Sustainable cars: BMW i8

The Scottish Highlands is an unusual destination to test the new i8. BMW‘s hybrid performance car is a highly advanced piece of machinery – it’s complex mechanisms hidden beneath an almost futuristic shell. This remote part of Scotland has an untamed beauty where nature is at its purist; and as our small charter plane lands in Inverness, it feels a million miles away from the high-tech world where the i8 was born. This is one of the most daring cars of late – certainly in the sustainable category – and I am seriously excited to step inside and explore.

There has been quite a long prelude to this day. The initial Vision EfficientDynamics study was shown to us almost five years ago. It was revolutionary in design. It broke away from conventional automobile aesthetic introducing non-automotive materials and applications to the exterior and interior. It had a pioneering LifeDrive architecture, looked futuristic, spacey, exciting. The i8 production car retains the drama – perhaps not the full intensity but enough to command attention.

The proportions are that of a classic sports car; elongated bonnet, stretched sexy roofline, short overhangs, long 2,800mm wheelbase, and big 20-inch wheels. The i8 though looks unique with its overlapping and interlocking surfaces and visible aerodynamic aids – especially as you catch sight of the rear fender on the wheel arch from the wing mirrors. It has playful scissor doors that open forwards and upwards, and intricately-designed full LED slender lights at the front and rear.



‘The i8 delivers a lot with very little emissions, but with great if not better emotion,’ says Benoit Jacob. A little while ago I caught up with the head of BMW i design who explained that he encourages his team to take a completely fresh approach to designing the i cars. For the i8, they studied gliders and sailing boats that move with natural energy. He told me it is designed ‘by the wind not the design team; it is dictated by nature’ and as a result this is a highly efficiently aerodynamic sculpture.

Inside is slightly tilted towards the driver in BMW fashion and the occupants sit low as you would expect in a sports car. The leather trim, treated with natural substances, covers the slim seats, extending to parts of the centre console, overlapping instrument panel and interior door panels. Elements of the carbon-fibre passenger cell, so much at the heart of this car, are exposed as you (try to) artfully enter and exit this low car via the scissor doors.

The plug-in hybrid runs on a turbocharged three-cylinder engine-electric motor duo with a combined 357hp and 155-mph top speed, yet the i8 boasts 135mpg efficiency figures. Handling is agile and steering is precise, but as much as this is a performance car, it goes beyond a sports car. Once the doors are shut, you are cocooned in a delicate, quite space where you can then choose how to drive: glide in the city on the electric motor or kick the throttle for a completely different experience on the open road.

The contrast is incredible as you switch from Comfort to Sport mode. The instrument panel switches from light blue to hot red, the roaring engine note kicks in, and you as a driver take on a new role yet the interior environment somehow takes the element of aggression out. Jacob is very much aware of the importance of directing driver behaviour in these i cars. He feels his role here is ‘to design the behaviour of the people driving these cars’. After all sustainable driving needs to be about more than saving energy.

Like many other carmakers, BMW feels there is still a valid case for investing in sports cars; that the desire will not wane. And there should be a place for sports cars in the age of sustainability – carmaker just need to create them more intelligently. We experience very little emission and greater emotion as we drive through the Highlands, reflecting the weather as the sky dramatically transforms from piercing sunshine, to torrential rain. There is hardly a car in sight. We are almost drifting in near silence celebrating the environment.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

More about the drive here BMW i8 hybrid performance car.

Read our review of the BMW i3 here and our previous reports leading up to the BMW i brand in Wallpaper*.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK 
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design

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In talk with Benoit Jacob head of BMW i design

BMW announced the birth of its new e-mobility sub-brand i at the start of 2011, created to focus entirely on finding sustainable driving solutions. Since, we have been introduced to two concept cars – the i3 and i8 – that together reflect some of the design and engineering thinking that we should expect from the marque’s eco-arm.

The cars represent the two extreme poles of BMW – i3 is an all-electric urban run-around designed for dense megacities, i8 a a part-electric high-performance car. They share a strong aesthetic that will be developed further for the i brand, an innovative modular architecture that is at the heart of all these cars, and a high degree of connectivity that makes these cars almost like personal electronic gadgets.

Here Benoit Jacob head of BMW i Design explains further

How long did it take to design the BMW i3 and i8 concept cars?

For the first two i concepts the phases were organised slightly differently [from the normal car design process]. Since we had no predecessor on which to base our ideas, we had to develop the cars from scratch.

To begin with we generated ideas and decided on the line we wanted to take, from progressive to conservative. We adopted a very experimental approach to this phase – we didn’t just rethink the drive system, we reviewed the entire production process.

Of course, there were a few tried-and-tested ideas we could fall back on, including concept vehicles like the Vision EfficientDynamics. Interestingly, development of the first two vehicles took only about six months longer than the normal design process.

What technical innovations will have a key influence on car design?

In principle, today’s cars come as fully developed, highly complex and virtually perfect products. So as long as circumstances remain the same, design will continue to follow this 100-year-old line of development.

At BMW i we are constantly questioning existing solutions and have been able to develop an entirely new formal vocabulary thanks to innovations such as electric drives and lightweight construction.

To what extent is there cooperation between designers and developers?

As a designer it is absolutely vital that I comprehend each stage of the technological development in meticulous detail. Only then can we as the design team fully understand our development colleagues and marry the new technology to our formal vocabulary.

How do you see the future of automotive design?

One thing is certain: personal mobility, and therefore automotive design will continue to play a significant role in future. I think we’ll see a lot more innovations in the field of drive technology in the years ahead.

These might be electric drives, hybrids, vehicles powered by hydrogen or even technologies we haven’t discovered yet. And as these technologies find their expression in automotive design, they in turn will bring a new look to our roads.

BMW makes premium cars, but how would you define this in the context of the i cars?

BMW i symbolises ‘next premium’ – this is the term we use to redefine the premium concept, widening it to embrace future requirements and the need for sustainability of i vehicles.

For some time we have been observing a change in the way people are beginning to take individual responsibility for the environment. In future we will also see changes in what the consumer expects from products, in particular where sustainability is concerned.

We have to acknowledge this development in the design process and continue the trend. That’s why we have to redefine premium. For us, premium is not only defined by quality excellence in materials, surfaces and details, but also to a great extent by the manufacture and selection of sustainable materials right along the value chain.

Next premium is therefore an entirely new combination of premium and sustainability and reflects not only our corporate philosophy but also a new way of thinking for society as a whole.

What is the central message of the i design philosophy?

BMW i represents visionary automobiles and a new understanding of premium mobility with a consistent focus on sustainability. At the same time our work is all about alternative drive systems, technical innovations, production processes and the use of sustainable materials. The entire design process at BMW i is geared to this.

Our first two concept cars demonstrated the bandwidth of the new design idiom at BMW i. But between and beyond these two there’s still plenty of room for manoeuvre. As for what we’re working on for the future, you’ll just have to wait and see.

How can automotive design play a role in shaping our society?

Our society is increasingly shaped by our virtual presence. In spite of this, we still have to manage a lot of real-world mobility. In other words, our spatial interaction will continue as before – and so will our need to move from one point to another.

So mobility is set to remain a very fundamental requirement, one we must place within a much wider context. For us in the automotive industry that means constantly looking at ways to help improve mobility and ultimately make our surroundings more harmonious. As far as the future of mobility is concerned, I believe we are at the beginning of an entirely new era.

Read more on the two i cars here as well as interviews with BMW Group design director Adrian van Hooydonk as the cars were unveiled in 2011 published in Wallpaper*

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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Klaus Bischoff: Volkswagen’s Up

Volkswagen has a strong history of building solid, well engineered and modestly designed cars. You know you’re in reliable company with VW if not always in an exciting one. This is why project Up has been an interesting one to follow. This is a family of affordable cars designed for cities around the world.

The project has been brewing for a few years. Our first teasers came in 2007 in the shape of the Up Concept at the Frankfurt Motor Show followed shortly by the Up Lite at the Los Angeles show. These were visionary design propositions – more product design than automotive.

Last month we drove the first production car to be born out of this initiative – a small modest city car that seats four passengers and is offered in the same format to a world audience (read the road test around Rome here).

Before the drive we caught up with director of VW design Klaus Bischoff to discuss the Up family, and the marque’s position in finding viable solutions for mobility in 2012 megacities.

Klaus Bischoff director of design at Volkswagen

Design Talks. With the Up family in many ways you’re returning to your brand’s real heritage of making small, global, affordable cars. What is the idea behind this project that you initially proposed with the first concept in 2007?

Klaus Bischoff. The Up is a new space on the new family platform and a global activity. We are showing different drivetrain options – from combustion engines down to electric mobility that will come on to the market in 2013.

DT. The Up design language seems stripped of unnecessary surface decoration – it has a reduced aesthetic. Was this intentional?

KB. Yes. But you can only achieve a simple design if you have a simple package and did your homework with the engineers. It is easier to allow engineers to make the overhang longer, bonnet higher and wheels smaller. Then you need to add some styling to camouflage what is wrong in the package. We work in a team with the engineers to create the right package much like product design. The package is simple but we think ingenious – like your iPhone.

DT. How would you describe the DNA the Up?

KB. The Up is about purity, simplicity and affordability. Simplicity means the face has to be absolutely unique and sympathetic. We therefore used the Transporter face with the VW badge as the nose, the lights with the shut line as the eyes combination and the grille as the mouth. We have cleverly packaged the opening for cooling in the grille and worked hard in the wind tunnel to make this design possible. It is original and characteristic.

DT. The electric Up seems to be the most visually futuristic of the six variants.

KB. I’m happy you think so. This will be a more expensive car and so the customer will want to say my car is electric with my special lights and chrome wheels. On the wheel cap are metal spring flaps that opens to let air in and heat out but when shut it perform the best aerodynamics. It is a very clever design. It also features the new LED lights so when it’s working the whole element around the grille lights up to say: ‘I am electric’.

DT. Tell us about the other members of the Up family.

KB. We are showing face variations on the Up group to say what’s possible on such a platform. The Up Buggy is a showpiece – it has a strong remembrance of our heritage but transported to a contemporary life. There is the Cross Up and the Azzura Up inspired by yachts that is beautifully crafted and looks expensive.

DT. What message are you conveying with the single seat electric Nils concept?

KB. We wanted to create a new solution for urban mobility, but to transport the VW design DNA – to show that our clean design approach is able to jump into the future.

DT. How does the design express this?

KB. It is clean and all shut lines have a function with the rear reserved for batteries and the electric engine. The lower windows allow you to see the turning wheels when you drive which is very spectacular. You feel at home straight away as it carries on the heritage of VW with a strong focus on ergonomics and engineering.

DT. How difficult was it to design this car?

KB. It was a demanding task to reduce the shape in such a dramatic manner and incorporate only one driver. We also had to fight to get these large wheel sizes as the engineer wanted to make them smaller – the usual game.

DT. Will we see the Nils as a production vehicle and how does it feed into your overall future strategy for urban mobility?

KB. If we get a good reaction then we will decide on what to do next. We are heavily investigating future mobility. We think mobility solutions need to be diverse to answer all needs so if you don’t have the money for this you go for an e-scooter like we showed in Shanghai, and if not an e-bicycle.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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