BMW Unveils i3 Electric Car, ‘Designed for Sustainable Mobility’

When we learned that the “first purpose-built electric vehicle made primarily of carbon fiber” would make its global debut this week, we dispatched writer Nancy Lazarus to take the UnBeige hovercraft (powered by orange peels and recycled periodicals) downtown for the big reveal.

(Photos Courtesy BMW)

“BMW’s i3 has unique proportions for the urban environment and is being sold for the mega-city, but it’s not out of place on the freeway,” noted Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW Group’s global head of design during Monday’s New York launch. BMW simultaneously unveiled the car at events in London and Beijing. The brand is counting on stateside sales when the car becomes available next year, since The U.S. is the leading market for electric vehicles.

“From sketch to street, it’s innovative in every aspect, including the customer experience. The i3 was designed for sustainable mobility,” added BMW board member Norbert Reithofer. He said the car provides solutions for urban lifestyles, such as easy access, smaller turning radius and more interior space. BMW is also eager to overcome skepticism about driving electric cars, mainly charging issues.

Design of the i3 started from scratch five years ago, according to van Hooydonk. “We pushed the reset button on colors and materials. Our new aesthetic is called ‘next premium,’ and the design language maximizes the effect with fewer elements. We used some familiar features, like the kidney-shaped grille, but also many new elements.”

Among new touches are recyclable materials, including carbon fiber reinforced plastic for the four-seater passenger compartment, and an aluminum chassis. The color scheme also departs from prior models, featuring a “black belt” band framing the body’s central section and a choice of two non-metallic or four metallic colors for outer sections.

A high-voltage, 250-kilogram ion battery sits between the front and rear axles, lowering the center of gravity. To offset the extra weight, light materials form the side frame. Unfortunately, “maximizing efficiency” meant no room for a spare tire, though van Hooydonk claimed that’s been addressed. They also skipped the center console to allow easier exiting from tight parking spots. Thinner seats increase interior space and larger rear window panels expand drivers’ rear-view of approaching cars.

BMW execs said owners will still enjoy “sheer driving pleasure,” given the 170-horsepower electric motor that accelerates from zero to 60 m.p.h. in seven seconds. Ulrich Kranz, BMW Group iProduct line SVP, said the car is divided into the “drive” module, comprising the powertrain and chassis, and “live” module, encompassing the passenger area. The body is made of injection molding thermo plastic, so the exterior will be like a corrosion-resistant, scratch-free bumper.

“Range anxiety” represents a key driver concern, since the i3’s battery just allows for an 80 to 100 mile trip. BMW is aware of consumers’ hesitancy, despite stats showing drivers average only 30 miles daily. They’re offering an optional gasoline-powered range extender that increases the distance to 180 miles. It also adds $3,850 to the $42,275 starting price (before federal and state incentives).

Flexible options include home charging using a wallbox or during trips with public charging stations. The dashboard monitors the battery level and displays nearby charging options. Customers can sign up for access to a charging network. With an iRemote app they can program car instructions or plan routes.

After the launch phase, BMW will feature the car at the Frankfurt and Los Angeles auto shows. The latter will kick off an i3 cross-country tour. As Steven Althaus, BMW’s director of brand management and marketing said, “The U.S. will be one big test drive.”

One potential customer may be Michael Bloomberg (at right) once his term as NYC mayor ends. He’s an advocate for electric cars, a former BMW owner, and at the launch event he said he missed driving.

Nancy Lazarus’s last contribution to UnBeige focused on old-school rides, the vintage French carousels and bumper cars of Fête Paradiso. Learn about her here.

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