BMW unveiled its i3 car, the first of two new models under the new "i" brand to be sold in BMW dealerships, simultaneously in New York, London and Germany today.
"We are at the starting-blocks of a new era--the era of sustainable mobility," CEO Norbert Reithofer said today while introducing the i3 in New York. "This is what BMW is known for. Our passion for mobility makes us the premium car company."
BMW is already the top-selling premium brand in the world. And the "i" brand is not only meant to expand its lead over Mercedes-Benz and Audi, but also enable it to meet stricter fuel economy regulations in the U.S. and abroad.
What is it? The i3 is a five-door, rear-wheel-drive compact electric car with roughly the same footprint as a BMW 1-Series. It has about the same interior space, though, as a BMW 3-Series sedan, says the carmaker.
How does it perform? We haven't been able to drive it yet, but the i3 is said to have a top speed of 93 miles per hour. The electric motor generates 170 horsepower and peak torque of 184 pound-feet. It goes from 0 to 35 miles per hour in about 3.5 seconds and 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 7 seconds, BMW says.
BMW engineers have designed an energy recuperation mode that is activated when the driver lifts their foot from the accelerator. The electric motor then goes from driving to actually generating power for the lithium-ion battery.
The i3 has a range of 80 to 100 miles that can be increased 12 percent by putting the car into an "Eco Pro" mode, and another 12 percent in "Eco Pro+" mode.
What is the unique design and technology? The BMWi3 has a pillar-less design with rear coach-style doors for easier access to the rear seat area. It has a carbon-fiber reinforced plastic passenger "cell"--the first mass production car to employ such a technology. The passenger cell is as strong as steel, but 50 percent lighter--and even 30 percent lighter than aluminum--the company said. The car weighs just 2,700 pounds, according to BMW.
The i3 will also be offered with an optional range-extender: a two-cylinder 650cc gasoline engine with 34 horsepower, mounted adjacent to the electric motor above the rear axle. The range extender raises the driving range to as much as 180 miles. The engine does not directly drive the rear wheels. It also adds 330 pounds to the i3's curb weight and has a fuel tank with a capacity of 2.4 gallons.
How much does it cost? The i3 will cost $42,275 including destination charges, but before a $7,500 federal tax credit or any state incentives when it goes on sale in the second quarter of 2014. The optional gasoline range-extender will bump the price to $46,125, including destination charges.
The i3 will be offered in three trim levels: Mega World; Giga World and Tera World. The Mega package has standard 19-inch wheels, navigation, BMW Connected Drive, a collision avoidance system, a 7.4 kW on-board charger, LED lights and a cloth interior. The Giga trim package will have upgraded whees, leather wrapped steering wheel, a sunroof and satellite radio. The Tera package adds leather interior and various driver-assistance systems as standard equipment. Final pricing for the packages is not set.
Is it a risk for BMW? By branding its electric cars "i," BMW puts a bit of distance between the new EVs and the BMW brand in case they are not successful. But the bigger risk is that EV sales are struggling in general. BMW is launching the i3 at a time when volume brands such as Audi, General Motors and Toyota have cut back electric-car programs or offered aggressive incentives or price cuts to stimulate sales.
BMW executives have told TRANSLOGIC, "Expect the i3 and other i cars to be 'the ultimate driving machines' among electric vehicles."
What's the competition? In theory, almost any electric vehicle is competition because just having one at all conveys status on those who believe in EVs as a greener alternative to the internal-combustion engine. But in the premium space, competition is from the forthcoming Cadillac ELR extended-range electric and Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive compact due in 2014. The Tesla Model S is more expensive and more of a sports car than the i3, but appeals to the same buyer who would be shopping BMW and other luxury brands for electric driving.
What's next? The second vehicle in the "i" brand will be the i8 hybrid sports car that also goes on sale in the second quarter of 2014.
David Kiley is Editor-in-Chief at AOL Autos.