Can the company that touts itself as the ultimate driving machine produce an electric car using environmentally-friendly materials and still perform like a BMW?
The German-luxury brand claims it has done just that with the compact i3, its first battery electric car formally unveiled today and touted by BMW for its construction and performance.
It is BMW's latest effort to innovate and keep ahead of its chief rivals — Mercedes-Benz and Audi. BMW is the top-selling luxury brand in the world and United States, and is betting the ambitious i3 will help pad its lead.
"We are at the starting-blocks of a new era — the era of sustainable mobility," CEO Norbert Reithofer said today while introducing the i3 in New York. "This is what BMW is known for. Our passion for mobility makes us the premium car company."
He vowed the i3 and electric mobility will do for individual mobility what the mobile phone has done for personal communication.
The i3 is the "world's first mass-produced car" using carbon fiber reinforced plastic, BMW says.
The car is also expected to help BMW meet more stringent fuel economy and emissions requirements in the United States and elsewhere in coming years.
The five-door, rear-wheel drive compact i3 has the footprint of the 1-series, the smallest BMW sold, and the interior room of the 3-series compact car.
The car — aimed primarily at urban users in densely populated cities — has a pillar-less design with rear coach doors for easier rear-seat access. Vehicle dimensions were not released today.
It is equipped with a carbon-fiber reinforced plastic passenger cell, an interior of "high quality renewable sources and recycled material," and weighs only 2,700 pounds, BMW said.
The company has invested $796 million (600 million euros) in production facilities for the car, including installing annual capacity of 40,000 units at its Leipzig, Germany, plant, and building a new factory in the United States at Moses Lake, Wash., to produce carbon fiber for the passenger cell.
BMW is launching the i3 at a time when volume brands such as Nissan, Toyota, General Motors and Audi have scaled back their electric-car programs or offered aggressive incentives or price cuts to stimulate sales.
"After the earlier hype about electric cars, the expectations for the i3 are now so low that BMW is actually in a position to positively surprise with that car," said Juergen Pieper, an analyst with Bankhaus Metzler in Frankfurt.
Life, drive modules
One of the key advantages is that the i3 doesn't compromise interior space, BMW said.
The i3 architecture has two modules which BMW calls the "life module" and the "drive module."
The life module is the passenger cabin made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic that is as strong as steel but 50 percent lighter — and even 30 percent lighter than aluminum, the company said.
The high tensile strength of the carbon fiber gives added protection to the passenger cell. But according to BMW that also means it could use a smaller and lighter lithium-ion battery that requires less charging time and increases range.
Although the interior has more environmentally sound materials, it has the "same premium feel," of the mid-sized 5-series sedan, BMW said. About 25 percent of the plastics in the interior and the thermoplastics used for the exterior come from recycled or renewable sources, the company said.