Battle starts to fill the gap on Next frontier
Electric and autonomous BMWs are coming, but internal combustion is here to stay, writes Michael Taylor
Last week we revealed the details of BMW’s new strategy, but the big question is what products the Bavarian car maker will bring to the market to achieve it. There is no argument that there has long been an obvious gap in the brand’s product line-up.
While BMW has filled every conceivable niche with its core brand and has gone the other way with Mini, trimming unloved models from its line-up, it’s the electric i-brand that has the biggest hole.
It has soldiered on with the groundbreaking i3 and the plug-in hybrid i8, though it has only looked on from the sidelines as Tesla’s 5 Series-sized Model S stole headlines and Audi, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar promised to redraw the battery-electric vehicle (BEV) car battle lines.
That’s going to change in 2021, when BMW’s i-brand will launch the iNext, although insiders insist it will be called the i5, and will deliver full Level 4 autonomous capability. It will also mimic the 5 Series family by being built with a range of battery sizes and power outputs.
Yet even though i is the official in-house electric-car brand, the iNext or i5 won’t be the next full electric car to come out of the BMW Group.
Rather, that will be the Mini Cooper E, which will come to market in 2019, although the British-based brand will also launch a plug-in hybrid Countryman next year.
The Cooper E will get a similar 300km range to the recently upgraded i3, the latter arriving in SA in 2017.
An all-electric X3 — which will be built in SA — will follow that in 2020, the year the EU’s tighter 95g/km fleet average CO2 limits are introduced, with up to 500km of range. The iNext will follow this.
The iNext will be joined a year later by an all-electric version of the 3 Series, with 500km of zero-emission range, to sell alongside petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid versions of the midsized BMW mainstay. The move could be a crushing blow to Tesla’s hopes of sending its proposed, delayed Model 3 into the mainstream.
Between now and then, BMW will electrify all its mainstream models with plug-in hybrid technology, starting with the 530e iPerformance next year. It will also launch a convertible i8 in 2018.
It has seven petrol-electric hybrids available in various global markets, but plans to expand that with an upgraded Power E-Drive system, combining two electric motors to give greater efficiency potential.
It will use one electric motor on the front axle and one on the rear, with one focused on harvesting energy from braking and the other focused on delivering power to the road. The technology will make its debut on the ultralarge 2018 X7 SUV, but will fit both front-and rear-drive layouts.
However, the iNext is planned to be the step-change at BMW, introducing a new world of hands-free driving, digitisation, connectivity and a bigger interior package.
While there was a flurry of speculation earlier this year about an early appearance of an i5 after BMW’s patent applications for its Z32 research car, the i5 won’t be a high-riding SUV after all. Instead, it will be a sleek four-door sedan or liftback, with its exterior dimensions roughly similar to the seventh-generation 5 Series.
The car will be built at BMW’s Leipzig factory in Germany, which became known for its carbon fibre competency during the i3’s development.
"With the BMW iNext, our goal is to create a sustainable, fully connected self-driving premium vehicle," BMW’s director of development, Klaus Fröhlich, says. "It will be the most advanced and modern form of individual mobility."
The company has learnt its lessons from the i3, with insiders admitting it made a mistake prioritising weight reduction over scalability. That left BMW without the ability to easily and quickly deliver a larger BEV based on the rear-engined i3’s mechanical package. It’s a mistake it doesn’t plan to repeat.
"The architecture of BMW Group vehicles is designed to allow further roll-outs with short lead times, as demand for electrified vehicles continues to grow," Fröhlich says.
"The third generation of BMW electric drivetrains is already in series production and we have begun developing the generation after that for 2020 and beyond.
"By then, progress in battery cell technology will allow the BEV to become an increasingly normal drive variant for many BMWs, Minis and Rolls-Royce."
The Tesla Model S is a 2,100kg car. The iNext won’t be nearly as heavy, using carbon fibre, aluminium and magnesium to hit a target weight of closer to 1,700kg.
The larger floor area will give the iNext a flatter battery pack, which makes the car’s architecture more modular. It will share this with its platform twin, the BEV SUV i6, which is set to arrive in 2022.
Far cheaper to build than the i3’s exotic body, the iNext architecture is also sophisticated enough to deliver a successor to the i8 with plug-in hybrid and BEV powertrains. It will drive the wheels via BMW’s new generation of synchronous electric motors which will offer a wide range of outputs at different price points.
The motor is planned to spin faster than the current range of electric motors and will offer even V8-style power outputs in a BEV the size of a 5 Series, plus a larger 7 Series-sized limousine in 2024.
The base iNext is planned to have about 550km of range from a 110kWh battery (20kWh more than the strongest Model S), although the top level with the highest power output will add around 100km.
Each of the cells is just 110mm high, which will make them the most compact predicted units on the market and considerably smaller than the ones in Daimler’s upcoming EQ BEV family or Jaguar’s I-Pace.