Ian Robertson is the man in charge of sales and marketing for BMW. So, when he tells Autocar that his company is currently deciding whether the next i car will be a stretched version of the i3 — sort of a small MPV — or a sedan similar to the upcoming Tesla Model 3, it’s worth paying attention. “You will see more i products,” said Robertson, “and we are in the final stages of deciding what the next car will be and when you’ll see it.”
BMW will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2016. The i5 may be used to highlight that event. “We will look back 100 years at that point, but mainly into the future,” Robertson says. Klaus Froehich, head of R&D for BMW, has said that whatever the next i car turns out to be, it won’t be ready for production until at least 2020.
Industry observers have been speculating for some time about what sort of powertrain the i5 might have. Last year, the leading contender was a hydrogen powered fuel cell configuration, based upon BMW’s close cooperation with Toyota on several future projects. While it is known that BMW is researching fuel cells, it also is interested in selling the cars it creates. With the hydrogen infrastructure virtually nonexistent at present, it seems unlikely BMW would go in that direction.
Robertson admits that sales of the i3 have been somewhat lower than expected. Initially, the company had trouble keeping up with demand, as it learned how to mass produce the car’s innovative carbon fiber chassis. But those teething problems have long since been solved. “We see lots of outside factors involved,” he says, “including range anxiety, incentives in some countries but not in others, and the price of fuel [in the United States]. But sales of the i3 are up 60% year on year and it’s the third best-selling EV in the world. We’re convinced the i steps have been right.”
Robertson’s comment about range anxiety is spot on. As good a car as the i3 is, the charging infrastructure to meet the needs of electric car drivers is still in its infancy. BMW and Nissan are partnering to install 500 DC fast chargers in 25 major US cities by the end of 2016, but that is still far less than the number of SuperCharger locations Tesla owners have access to. US customers prefer the i3 with the range extender engine because it eases some of that range anxiety Robertson refers to.
If I could make a modest proposal to BMW, it would be this. Tesla already plans to offer the Model 3 as a sedan and a crossover. The proposed BMW i5 should, theoretically, offer buyers a similar option … and it could benefit having the same powertrain as the much-loved BMW i8 supercar available as a REX option (like in the i3 REX).
People really do worry about running out of battery power when they are away from home, and the i8 hybrid’s system completely eliminates that fear, which may be the main reason why the i8 has a substantial backlog of orders right now while the i3 does not. Simply put: BMW does not have to have the same ideological commitment to electric cars that Elon Musk prefers. Elon is trying to save the world, in other words, but BMW wants to sell cars and make money, and “saving the world” doesn’t always sell BMWs.
Perhaps, someday, plug-in hybrid cars like the new Chevy Volt will be seen as crude compromises. For now, though, they calm the range anxiety fears that people have and help to create evangelists that can promote the idea that electric power is really all that’s needed.