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Better late than never for Bimmer

German automaker gets greener with hybrid, EV concept roadsters

With New York City reeling from the effects of hurricane Sandy, it seemed a fitting location for the North American premiere of BMW’s slinky i8 Concept Roadster hybrid sports car and i3 megacity EV Concept: nothing like waving the green flag against the spectre of global warming and endless gas station lines.

And while these two cars may appear to be as far removed from our reality as was the sight of Uma Thurman helping pull the wraps off the i8 at the glitzy Manhattan V.I.P. bash, these concepts are very close to what will be available in Canada come spring of 2014.

BMW is coming late to the EV party, at least a far as consumer product goes, although the 2009 MINI E and 2011 ActiveE 1 Series lease and rental programs currently account for 33 million test kilometres.

Those prototypes were electrified versions of internal-combustion cars, which, while cost effective, illustrate the weight spiral associated with using these platforms. A couple of porkers, for sure.

The “i” cars aggressively attack this issue by incorporating a full carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger compartment (Life Module) over an all-aluminum Drive Module that houses the battery and running gear.

If the BMW folks are to be believed, the i3 will be far from some kind of futuristic eco penalty box. They are touting rear-wheel-drive, 50:50 weight distribution, classic Bimmer dynamics and the ability to smoke a Nissan Leaf (is that legal?) thanks to its near 400 kg weight advantage and 70 more horses.

The i3’s very rigid CFRP shell means thick B-pillars are not needed for structural integrity. The concept’s “barn doors” likely won’t make it to production, but it will use this shell. Expect a five-door, five-seat hatchback with mid-size interior dimensions despite its compact footprint.

The i3’s range is a claimed 155 km (about the same as a Leaf). BMW is hedging its bets here by offering a range-extender option, surely aimed at the hesitant North American market.

Check this box and you get a very small (size to be determined) internal combustion engine that snuggles in beside the rear-mounted electric drive motor. It acts purely as a generator to keep the battery charged (similar to the Chevy Volt), and while it doesn’t impinge on cargo space, the BMW engineers made it clear this is an element that compromises the purity of the concept — it adds weight, adversely affects weight distribution and burns fossil fuels.

Speaking with Helmut Stadler, BMW Canada’s i Project Manager, he’s cautiously optimistic about the program. “We have a more promising starting point there than in the U.S.” he says, citing our growing interest in EVs, highlighted by Montreal’s Electric Mobility Canada (EMC) conference that in a few years has gone from a handful of participants to 560 delegates.

“We have to overcome our fear — communicate what the car can do and what you can do with it.” Europeans seem to “get” electric cars more so than North Americans — range anxiety is not a major issue there. It helps that most big cities have a comprehensive charging infrastructure.

Bookending the i Project is the i8, arriving first as a 2+2 coupe. This CFRP spectacle will be toned down a bit for production (it keeps its cool scissor doors though), but the mechanicals look promising. Unlike the i3, the i8 is built as a hybrid. A small turbocharged three-cylinder 220 hp/221 lb.-ft. gas engine powers the rear wheels while a 170 hp electric motor juices the front end. Weighing in at 1,480 kg, BMW says the i8’s projected fuel consumption is 2.7 L/100 km. And yes, this halo greenie is supposed to go as good as it looks.

Are there to be more i-cars to come? BMW’s answer: “There are four numbers between i3 and i8.”

While it’s all too easy for cynics and pragmatists to view these cars as eco-trinkets for solvent early adopters (which at this stage of the game they surely will be) you have to give kudos to BMW for viewing a very big picture with the i project.

The plant in Moses Lake, Wash., which produces the carbon fibre for the i-cars operates fully on hydroelectric power, and the assembly facility in Leipzig uses only 100 per cent renewable energy. The cars utilize a high component of recycled and renewable materials, and recycled i batteries are being used as storage units for wind and solar energy. Being constructed almost entirely of carbon-fibre, corrosion is not an issue, so the vehicles should enjoy a long life span.

Which brings us to pricing. You know the i3 will cost more than your run-of-the-mill (can we say that?) Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi iMiEV or Ford Focus EV, but by how much? All they can say is the i3 will be less than the 5 Series, which currently starts at $54,500. And what about the uber-sexy i8 Coupe? Stadler tells me, “It won’t be our most expensive car, and it won’t be our cheapest.”

  • Better late than never for Bimmer
  • Better late than never for Bimmer

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