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.
29 thoughts on “Sons of Pioneers”
Good morning and thanks for bringing us the i3 today, Eóin, one of the very few truly modern cars of the last 20 years. Given its heritage and brand values this was a truly daring venture. Technical solutions, design, styling, road position, it was all a bit too much for the average BMWdealership I visited at the time: I test-drove it back in 2014 and, although it fits my double bass, serving as a family car unfortunately was a less realistic proposition for us. It’s still very high on the list of want-to-have for me nonetheless.
Good morning Eóin. My goodness, doesn’t the i3 (and i8) still look fresh and modern after a decade? It shames most of BMW’s current output in that regard. I would regard the i3 as I do the Audi A2: both are deservedly future classics.
It’s interesting looking at the early i-Division cars at a distance in time from their launch, as I suspect that they weren’t meant to be massive sellers, although the i3 sold respectably enough.
1) Due to the technology available at the time, their range was limited and this meant that they would only really appeal to those with charging available at home and access to other vehicles. Hence the choice of an urban vehicle and a sports / ‘halo’ car for production.
2) BMW needed to get experience with EV technology, but it would make sense to start relatively small.
3) The cars would offer the opportunity to experiment safely with other, newer technologies and materials in smaller series production.
4) The advanced spec and low volumes would mean higher prices, which would limit their appeal (especially the i3). If I were being cynical, I could wonder if the i3’s design was meant to act as a sort of ‘filter’ for prospective buyers.
There are similarities with the A2, but only because the i3 and the A2 are small, expensive cars, a concept which the market is generally resistant to. The A2 was a much more conventional vehicle and its appeal wasn’t meant to be as ‘niche’ as it was.
A ‘new generation’ of EVs is coming along, often from China, which aren’t SUVs and are more reasonably priced, such as the MG4 (a car I seem to have developed a fascination for, for some reason). As the technology develops, the need to have truck-sized vehicles to carry the batteries around but still have enough range will diminish, so perhaps this isn’t the end of the line for the i3 and i8, as concepts; I hope so, anyway.
I don’t usually care that much about BMWs, their core demographic being far removed from mine (socially and financially). That’s not to diminish their virtue – although I do think BMW was a little too happy to slavishly follow its own success formula – just to say that they’re not really on my radar. The i3 and i8 most definitely did appear as bright green blips, though. Precisely for the reason I mentioned above: BMW broke its own mold and did so with aplomb, as much ablomb as they had producing their regular – objectively very impressive – cars. I think the i8 is one of the best pure sports car designs (visually, I’ve never driven one and I am not any kind of connaisseur) BMW has produced, up there with the M1. The i3 is highly convincing as a product (practical, seems to drive well and makes good use of the technology available at the time).
I echo Charles’ hope that EV technology will progress enough to allow nicer, lighter cars to be built again instead of the current blimps. That’s one of the reason that I admire cars like the i3 and the electric 500. BMW seems no longer interested in pushing that particular envelope, sadly. Slavishly following (what you percieve as) consumer tastes is ultimately a moribund strategy for a consumer products company as it leads you to be reactive and thus inevitably too late at some point.
I didn’t know that much of BMW’s i-team departed for Byton, which is now sadly defunct, I gather. Imagine if BMW’d had the cojones to produce what was presented as the K-Byte, seemingly somewhere in Tesla Model 3 territory, if I read the description right. That would have been a genuinely impressive BMW i4, and would have given rise to many an Elon Musk Twitter meltdown.
I was parked for ages next to a new 3-Series yesterday , looking at one properly for the first time, and I was surprised at how far off-course the styling was. Even the hofmeister kink was corrupted.
So true, Mervyn. It’s now an add-on plastic ‘ear’ rather than being properly integrated into the design of the C-pillar, and has three changes of direction instead of two, so not really a Hofmeister kink at all.
It’s a shame that unlike those of us who read this site, a majority of people could not care less about innovation, concept or ingenuity but rather pursue the largest amount of perceived status for their euros. Here in France small and economic are the watchwords for generations. Today, as with the rest of the world, bloated and thirsty SUV’s fill the streets. As to writing off the cost of the i3, that seems irrelevant. Can we write off the development cost of the original mini and declare it a financial miracle. Great article as usual by the way.
I’m afraid that the Renault ‘4ever’ concept displayed at the Paris motor show proves your point, Simon. I hope it’s toned-down when it goes in to production. Why does everything have to look as though it’s from a ‘Mad Max’ film?
Good afternoon, Eóin. I’m late to the party today. I’ve driven the i3 and also the i3’s testbed, the ActiveE, which is an E82 with a i3 engine and battery. I enjoyed them both.
The i3 is an interesting car. You sit low compared to the floor, but relatively high compared to the road. When you drive it you can feel the relative lack of weight. Most EV’s are really heavy. It’s wheelbase isn’t that long, so you can throw it around a bit, which I like. The large wheels compromised the interior space: you notice it in the back. The interior is nice, though.
Also the body structure means there’s a bar running in the middle of the car, which makes the optional sunroof a bit pointless. I don’t like sunroofs, but I wonder why they’d bothered at all in this case.
There’s a more in depth article about the bodywork here:
I also wonder how time-consuming and expensive the construction of the bodywork was and if it could be repaired at all.
When I was at the pre-introduction event of the i7 they referenced the i3 and the official told me that the engineers at BMW no longer pursued light weight, but went for aerodynamics instead in order to get the most range. Pity, as I prefer lighter cars.
BMW had developed a production process for CRP panels aready for the E46 M3 CSL’s roof win which they used press tools to speed up production and increase quality of the panels. For the i3 they had four presses and it took ten minutes to create a part – slow compared to steel but very fast compared to other methods of using resin.
For the interior please refer to Dräxlmaier, one of the hidden champions of the industry, who invented, developed and produced the i3 interior.
“BMW no longer pursued light weight but went for aerodynamics instead”
That idea works for constant cruising but a cut and thrust city/urban car requires light weight for efficiency. I guess its now irrelevant since the i3 is history while it will be left to others to fill the void with cheap boring clones.
It´s curious that the first i3 batteries had a range of 160 km, similar to the 1991 E1 (I suppose that performance was considerably lower)
The i3 was weird looking (and that’s being charitable). What was the deal with that broken belt line? Why? For what purpose?
Compare the i3 to the E-1. What is going on with BMW?
BTW the i3 was NOT a financial success, accountancy tricks notwithstanding. It was a loss-maker.
The e1 is a beauty.
They could sell it today.
But l guess there is a purpose about broking the belt line.
On the i3, on the Citroën c2 and I guess on a few more cars it was aplied.
It provides more lateral outwards view for rear passengers, who since the 70’s, for a number of reasons, travel more and more inside a cave. Broadening of pilars, heightening of head restraints, darkening of interiors, all concur to that result.
If I designed cars, I could imagine that deepening the rears windows was the only way to allow rear passengers to have a room with a view
The i3 just about broke even and generated a tiny profit because its production run was extended by two years and it was these two years that made the difference.
Regarding the weird looks a bit further up in this discussion is the theory that these served to keep people deliberately off from buying the car – a similar approach as Toyota’s with the Prius Mk1 which sold at a loss and looked deliberately weird and was bought as an automotive equivalent to a horse hair shirt or Birkenstock sandals. Maybe the i3 is a pair of electric DocMartens.
As I understand Dr. Carsten Breitfeld, formerly head of the i8 programme and Byton-Ceo, is now steering the ghost ship that is Faraday Future through troubled waters.
Guess i’m a sucker for new tech having previously owned a gen one Insight, second gen Prius, one of the last new Leafs out of Japan, an Ampera and my present I3.
All the above proved trouble free with the exception of the Leaf which lost battery capacity the first year. I believe this was due to early storage and shipping delays with an initial low charge thus affecting the battery.
The ten year old Ampera is with a neighbour and has only lost about four miles of range from new!
Having experienced the plug in hybrid Ampera an i3 with range extender became the ideal choice of moving into a taller easy access car that was designed from the get-go to be first and foremost all electric.
I actually drove one in the first year of Leaf ownership and vowed to own one eventually.
Absolutely love the construction, drive and tight manoeuvrability, the steering lock is something a “Smart “would envy.
My i3 is now six years old and still providing the same range as when first purchased, the extender gets virtually no usage but is a nice crutch if needed, it mostly does an automatic ten minute maintenance run occasionally to keep the ICE lubricated.
Having been so far impressed and with no comparable replacement on the horizon this original i3 or a newer one may just be my last car!
What a nice piece about a most interesting car from a time when BMW didn’t justify every move with the lamest of all excuses – ‘the Chinese market wants it that way’.
Interesting fact about the range extender:
I always thought it were a one-cylinder engine, taken from BMWs motorcycle division (BMW F 650).
But obviously they used a two-cylinder 650cc taken from their scooter division. Both engines were not developed by BMW, though. The one-cylinder engine (50HP) coming from Rotax, the two-cylinder (65 derated to 35HP) from Kymco. Form-factor and NVH from the two-cylinder were obviously better adapted to a range extender than the upright one-cylinder engine.
The BMW E1 of 1991 in the comment of b234r above, seems an adorable clean design proposition. Do not remember to have seen it before. You learn a great deal in DrToWr! I would like to be able to buy something like this today, no mind from which manufacturer. The packaging is superb, I do not mind about the performance.
Regarding the BMW i3, I like the interior design and the materials chosen. Because of the large surfaces of dark glass, I like to see it in contrasting colors like white, or other bright colors. I recently spotted one in middle grey which seemed optically confused.
The i3’s interior largely was the idea and work of a supplier, Dräxlmaier in this case.
I’m not a Bimmer fan, but the i3 is a bright spot in the automotive monotony.
You can criticise the window lines, but at least they have a function in that they are family/child friendly.
For me, the highlight of the design is the rear lights, under glass, flush with the rear window. But at the same time, this design is also a major drawback, as it shows the reluctance of the engineers/designers to follow a clever path through to the end.
With a larger wiper, the lights could have been cleaned at the same time as the rear window. A missed opportunity.
The design of the interior is great. Presumably the i3 was only discontinued so that it would not compromise the other vehicles from Milbertshofen with their boring, over-designed coal mine interiors.
Good afternoon b234r, JT, Gustavo and Giorgos. I’m happy to say that we have a piece on the BMW E1 in the pipeline. Stay tuned!
Dräxlmaier. It’s almost as if this tier 1 supplier briefly inherited the mantle of the legendary carrozerria (e.g. the Pininfarina interior of the Coupe Fiat).
There was a tradition at BMW of regularly introducing new blood to the family: Isetta, 507, Turbo and subsequent M1, Z1, Z8, i3 and i8, (I hesitate to include the X5 in this group, but if you must…).
Some of these products weren’t especially profitable in their time (507 certainly, but perhaps some or most of the others too)… Yet they added a kind of value to the brand and its history that is difficult to enumerate and has arguably proved to have been priceless. I hope we haven’t seen the last of that.
Dräxlmaier is a true hidden champion and an amazing company.
Their aim is to deliver something better than their customer expected. An example of this was the i3’s interior.
One of their innovations is a synthetic leather substitute made from mushrooms and plant fibres.
Dave: Thanks for adding to the store of knowledge on this.
Dave – you’ve omitted to mention the Dingolfinger Tochter, and the English Patient. Intentionally?
Dear Dave thank you for the comment, setting the thinking one further step ahead as you frequently do. Visited the website of this company, the way they have done it reveals that they are proud of their past. They give the impression that they like to work and create. The question is how much control has a car company over the interior design? Example, for the Tipo, was a Fiat job or an external specialized company job? How the inhouse-outhouse relation works? This is part of a broader question “how the industry works”?
BMW i3, Audi A2, original Mercedes A Class: is this where the German big three say ‘don’t blame us for the horsepower war and the SUVs… we made innovative, cerebral small cars, and all of them were commercial failures’.
Of course car companies have a responsibility to shareholders and all their other stakeholders, and making loss-making cars will only end one way. But it is depressing to think that the most interesting and thoughtful cars to come out of these companies were shunned by customers.
The i3 will be remembered as a design classic, never mind that the carbon fibre structure made it a bit noisier than Mr or Mrs Lease Contract was expecting.
On the right surface the i3 is dead quiet but have to agree that on coarse surfaces the hard “low roll” resistant tyres transmit a fair amount of road surface noise into the cabin. Possibly a softer compound would help but this would affect range.
I’m sure a solution could be found but with production ended that’s not likely .