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.

The i3’s range is a claimed 155 km (about the same as a Leaf). BMW is hedging its bets here by offering a range-extender option, surely aimed at the hesitant North American market.

BMW i8 concept
BMW i8 concept
BMW i3 concept
BMW i3 concept
i8 (top two photos) and i3 concepts (bottom photos). Click image to enlarge

Check this box and you get a very small (size to be determined) internal combustion engine that snuggles in beside the rear-mounted electric drive motor. It acts purely as a generator to keep the battery charged (similar to the Chevy Volt), and while it doesn’t impinge on cargo space, the BMW engineers made it clear this is an element that compromises the purity of the concept—it adds weight, adversely affects weight distribution and burns fossil fuels.

The i3’s electric traction motor puts out 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, giving it a top speed of 150 km/h. BMW’s holistic approach to environmentally friendly materials and processing is demonstrated inside, where the dash and door panel feature natural fibres, the leather is vegetable-tanned using olive leaf extract, and the wood veneer is open-pore eucalyptus that needs no mechanical processing.

Speaking with Helmut Stadler, BMW Canada’s i Project Manager, he’s cautiously optimistic about the program. “We have a more promising starting point here than in the US.” he says, citing our growing interest in EVs, highlighted by Montreal’s Electric Mobility Canada (EMC) conference that in a few years has gone from a handful of participants to 560 delegates.

“We have to overcome our fear—communicate what the car can do and what you can do with it.” Europeans seem to “get” electric cars more so than North Americans—range anxiety is not a major issue there. It helps that most big cities have a comprehensive charging infrastructure.

Bookending the i Project is the i8, arriving first as a 2+2 coupe. This CFRP spectacle will be toned down a bit for production (it keeps its cool scissor doors though), but the mechanicals look promising. Unlike the i3, the i8 is built as a hybrid. A small turbocharged three-cylinder 220 hp/221 lb-ft gas engine powers the rear wheels while a 170-hp electric motor juices the front end. Weighing in at 1,480 kilograms, BMW says the i8’s projected fuel consumption is 2.7 L/100 km. And yes, this halo greenie is supposed to go as good as it looks. Claims include a zero to 100 km/h dash in under five seconds, a 32-km EV range and a top speed of 250 km/h. Battery charge time on a Level 2 charger is about an hour and a half.

While it’s all too easy for cynics and pragmatists to view these cars as eco-trinkets for solvent early adopters (which at this stage of the game they surely will be) you have to give kudos to BMW for looking at a very big picture with the i project.

The plant in Moses Lake, Washington, which produces the carbon fibre for the i cars operates fully on hydro-electric power, and the assembly facility in Leipzig uses only 100 percent renewable energy. The cars utilize a high component of recycled and renewable materials, and being constructed almost entirely of carbon-fibre, corrosion is not an issue so the vehicles should enjoy a long life span.

Which brings us to pricing. You know the i3 will cost more than your run-of-the-mill (can we say that?) Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi iMiEV, or Ford Focus EV, but by how much? All they can say is the i3 will be less than the 5 Series, which currently starts at $54,500. And what about the über-sexy i8 Coupe? Stadler tells me, “It won’t be our most expensive car, and it won’t be our cheapest.”

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