Beauty’s in the i of the beholder

Ryan Borroff
LAST week BMW flew hundreds of journalists from around the world into Frankfurt to show them the future of motoring, as illustrated by its new sub-brand ‘i’. And the future looks pretty impressive if the near-production cars BMW revealed are anything to go by. The German manufacturer showed the first two of its ‘i’ branded vehicles, the i3 hatchback and the i8 sports car, both of which should be on sale in 2013. Both are quite unlike any BMW yet seen, as demonstrated by their futuristic styling and ground-breaking technology.

The i3 is BMW’s future hatchback for megacity commuting, a premium, zero emission, all-electric city car constructed from carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) and aluminium. This means the car is very lightweight, yet safe. Up until now most of the electric and hybrid cars we’ve seen have been developed by converting bodies and components usually used for conventionally-powered cars. This means the resulting cars are heavy, due to their steel bodies and because the batteries needed to power them are heavy. This is why such cars use so much energy just moving themselves around and hence why their ranges are disappointing. But BMW’s i3 and i8 cars have been conceived from scratch. Thanks to their clean sheet designs and lightweight construction, the heavy battery weight is offset. This means we can expect better range and performance when the cars go on sale.

The i3’s carbon fibre body structure – which BMW calls the “Life module” – weighs about half as much as a steel equivalent and sits atop the ‘Drive module’ which houses the car’s suspension, battery and drive system. The battery sits under the floor in the centre of the car so handling should be well-balanced thanks to a low centre of gravity and even weight distribution. BMW says the i3’s 168bhp electric motor will be capable of taking the car from 0-62mph in 7.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 93mph. Range should be up to 140 miles, though an optional range extending two-cylinder engine will be sold as an option. Charging the car will take six hours but a fast charge will charge the car to 80 percent in just an hour.

The i8 meanwhile, is a plug-in hybrid sportscar with extremely low fuel consumption and emissions. If the i3 is for weekday commuting the, i8 is for escaping the city as much as it is for getting to work. Its 129bhp electric motor is essentially the same as the one that powers the i3 but it has a turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine, producing 220bhp powering its rear wheels. This means the car can run on electric power alone for as much as 20 miles but it’s out on the open road with both the motor and engine working together that we will see it at its most exciting. In this mode BMW says 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds and a top speed of 155mph will be possible. As for fuel economy, BMW claims as much as 104mpg with CO2 emissions of just 66g/km.

Both cars look as exciting as they are innovative. Prices are not yet known, but remember these cars will represent a whole new premium eco brand for BMW so don’t expect them to be cheap. Such expressive design and engineering innovation will come at a price. But based on what we’ve seen it will be a price well worth paying.