tones, akin perhaps to the sort of concern one might feel towards a once-reliable friend in the throes of an unnerving and potentially damaging life-crisis. But it wasn’t always thus. A little over a decade ago, the German carmaker was at the forefront of automotive future-thinking and a genuine pathfinder towards zero emission mobility. Not only that, the cars with which BMW entered the EV market were as futurist in appearance as they were beneath their arresting skin panels.
The birth of the BMW i programme goes back to the latter portion of the post-millennial decade, a time of unfettered expansion for the Vierzylinder, not only in commercial and product terms but also in the visionary sense. During this fecund period, in a quiet corner of BMW’s FIZ engineering nerve centre, a radical and potentially transformative project was gaining impetus and momentum. Project i brought together a small group of electrical engineers, chemists and product strategists under the leadership of Ulrich Kranz, to develop a new kind of electrified vehicle, designed from first principles.
Kranz had to go about his business subtly, for there was little enthusiasm within the FIZ for such a vehicle; Milbertshofen engineers being more of the ‘horsepower is king’ mentality at the time. Fortunately, both BMW CEO, Norbert Reithofer and the controlling Quandt family enthusiastically backed the €2 billion Project i allowing Kranz and his team to develop the technology away from the interference and politicking that might otherwise have diluted or sidelined the programme.
Gaining official sanction in 2008, with the initial Vision EfficientDynamics study making its showstopping debut at the following year’s IAA in Frankfurt; two years later, BMW presented the Megacity Vehicle concept, a companion-model aimed at urban motorists. “We want to be the leader in premium ZE vehicles”, Reithofer told journalists at IAA 2011. “This is more than a hybrid, it’s about a new kind of mobility.” Both concepts would prefigure production cars and in late 2012, production of the i3 began at BMW’s Leipzig plant, for a 2013 sales debut.
The i3 employed an aluminium ‘drive module’, a form of skateboard chassis which carried the lithium-ion battery pack and the rear mounted drive motor, mounted aft and driving the rear wheels. Bonded (and bolted) to this was the carbon fibre re-enforced plastic ‘life module’, which contained the passenger compartment. BMW claimed that the CFRP structure was a strong as steel, but weighed half as much, mitigating the additional weight of the batteries. Its strength also enabled the i3 to do away with a B-pillar entirely, the small rear-hinged coach doors opening outwards for access to the rear seats. Most of the outer panels were lightweight and easy to repair polycarbonate plastic.
The production exterior design came under the auspices of newly created BMW i and was attributed to Richard Kim, overseen by Design Director, Benoît Jacob. Cleaving faithfully in silhouette to that of the concept, the detail differences while marked, allowed for a clear resemblance. Certainly, there was little diminution in impact – the i3 as introduced in 2013 was bracingly modernist, futuristic even – if hardly a ravishing beauty.
Cabin design was the responsibility of Misha Klimov. Designed not only to create an impression of openness and calm, it also highlighted the use of sustainable materials. For example, the instrument panel cover and door panels were made of natural fibres, while 80% of all surfaces visible to front passengers were made of recycled or renewable raw materials. Aside from the sustainability side of the equation however, the i3 cabin was simply a superb example of pared-back automotive product design – perhaps the finest of its era.
2013 battery technology was not as it is now, so the i3 as launched offered a capacity of just over 20 kilowatt hours enabling a maximum range of a paltry 160 kilometres. Hardly a figure to give Elon Musk sleepless nights, but range anxiety was only one side of the EV-pioneer coin. The charging infrastructure at the time was also in its infancy, making longer journeys something of a trial by ordeal. Mindful that buyers might baulk at this, BMW engineers also developed a range-extender version of the i3, employing a two-cylinder 650 cc petrol engine to augment the electric powertrain and provide an element of belt and braces security.
The i3 received a broadly favourable critical reception, although areas such as ride quality on the 19″ wheels and transmitted road noise were criticised. The range extender model was also singled out, (Car’s Gavin Green describing it as the coward’s choice), but it would prove popular with buyers who faced the realities of day-to-day ownership. Early sales however were not stellar, the i3’s high up-front cost, limited range, wedded to an appearance which required some explanation led some to suggest that like Audi’s groundbreaking A2 before it, the i3 was perhaps too cerebral for the market.
In 2016, the i3 received a significant set of powertrain revisions. While the battery pack (made by Samsung) remained the same size as before, its energy density had been increased by 50%, providing a notable increase in range and shorter charging times. In 2018 the i3 also underwent a minor facelift which somewhat predictably lent the car a more aggressive mien – one it really didn’t require.
In 2015, Norbert Reithofer stepped down from his post as CEO, handing over to Harald Krüger. His replacement did not share Reithofer’s enthusiasm for the i-Division, and while there were said to have been plans for further i-cars, the radical BEV programme was ‘refocused’ under his purview.
The i3 (and its i8 sibling) therefore would become outliers within the BMW mothership as the Munich carmaker’s ambitions moved towards the light entertainment end of carmaking spectrum, where Mr. Krüger believed the money was going. In this he was far from incorrect, but the lurch towards slavish adherence to market forces did not serve the Vierzylinder well in reputational terms.
But following the 2016 powertrain revisions, the i3’s commercial fortunes underwent a sharp upward swing, European sales rising steadily year on year thereafter, peaking in 2019 at just over 31,600 cars. The following year, the effects of the pandemic and subsequent semi-conductor shortage saw that figure drop, but demand nevertheless remained steady, it is believed, right up to the cessation of production earlier this year. In fact, according to BMW sources, there was something of a late run on the model as customers realised that BMW would not replace it. With around a quarter of million i3s built, the car can hardly be described as anything less than a commercial success, especially given that BMW had written off the development costs from the start.
Today, BMW would have potential i3 buyers look instead to its newly introduced iX1, a wholly iterative and uninspired piece of street furniture masquerading as modernity. Undoubtedly a competently engineered vehicle and one calibrated to perfection towards its target mainstream market, it vividly illustrates both the direction and the distance the Vierzylinder has travelled in a decade.
The automotive world will remember the i-cars for the pioneers they were. Even with the best will in the world, that will never be said of the ones that followed.
Sources: BMW.com/ Car Design News/ Christopher Butt/ carsalesbase.com
 The i-cars were of course the i3 from 2013 and the i8 which debuted in 2014.
 Benoît Jacob began his career at Renault under Patrick le Quément, and was responsible for the second-generation Laguna and managed the design for the fourth generation Espace. Following a brief stint with VW/Audi, he moved to Munich in 2003, working under Chris Bangle on X6, M1 Hommage and the Megacity concept, ultimately becoming Vice-President of Design at the FIZ. Jacob departed BMW in 2016 for the Chinese Future Mobility Corporation, better known as Byton. He’s currently based at Chinese carmaker, NIO.
 Downgraded might be another word. Once BMW i was disbanded, Jacob took a sizeable number of disillusioned former BMW staff with him to start-up, Byton. The Byton designs were therefore essentially ‘what the i-team did next’. Subsequent i-branded BMW models have been entirely mainstream products.