‘We want to demonstrate that something that at first glance may have been a drawback or a problem can be a new opportunity,’ says Benoît Jacob. ‘This is probably something no one had asked for before but then who asked for a phone without buttons before the iPhone?’ Head of design for BMW i told me a little while before the official launch of the i3 production car.
This is the first car to be born out of this electric sub-brand. And we were amongst the first to put this all-electric car to the test. The drive that took us through London in frustrating morning traffic jam, to peaceful winding suburban roads onto the motorway and around a racetrack allowed ample opportunity to put the i3 through the test.
The i3 is a surprisingly fun little car to run around in. The rear-wheel drive allows for an entertaining driving experience. Electric driving takes a little getting used to, but once you’ve mastered the acceleration, which is instant as is the breaking when you lift off of the pedal, then it feels quite natural to glide along in near silence, quietly letting the world float by.
Inside is light, bright and airy – and you sit high which works well for city driving. There is no B-pillar and the coach doors lend the car a very distinctive look. All this has been made possible with the clever modular LifeDrive architecture allowing the design team to free up a great deal of space in this small city car. All the mechanical parts are stored in a flat and low aluminium Drive structure whilst the carbon-fibre passenger cell, the Life part, sits neatly on top.
‘For these cars we had to find a new language of shape that expresses this new premium, intelligent, clean and safe drive,’ says director of BMW Group design, Adrian van Hooydonk. ‘It has to look futuristic to reflect the technology, look fun to drive and show that electric cars aren’t slow.’
The i3, as well as the i8 that will follow shortly, do have their own unique BMW electric vernacular that reflects the lightness and cleanness of its construction and engineering, yet retains a link to BMW design that expresses power and driving pleasure. Not at any point do we feel we’re driving a silly toy car – even around the racetrack the i3 is solid and in control.
The profile is distinctive; the rear resembles an electronic gadget, yet the face retains a strong automotive link. Electric cars don’t require much air intake to cool the engine – especially all-electrics like the i3. Yet the car interprets the classic BMW kidney grille, here covered, to maintain the family resemblance for ‘instant recognisability and premium promise,’ notes, van Hooydonk.
There is a conscious departure from the typical automotive interior design. The materials used are mainly recycled – the design is clean and clear with a simple layered dash that is dominated by two digital screens. The panoramic roof helps you feel immersed, almost connecting to the surrounding architecture.
What it does is create a calm environment. You’re less likely to have road rage in the i3, for instance. You somehow feel more responsible, and responsive, to other road users. Jacob describes how his team looked at creating an environment that impacts on driver behaviour in much the same way an architect would take into account how people live and move in a building. The designer says the car is almost ‘anti-macho’. He says the i3 isn’t just about cutting emissions but ‘your own sustainability, your health and safety in the city and being respective of other people’. This is new territory for the automotive world.
BMW will be introducing the i8 in the coming year. ‘You rarely get the chance to invent a brand,’ says van Hooydonk of BMW i. ‘Here we designed the logo, the whole form language; the proportions are all new, as are the materials – it doesn’t get much more exciting than this.’