However, the story behind BMW i isn't limited to the i3 city car and i8 plug-in hybrid concepts. It's a new take on everything from manufacturing to infrastructure; it's about challenging preconceived ideas about how we get around in an ever-changing, ever-expanding world; and it's arguably one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by a modern automaker.
That might sound like overwrought hyperbole, and it's sure to send chills down the spines of technophobes and Luddites, but i isn't about a dystopian driverless future. In fact, BMW says it doesn't want mobile automatons. It wants drivers with an eye on what lies ahead and an open mind. And from what we've seen, i and the philosophies behind it have the potential to eliminate much of the daily drudgery behind the wheel, ushering in a new era of mobility that's at once intelligent, sustainable and engaging.
And we can't wait.
We've already posted plenty of pixels about the i3 and i8 concepts, but if you haven't read our introductory post and our fact-filled follow-up, here's the skinny and the specs.
When the i3 arrives late next year, it will be the first BMW model with an i badge on the back and a blue circle surrounding the classic Roundel. While both models are classified as concepts in their current forms, BMW reps tell us that production variants have already undergone crash and safety testing, so expect to see the production i8 debut in early 2013 and the roadgoing i3 sometime next year. Take a look at the carbon fiber side structure above and you'll have a good idea what the profile of the real i3 will look like.
Being a sub-brand and not a wholly separate marque, many of BMW's trademark design cues have been incorporated into both the i3 and i8, namely the twin-kidney grille and the Hoffmeister Kink. With aerodynamics and weight reduction being key components of the i brand, both the shapes and exterior elements have been optimized for maximum efficiency, from the full LED head- and taillamps to the i8's quartet of ducts behind and below the C-pillar to facilitate cooling and increase grip.
While every designer adores fitting massive wheels on their concepts, BMW's Senior Vice President of Design, Adrian van Hooydonk, insists that the larger rolling stock is used to increase efficiency through a slim design, aerodynamic profile and low rolling-resistance rubber. But how will BMW balance grip with ultra efficient tires on the i8? We hear that two tire options will be available: one high efficiency set and another for outright grip, the latter bringing fuel economy down by only two mpg... from 60 mpg.
BMW is dubbing the design language of the i3 and i8 "stream flow" for its sweeping, wind-tunnel honed shape and layering of materials inside and out. Looking for coefficient of drag numbers? BMW isn't offering them yet (these are concepts, after all), but von Hooydonk asserts that they'll outshine anything in this admittedly yet-to-be-defined class. And even though the elongated glass doors of both models might not make it to production, BMW is intent on preserving the massive greenhouse of the i3 to make urban driving a high visibility affair.
Inside, BMW sought to remove any and all unnecessary material from the seats, dashboard and panels to keep weight in check, adding to the airy atmosphere of each concept. On the i3 and i8, everything is canted towards the driver and all the major control elements – the steering wheel, gearshift and gauges – all reside on a singular plane.
Naturally, next generation vehicles need next generation infotainment and telematics functionality, and both models promise to be a technophile's dream. The i3 has a trio of large displays, including a 6.5-inch screen ahead of the driver, an 8.8-inch TFT for the passenger and another central information display (CID), complete with driver customizable graphics. If you can name it, one of these screens will give it to you, from driving conditions to state of charge, route guidance and the closest charging stations.
Both models feature a new iDrive Controller with a touch-control surface that's sure to ape what's currently on offer from Audi (and soon, Mercedes-Benz), while the i8 makes due with two screens; one for the driver and another 8.8-inch display mounted in the middle. BMW is also working on a series of connected smartphone apps to maximize every aspect of the experience.
The interior of both models is comprised of the "Life" module, a separate carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) structure that's both incredibly strong and remarkably light (note the lack of a B-pillar on the i3). The passenger compartment is mounted to an aluminum "Drive" structure that houses the motor (i3); motor and engine (i3 with range extender or REx); or the mid-mounted, turbocharged three-cylinder and front mounted electric motor (i8). Yes, this is 21st century return of the body-on-frame, and BMW maintains that both battery packs will be good for the entire life of the vehicles.
The i3's curb weight comes in at 2,755 pounds in full EV guise, with a rear-mounted electric motor driving the back wheels courtesy of a 21-22 kWh (approx.) lithium-ion, liquid-cooled battery pack that spans the entire passenger compartment. BMW is claiming the electric motor puts out 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque through its single-speed gearbox. 0-60 mph happens in under eight seconds and the top speed is limited to 93 mph, with range estimated at between 80 and 100 miles. Charging through a (European) standard 240-volt outlet will take place in around six hours, with a quick-charging system allowing the battery to get up to 80 percent capacity in about an hour. If the sat-nav determines you're getting too low on juice to reach your destination, it will automatically switch to PRO ECO mode to boost efficiency up to 20 percent by limiting output and dropping the electrical pull from the i3's accessories down to the bare minimum. A similar system is also fitted to the i8.
As we revealed earlier, a range extending engine on the i3 will be an option, made up of a 600cc inline two-cylinder mated to the standard electric motor. We've been told that this engine was not born out of BMW's recently revealed modular engine program, but instead is a highly modified version of an existing engine (possibly pulled from BMW's motorcycle division) and it will also be fitted to a future BMW model that isn't the i3. The minuscule mill will serve strictly as a generator to provide power to the battery pack, with no engine torque will mechanically reach the wheels. The range extending system should double the i3's range to around 186 miles without intruding on the 7.06 cubic-feet of trunk space.
The i8 tips the scales at 3,262 pounds, comes equipped with the aforementioned 1.5-liter three-cylinder mounted amidships that puts out 220 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque. The same electric motor fitted to the i3 is mounted up front, providing a total of over 400 lb-ft of grunt through all four wheels when you mash the throttle. The drivetrain has been optimized to provide a balance of fuel efficiency and performance, going from front-wheel-drive when cruising, to rear-wheel-drive when pushing to all-wheel-drive when in full-on attack mode. The run from 0-60 is claimed to take place in under five seconds, weight distribution is set at 50/50 and, remember, this is a plug-in hybrid, so if you juice up the 7.2 kWh lithium-ion battery (running through the center of the passenger compartment and acting as a structural spine) and tread lightly on the long pedal, you'll be able to travel up to 20 miles without burning a drop of fuel. Finally, a hybrid enthusiasts can get behind.
On the sustainability front, BMW has taken a holistic approach to its sub-brand, with a new tack when dealing with suppliers, development and production, along with sales and marketing.
By starting with a clean sheet of paper, BMW says it has been able to reduce the environmental impacts of every aspect of the i3 and i8's development and production, be it using sustainable and recycled materials, weight reduction to boost efficiency and range, ethical standards in the supply chain and even rethinking how the automaker's Leipzip plant operates. Not only has the production center reduced water consumption by 70 percent and energy consumption per vehicle by 50 percent, but 100 percent of the energy used to produce both i models will come from renewable resources. Even the production line has changed thanks to the LifeDrive platform, negating the need for workers to install anything overhead and allowing BMW to continue to employ older workers whose range of motion can be limited.
But nothing is as revolutionary as the overarching ideas behind general mobility.
Here's an example: Let's say you're driving your i3 to an 11 am appointment. You sent the address to your car last night from the i app installed on your smartphone, so as soon as you get underway, the sat-nav determines how long it will take to get to your destination and give you a choice of routes: fastest or most efficient. Not mind-blowing, but we've yet to see a similar system be as seamlessly integrated as BMW suggests theirs will be. Now, let's say that your roundtrip takes 82 miles – cutting it close with the range of the i3. And despite the advanced notice and the internet-connected information flowing through the navigation system, a crash has stopped traffic and there's no alternative route to get you their on time.
Enter Intermodal Route Planning.
The system recognizes there's a subway station at the next exit. And even better, it's got a quick charging station. The system looks up the departure times of the next train into the city, figures out how far away the station is from your destination and recommends that you catch the 10:18 train and then hop on the B Line to your appointment. Alternatively, there's the DriveNow car-sharing service at the subway, so you can reserve a car with your phone, swipe a pre-supplied card with an NFC chip and drive directly to your meeting. Ah, but what about parking?
According to BMW, nearly 30 percent of traffic dawdling about in cities are drivers just looking for a parking spot. The BMW i app is connected up with the area's parking structures and lots, can tell you exactly where to go, how many spaces are available and what it will cost. Once you find a lot and park, you're still three blocks away. Your phone logs your car's location and then gives you walking directions to your appointment. Everything is linked, everything is optimized and it's all set for maximum efficiency.
Even better, you don't even need to own a BMW i vehicle to take advantage of some of these services. It's all part of BMW's i Ventures program and its goal of increasing mobility and decreasing congestion.
But what if you want to avoid public transportation, traffic be damned? Two new systems – Parking Assistant and Traffic Jam Assistant – will be standard on both the i3 and i8 at launch.
The former is self-explanatory, with Parking Assistant measuring a parallel parking space, determining if it's large enough for the vehicle and then automatically parking in the spot without any assistance from the driver. And BMW really means it when it says no assistance whatsoever. Unlike systems from Lexus and Lincoln, the system in the i3 handles acceleration, steering and braking, along with switching between forward and reverse gears.
Traffic Jam Assistant takes matters three steps further and is similar to a system we sampled earlier this year on a specially equipped Mercedes-Benz S-Class prototype. Set the system while you're stuck in start-and-stop traffic, and not only does it maintain a set following distance through Active Cruise Control, it will steer the vehicle using a series of cameras to detect vehicles and road markings up to a speed of 25 mph – but only if you keep your hands on the wheel.
So what was that line about BMW not removing the driver from the equation?
Traffic Jam and Parking Assistant might not be in-line with the values normally upheld by BMW and its rampant fan base, but the world's motoring pool seems set on a course towards automotive autonomy whether we – as drivers – like it or not. However, it's all about implementation and interaction, and if we pause to be honest with ourselves, what's more of a buzzkill behind the wheel? Letting the car do the dirty commuter work or being stuck in a four-wheeled coffin, mindlessly trundling along in traffic – something Americans endure for over four billion hours a year?
Over the course of our day in Frankfurt, we grilled a handful of BMW execs, engineers and spokespeople about how the automaker intends to balance these new technologies and paradigms seemingly at odds with its core principles. In nearly every conversation, we got some variation of the same response: "We're committed to creating the best driver's machines in the world. And no amount of technology in a BMW will ever interfere with that." That might be toeing the company line, but few automakers have the potential to pull it off. BMW is one of them and they're well on their way.