"We want our car to look like a tablet."
It seems like an absurd statement for BMW to make, especially as the consumer electronics industry has only recently begun to embrace design within the last decade, while auto manufacturers have championed it for a century. But while those exact words may never have been uttered, BMW makes no qualms that its i3—the manufacturer’s first fully chewed electric car (MSRP $41,350, out in 2014)—borrows liberally from bedazzling consumer tech.
That’s good, because the influence is too blatant to ignore. From the i3’s two-tone black-on-silver body to its LED lights that sleep invisibly behind stark black glass, the tech industry’s design signatures—really, Apple’s design signatures from the iPad/iPhone and the Macbook line, respectively—define the fact that just by looking at the i3, you can just sense that it’s electric.
"It’s more of an emotional element for us, being associated with innovation and technology," explains the BMW i3’s product manager, Jose Guerrero. "The rear lights look like they’re almost floating over a back surface. It’s like a screen turning on in glass."
Inside, the car is almost the complete opposite. The techie shell gives way to natural, sustainable materials, including Kenaf plant paneling and a curved eucalyptus dashboard that will age and weather like any organic material. BMW tells me that sustainable is the new face of premium.
Of course, designing the i3 was a lot more complicated than deciding on the finish, because what you’re looking at really is BMW’s car of the future—an electric vehicle crafted for a population that’s abandoning suburban life for megacities, that champions turning radius and visibility over the roar of diesel. And maybe its most important quotient—its balance of range (80-100 miles) to passenger seats to trunk space has been determined through 12 million hours of BMW customer driving and critiques of earlier products.
In previous years, BMW leased out a MINI E (which had two seats and no trunk) and a Series 1 EV (which had four seats and a bit of trunk). What they learned from those field tests was that, for as much as we all may criticize electric cars for their lack of range, the biggest user criticisms were born from creature comforts, namely, bulky batteries taking up space. BMW leveraged user testing to balance those opposing forces in a way that would make customers most happy.
"Of course we could add more batteries and get more range. [But] from that test pilot, we saw people on average were doing about a 30-mile-a day-commute," Guerrero explains. "You start looking at U.S.-specific average peak mileage, and 90% of Americans drive less than 30-35 miles a day. People want more range for security, but people are using less range than they need."
To extend range as much as possible, the i3 is built super light, opting for carbon fiber and a plastic passenger compartment (which is 50% lighter than steel). Meanwhile, the i3 will also offer an extended range option on the vehicle, which uses a two-cylinder gasoline engine to almost double the mileage in emergencies. A quick charger is available, too, that can load the battery up to 80% of its capacity in a mere 20 minutes.
On paper, it all sounds great. In person, I’m assured that the i3 feels great, with "the footprint of a 1 series, the space of a 3 series, and the materials of a 5 series." But despite its design prowess, I’m simply not taken by the art of the body. The (nonfunctional) facade of the grill is the only thing that tells me this is a BMW, and it seems to wedge itself into the vehicle like a sloppy Photoshop. Meanwhile, the BMW i8—which will be the i3’s sportier big brother—looks like a grinning carnivore of asphalt that doesn’t need to apologize for its 0-60 times with wide-eyed Smart Car aesthetics. Then again, the BMW i8 is also not the sort of car you’d dare parallel park on the street, or tuck away inside a protective case.