It’s been hard in recent years to tell how seriously BMW takes electric cars. In 2009, BMW-owned Mini put 600 experimental electric Mini Coopers into test fleets, but the cars were clunky and the program was beset with logistical problems. GM and Nissan have both been selling electric cars for nearly a year now; BMW, meanwhile, is preparing to launch another test fleet—1,000 “ActiveEs,” 1-series coupes converted to run on batteries. Then, in July, things seemed to change. The carmaker announced two production plug-in vehicles scheduled to arrive in 2013, an indication that the automaker is going electric in earnest.
First comes the i3, a little urban commuter (just four inches longer than a Mini Cooper) based on BMW’s Megacity Vehicle concept car. An approximately 22-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery will power the i3’s 170-horsepower electric motor, giving it a driving range of 80 to 100 miles on a charge. (BMW will also offer an optional 600cc range-extending two-cylinder gas engine that will generate electricity once the battery runs out.) The body shell will be made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, keeping weight down while making the exterior stiff and crash-resistant. An array of sensor-driven electronics will make the i3 nearly autonomous under certain conditions. In addition to parallel-parking assist, pedestrian detection and other existing safety systems, a feature called Traffic Jam Assistant can take over the accelerator, brakes and steering in stop-and-go traffic slower than 25 mph.
BMW is set to follow the i3 with the i8, a plug-in hybrid sports car running on a 131-horsepower electric motor, a lithium-ion battery pack, and a 220-horsepower, 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine. In the city, the i8 should be good for up to 20 miles of all-electric driving. On the highway, with both powertrains working together, the i8 should dart from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds, with an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. Such performance won’t come cheap: The i8 could cost $160,000. But if that’s too rich, or the i3 is too small, potential buyers should wait a few years. A new sub-brand, BMW i, will produce the i8 and the i3. That’s a clear sign that after years of testing the waters, more plug-in BMWs are on the way.