BMW i3 concept
BMW i3 concept. Click image to enlarge

Auto Tech: BMW and Carbon Fibre Plastics

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BMW Canada

Article and photos by Peter Bleakney

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BMW i3 and i8 concepts

New York City, NY – If a brief drive through the insanely congested Manhattan streetscape in a fully electric BMW ActiveE was any indication, life with the upcoming i3 compact EV should be, at the very least, entertaining.

During the few brief moments when we got to test the acceleration of the 1 Series–based ActiveE, it convincingly bolted through traffic and showed the classic BMW feelsome steering and rear-drive attitude. Considering the i3 will be about 600 kilograms (1,300 lb.) lighter, we could be in for some fun.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Against a backdrop of global warming and endless gas station lineups courtesy of hurricane Sandy, BMW’s timing was pretty good for the North American premiere of its super sexy i8 Roadster concept hybrid sports car and the aforementioned i3 megacity EV concept.

BMW i3 concept
BMW i3 concept. Click image to enlarge

And while these two cars may appear to be as far removed from our reality as was the sight of Uma Thurman helping pull the wraps off the i8 at the glitzy Manhattan VIP bash, they are very close to what will be available in Canada come spring of 2014.

BMW is coming late to the EV party, at least as far as consumer product goes, although the 2009 MINI E and 2011 ActiveE 1 Series lease and rental programs currently account for 33 million test kilometers.

Those prototypes were electrified versions of internal-combustion cars, which, while cost effective, illustrate the weight spiral associated with using these platforms. A couple of porkers for sure, each checking in at around two tonnes.

BMW i3 concept Life Module.
BMW i3 concept “Life Module.” Click image to enlarge

The “i” cars aggressively attack this issue by incorporating a full carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger compartment (Life Module) over an all-aluminum Drive Module that houses the battery and running gear. BMW’s CFRP is fifty percent lighter than steel, thirty percent lighter than aluminum, and considerably stronger than both. Plus it can take on just about any form. The benefit of this modularity is the ability to reconfigure the passenger cells without having to re-engineer the whole car. As one BMW engineer noted, “There are four numbers between i3 and i8.”

If the BMW folks are to believed, the i3 will be far from some kind of futuristic eco-penalty box. They are touting rear-wheel drive, 50:50 weight distribution, classic Bimmer dynamics and the ability to smoke a Nissan Leaf (is that legal?) thanks to its near 400 kg weight advantage over the Nissan and 70 more horses.

The i3’s very rigid CFRP shell means thick B-pillars are not needed for structural integrity. The concept’s “barn doors” likely won’t make it to production, but it will use this shell. Expect a five-door, five-seat hatchback with mid-size interior dimensions despite its compact footprint.

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