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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Goodbye to the BMW i3—an Icon of the 21st Century

On a Wednesday afternoon, some time in early 2008, a small group of people gathered in a brick building in Munich, Germany. It was one of the oldest in the area, and sat in the shadow of the BMW-Turm, the company’s famous Karl Schwanzer-designed HQ, better known as the “four-cylinder building.” A senior engineer, Ulrich Kranz, was pacing up and down, a wiry figure with a prominent forehead, receding hair, and a palpably professorial air. 

BMW’s then CEO Norbert Reithofer had appointed Kranz to set up a new mobility think tank, effectively off the books of the Bavarian giant, its existence known only by a select group of senior executives. Although BMW’s design had been completely reframed by the iconoclastic Chris Bangle, this was a company still closely identified at the time with its charismatic internal combustion engines and predominantly rear-drive handling smarts. The marketing guys were in the process of switching the messaging from “the ultimate driving machine” to “efficient dynamics,” but Reithofer knew that was just the start. He was thinking way beyond, to a future as yet unimagined. And unimaginable to many: to a time when conventional engines were extinct. 

Kranz started speaking. The unofficial group was now official, he said, and would be given proper budget. They could emerge from the shadows. Their mission was to develop an electromobility project for BMW, starting from scratch, with the focus on a sports car and a megacity vehicle. He was blunt about the scale of the challenge, and warned them that there would be blood, sweat, and tears. Finally, he said that anyone who wanted to leave was free to do so. Nobody did. 

“We all knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Kai Langer recalls, then a talented young tyro, now the head of BMW’s “i” design. “It was like being in a speedboat running alongside a huge ship.” 

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It might not seem all that long ago, but the EV landscape was still largely barren back then. Tesla’s Roadster had only just entered production, and major automotive OEMs had yet to switch on to the concept of disruption as a positive. So for one of the industry’s biggest players to embark on a program that would result in the mass production of an all-new BEV city car and hybrid coupe was a huge technological gamble. 

The BMW i3 and i8 were the result: cars that put the Bavarian behemoth on a more nimble footing and underscored its willingness to embrace—and make a substantial investment in—radical change. Trailed by a memorable concept car and launched in 2013, the i3 has just ceased production, a car that was so far ahead of the curve it had to wait for its rivals to catch up. In fact, in many cases, we’re still waiting.

Electric Dreams

A small car in physical stature, the i3 was all about the bigger picture. It was a trailblazer for the whole “i” philosophy, a holistic approach to sustainable mobility that encompassed rapidly evolving electric drive systems, a drastic reduction in CO2 emissions and water consumption during production, the use of 100 percent green energy in the manufacturing process, plus the expansion of digital support services and the development of lightweight materials to make the vehicles. 

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This last one was key to the i3, whose weight and structural properties even now remain highly impressive for an EV. Unlocking this was the gateway to the car’s development, as Kranz knew. He spent time with BMW’s experts in the company’s Landshut plant in southeast Germany, trying to figure out a way to combat the weight penalty that was an inevitable consequence of a battery-powered electric vehicle. (Initially, the i3 used a 22-kWh battery, though this grew to 42.2 kWh with a corresponding improvement in range.) 

The answer lay in the i3’s ingenious configuration. The Drive Module combined the powertrain, chassis, and battery; the Life Module was the car’s passenger cell, which BMW decided to make out of CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced polymer). Pioneered by McLaren in Formula One in 1981, and still the preserve of high-end supercars in 2022, carbon fiber is light and strong but complex and expensive to produce. BMW took a stake in American supplier SGL in order to monitor and manage the quality, although the i3 was manufactured—in a fully automated process that used 173 robots and adhesive bonding—in the company’s Leipzig plant, 100 miles southwest of Berlin. “i” was a multibillion-euro bet on a new future. 

The engineering commitment galvanized the design team, too. Now they were free to completely reimagine the car’s form language. At the start, Langer remembers, this was a liberating and largely freestyle process. 

“We were tasked with creating a megacity car. That was all we had. Cities were getting more densely populated without gaining any extra space. So how could we change mobility? A monobox was the most space-efficient format and had the smallest footprint. We drew spaceships, we drew more conventional looking cars. We definitely wanted a positive looking car. A lot of sci-fi movies head into dystopian territory, and design can do that, too. It can also be too aggressive. In fact, it’s easier to go down that road than it is to do something friendly. But we wanted to communicate that you can be responsible and still have fun. We worked incredibly closely with the engineers, very creatively, so when the carbon fiber solution happened we ran with it.” 

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This led to an approach that’s rare in mainstream automotive: exposing a car’s structure. “Typically for German engineers, having decided on carbon fiber, they then decided the material wasn’t good enough. It was an upward spiral. They invented a quick-dry resin that didn’t exist at the time, and tools that did the heating and pressing simultaneously. It was amazing. When we discovered this we knew we had to show this invention, we couldn’t just cover it up,” Langer says.

The result remains fresh today, an almost timeless statement of the possible. The disjointed window line annoyed design purists, but improved the airiness of the interior. That, too, triggered a rethink. “It’s actually much more difficult to be progressive and disruptive in the interior because there are so many components coming together,” Langer says. “The i3 looks focused, it doesn’t look dorky. We’re still car designers, and we’re still into what a car does emotionally. The Segway concept was new back then, and we were impressed by it technically, but you looked like an idiot on that thing. We wanted something that made people look cool.”

Freeform Design

The i3’s exterior design is actually credited to Richard Kim, a Korean American who had only been at BMW for four years when he became part of the “i” team. He’s now the chief design officer (and cofounder) of modular electric vehicle startup Canoo, a role his i3 experience prepared him for. 

“It was a bit like jazz. We were a small team and everyone was trying to play their part and provide a different angle yet come together and create harmony at some point,” he says. “Maybe one of the reasons I was selected to be part of the team is because, while I love cars, I don’t obsess over them. I don’t know every detail, and I’m OK with that, because I don’t feel that I lack information.” 

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“But I love industrial design as a whole, and solving problems. The ‘i’ program allowed the i3 to be whatever it needed to be for that context. We didn’t have to integrate legacy or history, or even processes. I wanted to create ideas that were much more about straight lines and horizontals and verticals.” 

He continues: “Design is about purpose. In a mid-engined supercar the purpose is to be exciting, but for a megacity car it was about progress, electrification, technology, and the user experience. And for that you need a different set of tools and solutions.”

Although BMW invested a fortune in the program, and has since reduced its carbon fiber commitment, Kim insists that the i3’s legacy is everywhere. Its significance stretches beyond the vehicle itself. 

“The numbers and immediate commercial viability aren’t as important as what it did for the long term vision of the brand,” he says. “Look at how it pushed car design—in every area—and you’ll identify the real investment. Interior design and user interface used to be secondary, but BMW elevated it on the i3. The cabin of that car managed and balanced your energy and anxiety levels. It calmed everything down, and used clever, authentic materials. This was really breakthrough stuff, and what the team learned can support the brand for generations.”

We never grew tired of the i3. In fact, its odd trajectory means that it’s going out on a high, arguably more revered now than at any point in its life. It has sold in excess of 250,000 units—not as many as its maker hoped, but fully enjoyed by everyone who did sign up. And although BMW has no plans to directly replace it, its influence is substantial. “Elements of the i3 are in every BMW project, and will be in the 2025 Neue Klasse [the brand’s coming upgraded electric platform]. So it did its job,” Langer says. “A follow-up would just be a follow-up. If we’ve answered a question, why should we answer it again? We need to start asking different questions.” 

Frank Weber, BMW’s current head of development and chief technical officer, sums it up this way. “The i3 is a real hero," he says. “I don’t have to tell you how many people looked at BMW and said, ‘What is all this electric? This will never happen.’ Then every year we were producing more i3s. Every year it was becoming more and more attractive. And now, as we look at the last production year of the i3, the car was never old. It is a unique vehicle, and it has done a lot for BMW. Somehow it carried this message: ‘The future is changing.’”

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