BMW 2020: Rethinking What ‘i’ Am

BMW’s new flagship EV, the iX, reflects Munich’s evolved way of building cars that are very different from its past

Munich, Germany 

The BMW iX is a big deal. Formerly known as the iNext concept and announced for production in 2021, there’s plenty to cue you in that this is the BMW of the future: Tesla-rivalling performance, a radically revamped design and interior concept, are a start. 

“Every single element of this car is brand new, is thought up anew, is newly considered, to a certain extent perfected,” says Oliver Zipse, BMW’s CEO and chairman of the Board of Management. 

Like every other car brand on the planet, BMW is undergoing a rapid restructuring away from internal combustion engines (ICE) to alternative, electrified propulsion. 

We’ve heard the projections often enough: By 2021, a quarter of its sales will be made up of electrified cars, a third by 2025, and half by 2030. In 2023, the BMW Group expects to have 25 electrified models on sale, with half of those full battery electric vehicles (BEVs).  

But exactly how will BMW make this possible, and what else will its cars be able to do? Why the long wait for a new BMW i car? What about BMW M – or other group brands? BMW provided some insights into those questions and more in the lead up to the global debut of the iX through its #NextGen digital presentation. 

Back Story 

The race toward electrification is not a sprint, but an endurance race, as BMW notes. If we were to use LeMans as an analogy, BMW qualified on the front row, but didn’t make up much ground in the first quarter of the race. Now it’s out of the pits and looking to make up positions, and this is the story up to that point. 

Discounting the recently-announced BMW iX3, which uses a conventional platform, the BMW iX is only the second BEV from the BMW i sub-brand, a vaguely shocking fact when you consider the last/first BMW i models were launched six years ago, or the entire lifecycle of a modern car. 

BMW’s i3 was way ahead of its time – in 2020, it’s still futuristic as heck

BMW’s first BEV was the i3 of 2014, a true trailblazer around the world, and in Singapore. It was the first BEV to be available to the public and also the first BEV CarBuyer ever drove that we would actually consider owning in the real-world. 

Remember also that BMW debuted its BMW i electrified/green car sub-brand a whole nine years ago in 2011, but the ahead-of-their-time i3 and i8 did not spawn an entire range of i cars, with BMW choosing to introduce PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) variants of nearly all of its existing models instead. 

Jaguar’s I-Pace: Range, aluminium space frame, power…read our review of it in Singapore

Critics say BMW squandered the lead BMW i gave the group, with key competitors (Tesla aside) debuting BEV SUVs as early as two to three years ago: Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Audi (the I-Pace, EQC, and E-Tron, respectively), not to mention mainstream brands like Kia, Hyundai, and Volvo (Kia Niro EV, Hyundai Kona Electric, Volvo XC40 Recharge). 

“The BMW i3 was the icebreaker, it was there when nobody thought about widespread BEV driving. We brought it to market and said ‘This is the future’, Frank Weber, the BMW Group board member in charge of Development, told CarBuyer in a conference call. 

Flashback: Talking BMW i in 2011

The i3 and i8 will account for ‘only a few percentage points’ of BMW sales – Dr Ian Robertson, then Board Member for Sales and Marketing (below), told CarBuyer in an interview in 2011.  The real point of the i3 and i8 programme is to provide spin-off ideas that can trickle across the BMW range, we said back then, and it’s happening now.

“Will we have a full carbon fibre shell in the 7 Series? No. But we will make more use of it to take lightweight structures and bring strength to the areas where we know it’s important,” says Dr Robertson. “That’s why we’re pushing the boundaries on one area which will ultimately have applications on another area.”

That implies that the i3 and i8 will be valued not purely by their showroom performance. Though it wouldn’t exactly harm BMW’s image to have them flooding the streets, their real presence will probably be felt in how they influence the mainstream cars that the world’s leading premium carmaker will be building tomorrow.

Of course, the i8 will be put on sale at supercar pricing, so it’s likely to be a rare sight whatever happens. When it comes down to it, then, perhaps the best way to judge its success will be to take a careful look at the posters on the bedroom walls of car enthusiasts around the world.

The i3 sold well for a pioneering BEV, with 200,000 units produced, but compare that to a long-standing BMW mainstay, the 3 Series, which sold 359,211 units in 2019 alone, and you can begin to see why BMW shifted its focus to PHEVs in the interim (see box). 

Frank Weber, the BMW Group board member in charge of Development,

“(After the i3) we developed a strong fleet of PHEVs because consumers asked for it – they wanted zero emissions as well as range – and now we have the most successful fleet of PHEVs in the world, so far,” added Weber. The PHEV move gives BMW a European market position equal to Tesla’s (10 percent) when ‘xEVs’ (battery and plug-ins) are taken into account. 

With history in mind, it’s best to see the iX not as a direct continuation of the i cars that came before, but an almost total revamp for BMW i, as well as the brand as a whole. We said as much in our report on the concept iNext from the Los Angeles Motorshow in 2018

“BMW i products are not things we do regularly .The ‘i’ in BMW i stands for ‘inspiration’,” says Weber, referring to the fact that the iX is the BMW brand, and arguably the BMW Group’s, new flagship. “BEVs are now more important, and now it’s time to bring the next generation.” 

What’s next? iNEXt

While the iX is a Tesla-rivalling car in and of itself, how BMW has evolved its approach to build it, and the BMW that will follow, is just as fascinating. 

“The iX represents (the brand’s constant re-invention) in an extremely concentrated form,” said Zipse in the car’s press release. With the latest developments in everything from artificial intelligence to networking and cloud computing, in addition to BMW’s latest actual ‘car tech’, the IX will be the trailblazer for BMW’s to come. 

More importantly, BMW looks to have the fundamental technology sorted: Electric drive systems and a new platform. 

BMW’s 5th-gen eDrive on the test bench

The iX will use the fifth-generation of BMW’s electric drive tech. The first was on the 2013 BMW i3 with 22.6kWh, the second improved energy density with the same housing but an increase to 33kWh in 2016, third iteration in 2018 up to 42.2kWh. The fourth-gen is found in the current-gen BMW PHEV models, such as the X3 xDrive30e, and allow for increased electric-only range of up to 50km, up from 30+km in the previous iteration.

As revealed in our story on the BMW iX, the car is more efficient than competing luxury EV SUVs, so it’s able to have a longer range with a similar sized battery capacity, despite being a larger vehicle.

Weber puts that down to BMW’s own expertise in e-drive systems: It builds its own motors and power electronics at its EV production plant in Dingolfing. That expertise was what allowed BMW to make the iX’s motors without the use of rare earths (neodymium, beryllium), a key aspect of EV sustainability. 

iX packs BMW’s newest electric drive technology

Fans of BMW’s high-performance history will be glad to know the brand has not forgotten its high-revving roots in aircraft, motorcycle, and of course automobile engines. 

“When you compare the performance of our motor to ones supplied to the market, ours is much better especially at higher speed and rpm as the torque doesn’t degrade. Since we are Bayerische Motoren Werke, this was an important thing for us,” said Weber of the new-generation electric motors. 

While BMW currently uses suppliers (Northvolt, Samsung, CATL) to source battery cells, the company has a “deep knowledge of the entire process, we can talk on the same level as our suppliers and make the best cell we can think of,” says Weber. In fact, BMW is building a pilot production plant near Munich for battery cells, which could even see it produce some of its own power-packs in the future. 

Continue to page 2: New platform, new electric drive – and the electric M?

about the author

Derryn Wong
CarBuyer's chief editor has a keen interest in all things mechanical, technological, animal and mineral. He's particularly fascinated by eco-cars and cars which make no logical sense. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he also enjoys cats. Follow him on Instagram @werryndong