BMW's short, innovative road to the i3 electric car

On Monday, BMW shows off the production version of its all-new i3 electric car. CNET recounts the concepts and steps the company took to arrive at this milestone.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
5 min read

Back in 2010, BMW began talking up what it called a Megacity Vehicle, a new electric car it would develop for the cities of the future. Not taking any half-measures, the company would run a test fleet of converted electric vehicles, come up with new carbon fiber manufacturing processes, launch a whole new brand, and design a car from a clean sheet.

The result of this intensive effort, the production version of the i3 electric car, will be unveiled Monday in New York, London, and Beijing.

Although BMW likely began plans for what would become the i3 electric car before 2010, the amount of time between concepts and prototype testing to the production release on Monday represents lightning speed for a new model launch in the automotive industry. Other automakers have shown relatively quick electric drivetrain development, but BMW also had to come up with a new design, innovate manufacturing processes, and ink deals for new carbon fiber factories along the way.

BMW obviously put a lot of resources into its i3 effort.

The first public inklings of the new project came when BMW showed off its Concept ActiveE, an electric car based on the 1-series, at the 2010 Detroit auto show. The Concept ActiveE would lead to production versions, offered up by BMW on a lease basis, which provided the company crucial data on how its electric drivetrain worked in real-world conditions. The MiniE project, an electric version of the Mini Cooper, also served for BMW's data-gathering.

The technical specifications released by BMW for the production i3 differ little from either the Concept ActiveE or the i3 concept vehicle that was on display at various auto shows. The production i3 uses an electric motor driving the rear wheels, giving it 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. With its 22 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack, the car achieves a range of about 100 miles. That range is typical for the current crop of electric cars and fits in with BMW's city vehicle plan.

However, with all the work put into this car, it seems the i3 would have distinguished itself in performance.

First concept
The first concept version of the i3 was unveiled at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show. In form, this concept emphasized practicality over style with its five-door hatchback body. However, the construction was far from typical for the economy car segment. The body was made from carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP), while the suspension components were aluminum.

BMW i3 prepares for electric future (photos)

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BMW made large portions of the doors and the entire hatchback transparent, showing the versatility of the body material. The stubby nose sported the traditional BMW kidney grille, but the concept really emphasized the passenger compartment. For the upcoming production i3, BMW says the passenger compartment will have as much room as that of the 3 Series, yet be shorter than that vehicle.

With the i3 concept, BMW took advantage of its clean-sheet design and electric drivetrain by leaving out legacy elements, such as a transmission tunnel, typically found in gasoline cars that have been converted to an electric drivetrain. The i3 concept had a flat floor, and front legroom was increased by minimizing the dashboard structure. Rather than a large, enclosed instrument cluster, BMW fitted it with a standalone LCD. Likewise, infotainment features show on another standalone LCD in the center of the dashboard.

Some of the concept elements, such as transparent, carriage-style doors, do not seem likely to go into the production vehicle, but the ways in which BMW rethought the passenger compartment seem like keepers.

Carbon fiber processing
The use of a CFRP body will lessen the weight of the i3 significantly over steel, or even aluminum. Carbon fiber has been rare in the automotive industry, typically reserved for high-end performance cars due to its cost. In developing the i3, BMW developed new, cheaper mass production processes for carbon fiber. These processes not only benefit the i3 project, but should pay dividends for BMW's other models.

BMW i3 passenger cell
This is an early prototype of the BMW i3's carbon fiber passenger cell. BMW

To meet its carbon fiber needs, BMW and partner SGL Group opened a new manufacturing plant in Moses Lake, Wash. The plant, opened in 2011, takes advantage of abundant, clean hydro-generated electricity in the region to produce carbon fibers. Some of this material is sold to Boeing, which uses it extensively in the 787 Dreamliner. Much of the carbon fiber is shipped to Germany, where it gets processed into the body panels which will clad the i3.

The Megacity name was not to last, merely used as an initial project name. In early 2011, BMW announced a new sub-brand, merely called "i." This brand would cover a new line of efficient vehicles. Along with the i3, BMW developed the i8, a higher-performance gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, which was also shown in concept form.

Last concept
At last year's Los Angeles auto show, BMW brought out a coupe variant of the i3 concept. This experiment with a different body style suggested that the design of the standard i3 was finalized, and BMW was tooling up for production. At the show, a BMW spokesperson told CNET that the i3 coupe concept showed off 80 percent finished parts.

BMW evolves electric car with new concept (pictures)

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This concept provides a good clue of what the production i3 will look like. The doors are no longer transparent, but they retain the dip in the belt line toward the rear, allowing for better passenger visibility. As the coupe version only had two doors, we have yet to see if BMW will retain the carriage style doors of the first concept.

If the i3 coupe concept is a good indication, then the most revolutionary thing about the i3, besides its CFRP construction, will be the passenger compartment. It retains the digital instrumentation on a standalone LCD. The dashboard structure and center console have acquired slightly more bulk than in the original concept, and the seats have a more traditional look. Yet it remains a more open interior than in other passenger cars of this size.

As a purpose-built electric vehicle, the i3 will be BMW's Nissan Leaf. The company is coming to the electric-vehicle market late to the game, though, and from what we know about the technical specifications, the i3 won't distinguish itself much from the current market in range or recharge times. BMW has developed some innovative carbon fiber manufacturing, which represents a benefit to the company as a whole. And the i3's cabin may be future-forward enough to tip the scales in its favor.

CNET will post coverage of the BMW i3 launch on Monday morning.