It’s been three years since BMW announced the creation of its i brand, a range of so-called megacity vehicles that begins with the hybrid-powered BMW i8 sportscar and the all-electric BMW i3 city car.
The i range is conceived to take motoring to the next level of efficiency, using a combination of lightweight construction, electric propulsion and, as BMW chairman Norbert Reithofer promised in 2010, initiatives that would make it possible for anyone with the simple need to get from A-to-B to get in on the action.
The German car maker’s ideas for battery-based motoring were initially presented on the limited-production Mini E and, more recently, the BMW 1-series ActiveE, both of which have been run on carefully monitored fleets as a means of gathering data on driving habits. So far, these two cars have covered almost 10 million miles in testing and, BMW says, provided valuable information, such an average commute for city dwellers around the globe of 26 miles.
Most significant of all, though, has been the appearance of BMW’s advanced i3 city car and sleek i8 sportscar, initially as conceptual models and more recently as fully functioning prototypes. Together, these two futuristically styled, carbon-fibre bodied models will spearhead BMW i’s entry into the ranks of dedicated alternative drive vehicles. The i3 has been conceived primarily for urban use with an all-electric driveline, while the BMW i8 uses a petrol-electric hybrid layout in the interests of performance.
But before they make their world debut in production guise later this year, Autocar was invited to join a team of engineers in north Sweden as they put the final winter test miles on a series of near-to-production mules. Far removed from the pomp and ceremony of a motor show reveal, it is here on snow strewn roads and under sub-zero temperatures where BMW’s new i cars must prove their mettle before they can be considered ready for the showroom.
Riding in the BMW i3 in the snow
The focus of engineering activities less than a year out from launch is the calibration of electric drive systems and cold start compatibility. As we arrive at BMW’s in Arjeplog, ground central to the European automotive industry’s winter test activities, it is the BMW i3 that exits the workshop and we get to ride in first.
Set to underpin BMW i sales, the compact hatchback has been conceived primarily for city use with dimensions that make it 120mm longer, 81mm wider and 132mm higher than the existing Mini Cooper hatchback. It also boasts 200 litres of luggage space behind the rear seats, or 40-litres more than its British-built sibling.
They’ll be two versions of the i3 on offer in the UK later this year, both running an electric drivetrain similar to that used by the 1-series ActiveE. It consists of a rear mounted electric motor that provides 168bhp and 184lb ft to the rear wheels via a fixed gear transmission.
Energy is provided by a lithium-ion battery mounted in the flat floor. It can be charged both through plug-in means and by kinetic electricity produced on run, with the range put at an official 140 miles on the European test procedure or, as BMW suggests, between 80-100 miles in everyday use.
Alongside the standard version of its new city car, BMW will also offer range extender option. It will use a 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine borrowed from its C650 GT step-through motorcycle. The engine fires when the battery level drops to a pre-specified point, acting purely as a generator to produce electricity and help to extend the range to somewhere in the region of 200 miles on an as-yet-unspecified fuel tank – all without any effect on the drive process. The car is expected to cost about £38,000, which puts it in BMW 330d territory in terms of price.