Home » The BMW i3 Was A Design Success, Even If It Was A Failure

The BMW i3 Was A Design Success, Even If It Was A Failure

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It’s probably not escaped your attention there’s been more weirdness than usual happening around here. David has gone full LA and become all fancy, buying himself an actual functioning modern vehicle to drive to the smoothie bar and yoga classes [Editor’s Note: Technically it has a failed battery, though I did recently get my first massage. -DT]. Torch has been expounding about car design, defending the unloved Mini Clubman. Me, supposedly the bougie artistic one? I’ve been getting my hands dirty wrenching. It’s like The Autopian have remade Freaky Friday, only more shit. David’s probably writing the screenplay right now.

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David’s chariot of choice for his new LA lifestyle is the BMW i3, and as a designer, and out of concern for his general wellbeing, I wholeheartedly approve. Of course, being David he bought the cheapest one he could find, and it needs a battery replacement, but still it’s a start. I love the i3 (and its stunning i8 sibling), and you’d struggle to find a professional car designer who doesn’t agree with me. Both cars represented a tremendous leap forward in the way cars are engineered and constructed, a bright shining future of sustainability and ec0-friendliness. But it turned out to be a future never to materialize, a dead end fork in the road in the fast moving EV revolution. We’re constantly hearing legacy OEMs don’t take risks, don’t know what they’re doing, and are committed to peddling the same old shit year in, year out. BMW took one hell of gamble with the i3 and i8, but neither are being directly replaced, so what the hell happened?

The i3’s Roots: The BMW E1

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The i3 didn’t totally appear out of the blue. Like most OEMs, BMW had been doing the usual half-assed attempts at electrification for years, starting with a 1602 with 12 12-volt lead acid batteries under the hood. Two were built, and one was used to pace runners in the marathon at the 1972 Munich Olympics, so the athletes wouldn’t be exposed to lung clogging exhaust fumes. BMW mucked about cramming batteries of differing chemistries under the hoods of various 3 series over the following decades, before in 1991 revealing their first purpose built electric car concept, the E1.

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If you squint hard enough you can trace the genesis of the i3 back to the E1. A three door, four-seater city car, it sort of looked like a puffer fish E30; a pumped-up volume with a body of recycled plastic built upon an aluminum frame; similar to how the i3 would eventually be constructed. The Z11 E1 was only ever intended to be a concept; BMW wanted to see if such a car could be feasible for production, because looming California Zero Emission Vehicle legislation was scaring all the OEMs to death.

They tried again with a second generation Z15 E1 concept, which pulled up the belt line, reduced the glass to body ratio and pushed the wheels right out to the corners. It was lot uglier, but BMW were ingesting the good drugs and getting wild. They built two versions; a pure EV and get this–a four cylinder hybrid, years before Toyota had even dreamt of such a thing. At the time the BMW range consisted of three models for the discerning driver, not the bewildering array of wheeled circus freaks they offer now. So BMW coming up with an EV urban vehicle was like me suddenly wearing a color other than black – an actual WTF moment.

A Stunning Exterior Not Unlike That Of BMW’s Initial Concept

 

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Bmw I3 Concept Production

The i3 we’ve come to know and love was first shown as the Mega City Vehicle concept in 2011. In 2012, London surprised the world by not making a complete dog’s dinner of the Olympics, and BMW used the event to show the prototype i3, prior to a worldwide reveal of the actual car in 2013. A common complaint from the cheap seats is that concepts never make it into production unaltered, but the i3, aside from changes to the full depth glazing and lighting elements, was really as close as it’s feasible to get.

This is the first thing you notice about the i3–it’s utterly distinctive and looks like nothing else on the road. In my early days as a car design student I thought EVs and hybrids should look like “space cars from the future.” I later realized this was a bit naive, because the mainstream is pretty conservative in its taste. No one wants to look like they’ve just beamed down on an away mission to Earth when they’re out running errands.

Famed American industrial designer Raymond Loewe called this the MAYA principle – Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. This is what he said:
“The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”

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In other words, your design should be advanced, but not so advanced as to alienate your customers. You need to ease in radical change gradually. This was what Tesla got right by making its cars anonymously handsome in a generic way – they didn’t really look that different from the norm despite being high tech EVs (early Tesla Model S’s had grilles). By doing things like making the carbon skeleton of the car visible when you opened the doors, BMWs approach was arguably more honest from a design theory point of view, and yet, as much as designers like me venerate them, the BMW pair were a step too far for the masses.

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Sketched by Richard Kim (now the chief designer at Canoo) under the supervision of Benoit Jacob, the i3 is basically a monovolume – a one box design. By moving the wheels to the corners it gains a wicked stance. It has very bold graphics–the black hood and side glazing break up the shape, and continue to the roof which is also black because it’s made from left over offcuts of carbon fiber. Thus blackout continues all the way down the rear windshield and tailgate glass, giving a consistent appearance that separates the bodysides, highlighting how the car is constructed and making it look substantial and solid.

The dip in the window line on the rear doors is the one part I’m not sold on–I’d lower the glass on the front doors to match–but it stops the car looking too blobby and gives it a futuristic vibe, helped by the subtle use of blue as a highlight color. It’s a high tech version of body on frame construction rather than a monocoque, just this time the frame is aluminum and the body is carbon fiber with thermoplastic body panels. The thinking was this would allow BMW to swap a different shape onto the frame at a later date, something that never happened. Because it’s so light and strong, they were able to do away with the B pillar and have rear hinged back doors for better access into the interior.

What An Interior! (Also, Some Words On Sustainability)

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Image: BMW

And what an interior. Inside, BMW used recycled PET bottles for the plastics, plant based leathers and eucalyptus wood–one of the fastest growing trees. BMW wasn’t just paying the usual lip service to sustainability with the i3–they were all in. They built the carbon fiber plant at Moses Lake, Washington because it’s one of the largest sources of hydroelectric power in the world and working with carbon fiber has incredible energy requirements.

Traditionally, carbon fiber required laying up by hand before being baked in an autoclave, taking several days. BMW developed a process called resin transfer molding, where the material was placed in a mold, injected with resin and baked all at once, making it more suitable for volume (but crucially not mass) production. Extensive use of proprietary adhesives minimized the number of metal fasteners needed, again reducing material costs and saving weight. It has big but narrow wheels, to maintain the size of the contact patch while improving aero, especially important for EVs where a low aero count is crucial for efficiency. This kind of clever rethinking of how to build a car as sustainably as possible was central to the design direction of the whole car.

Carbon Fiber Means It Was Lightweight, But Expensive To Build

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What resulted was a premium urban EV that was really roomy and light for its size. The non-range extender version only weighs about 2600lbs (1195kg). More importantly than that, it went and drove like a real BMW. This wasn’t some compromised eco-weenie medical appliance of a car like a Nissan Leaf. It was a genuine, driver focused RWD BMW. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the Chevy Bolt is sort of an i3 drawn by someone being given a description over the telephone, unsuccessfully attempting to ape its surface but not its substance.

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If all this sounds incredibly expensive, hooo boy. It’s estimated BMW spent nearly $3 billion in R&D costs alone. Both the i3 and the i8 were released under the i brand, which was BMWs brand for future alternative powertrain vehicles, like the fuel cell i5 that never appeared. The i3 wasn’t meant to be a massive seller; despite all the effort BMW put into developing carbon fiber manufacturing processes that could be used on a conventional production line, it could never be built quickly or cheaply enough for big volumes, totaling just under 230,000 units over nine years on sale.

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If we include the i8’s rather less successful total sales of 20,000 or so, that R&D cost works out to about $11,000. Per car. So it’s a pretty safe assumption that BMW lost several shirts on every i3 and i8 sold. And this is why they’re not being replaced directly. BMW and other OEMs pretty quickly figured out the only way to scale profitable EV production is to have them share a platform with ICE models and have them come down the same line, even if that means an inherently compromised car that doesn’t take full advantage of the benefits an EV package can offer. Bleeding edge early adopters or weirdos like me apart, the buying public doesn’t want to stand out. They don’t want oddball space cars of the future any more than they want to wear a pair of Snapchat glasses, no matter how stylish they are.

The i3 Was A Failure, But A Special Failure

The BMW i3 and i8 are the kind of cars designers love, because they weren’t just a tinkering of the sheet metal but a wholesale ground up shift of both form and function, something we’re often accused of neglecting. Shit, the chair of my vehicle design course at the Royal College of Art got an i8 into the swanky Design Museum in London, so if that’s not a measure of their design credibility I’ll eat a marker. Great design never comes cheap, and when the margins are slim, cold hard commercial reality sets in, no matter how noble your intentions are. A good designer does well to remember that.

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Photos: BMW

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Scott
Scott
8 days ago

Thank you very much Adrian! While I’ll read most anything about the i3, your particular selection and order of words is better than most. 😉

Also, have you seen/do you have anything to say about those little Telo EV pickups? I put a deposit down on one a couple/few years ago, and was just curious as to what you thought about it.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
1 year ago

Can you please, please please write an article that skewers what bullshit Canoo is? Fake cab forward BS, regular F150 layout inside, but the media loves it because it looks like an old FC jeep? Please trash it. People need to know how misleading the exterior is.

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
25 days ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

Wow. What did Canoo ever do to you? I love it personally, but have never seen one up close.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
24 days ago

It’s fake/misleading design.

https://i.imgur.com/Mhj5Fg0.jpeg

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
24 days ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

Misleading design? Oh the travesty that society has been subject to! This keeps you up at night, seriously?

Firstly FC isn’t doable today because of safety regs; no crush zone. Secondly. The Canoo design make the cabin feel bigger / airier, makes it more aerodynamic, and there’s seems to be a lot more room to store things up front, no to mention a crap ton of legroom. It seems like with the passenger seat removed or folded flat you can carry much longer cargo too.. I get you prefer more traditional two box design, but hey, no one will force you to buy it.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
24 days ago

You drinkin that kool aid, OH YEAH

I prefer honest design. I’d prefer FC design, but as you said, regulations won’t allow it, but that doesn’t mean I want FAKE FC. Might as well just stuff your pants, run fake beadlocks, and put stick on brembo covers on your stock calipers.

Last edited 24 days ago by ADDvanced
Scott
Scott
8 days ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

The VW ID Buzz and the Telo truck are both guilty of the same faux-cabover styling that Canoo uses. There’s plenty of other things to criticize Canoo about… I’m more than willing to give them a pass of pretending to be cabover.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
1 year ago

Oh, is the ‘thumbs up’ button for the article itself gone now, a victim of the new commenting system? That’s a shame… but if that’s the price of gaining edits and notifications, it is a price I’ll happily pay!
Adrian, I agree about the oddball dip in the window line. I can see where that was a vestige of the ‘glass all the way down the door’ concept car, but when they lost the front door glass they should have lost the dip, too, IMO.
I’m interested in the ‘tall but skinny tires maintain contact patch area while improving aero’ comment – I believe it, but I’ve always wondered if the tire contact patch area was all that matters, or the shape (aspect ratio?) of it as well – do you want a contact patch that is wide from left to right but narrow from front to back, or the other way around? Also, isn’t contact patch area primarily the product of corner weight and inflation pressure rather than tire dimensions? If the Autopian could find a tire engineer that would be willing to spill the beans on tire design and selection 101, that would be a real coup!

Ben
Ben
1 year ago

“David’s probably writing the screenplay right now.”

I don’t know that I agree with you about the i3, but this line feels like a very satisfying payoff to multiple articles worth of setup. Writing a screenplay is definitely the next step in David’s LA-ification.

Gee See
Gee See
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Hopefully doesn’t include murder… that would be too easy.

You Audi Know
You Audi Know
1 year ago

I guess what I’ve always been confused by with the i3 was, if it was never intended for mass production, why was it deemed a failure? What would success have looked like? Selling more seems like it would’ve just meant more money lost. I’d be curious whether people inside BMW consider this a failure, just because I’m not sure what else they wanted to get out of it. Plus, I know for me the biggest hesitation on the i3 was always the range. If there are any modern battery tricks that could get it to 200miles range today, (vs. 153) I think the model would have a far bigger market.

Amschroeder5
Amschroeder5
1 year ago

Now I’m not necessarily saying that the base premise is wrong [and in-fact it probably isn’t], I’m not the designer here… but little of this article seemed to actually note why it was ‘advanced’ technically, as opposed to eccentric or deviant. Unusual styling is not inherently advanced. All improvement is change, not all change is improvement, and I would be hard pressed to claim most of these changes as being improvements in technical senses (even if I didn’t want to argue the validity of the aesthetic ‘advances’). A wicked stance, bold graphics, substantial appearance, futuristic vibes has nothing to do with ‘advanced’ design. The note about effective monobox design is certainly true, but I think looking at the inside volume, the interior is not nearly as ‘advanced’ as the promise of the vague outline. To me it is akin to an inflated (longer, wider, heavier, more powerful) N-Box, which ofc launched 2 years earlier. The inherent limitations of the i3, due to electrification technology of the time, makes the comparison even less favorable with the i3 being often confined to the spaces where its power and handling dynamics just are not as relevant.

As a side note, I don’t agree with the characterization of the carbon fiber processing. Two separate materials got conflated. Carbon Fiber Reinforced Carbon (CFRC, C/C) vs Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP). Graphitized CFRC is not remotely similar in its use-cases or manufacturing to CFRP (much more akin to fiberglass parts), and BMW, at least at the time of the i3, did not invent or imo substantively advance the overall capabilities of RTM. RTM using glass fibers at first, carbon fiber as well later on, had been a common process by the 80s, and while the i3 certainly is the first consumer vehicle to use a heavily CFRP structure, RTM was not new to the automotive industry, and CFRP *certainly* was not new as an engineering material in the late 2000s (assuming development started at least 2 years before the concept car). More ‘rare’ at that point would be noting the hemp reinforced plastic door panels, which is only now being explored at a more performance oriented perspective in racing as a more sustainable alternatives to CFRP.

Use of adhesives strongly reduces sustainability, not improves it, because local failure requires much more non-local reapplication and mechanical (metallic or otherwise) joints/parts can often be recycled or repurposed in ways that adhesives generally cannot. And many of the adhesives use these same compounds being banned by the EU and others for their health hazards and extreme duration within the environment.

Last edited 1 year ago by Amschroeder5
Scott
Scott
1 year ago

Not sure I’d consider the i3 a ‘failure’ …to me, finding 230,000 buyers over nine years for a car SO gleefully weird in design and novel in construction seems impressive.

I’ve driven several i3s, and helped a few friends buy them. I shopped for one of my own during the pandemic, but didn’t find a suitable candidate within my price range. I still plan/expect to purchase a non-REX i3, since 98% of my drives are short, around-town trips, and the i3 excels at that (if I spent hours on interstates, of course I’d get something else).

Adrian, I enjoyed your design analysis very much. 🙂 I too prefer the concept’s bigger front windows, but I’m happy that most of the oddness made it to production.

A question for TinyScorpion re: ‘The Sparks Movie’ …are the Sparks brothers the same Sparks who had an early 80s pop single called ‘Cool Places’ with Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Gos? I was a fan in my youth. 🙂

Also: another notable/early i3 appearance was in the short-lived network science fiction show ‘Extant’ which was perhaps more memorable for Halle Berry’s bouncing around than it was for what kind of car she drove.

William Domer
William Domer
1 year ago
Reply to  Scott

So true, I was looking pre Covid as the depreciation was amazingly insane. Covid etc. seems to have kicked up the cost a few k, but I still look, and since in my personal repertoire my newest car is from 1999, the potential of going next century is kinda fun.

Drvn 2 Wn
Drvn 2 Wn
1 year ago

I test drove an i3 recently and considered replacing my e90 M3 with it (yes, seriously). In the end I wasn’t willing to part with the M3 and the prices are still too high on the used i3’s that are most desirable (’18+, leather seating, REX). Even with the used EV tax credit I couldn’t bite the bullet. The real culprit – the tires. Even with my overall savings and the car still being fun to drive (fun fact – it’s faster than the m3 to about 45mph, which covers basically every legal fun acceleration need), the fact that there is only one tire manufacturer for the car and the tires wear out in ~10k miles meant that would be a large, nearly annual cost – which I suspect will increase as the supply for tires will likely shrink over time now that the car is fully out of production. Even though the tires are small, they are similar to the cost of tires for my M3, which only need replacement about every 3-4 years.

3laine
3laine
1 year ago
Reply to  Drvn 2 Wn

My last set of i3 tires lasted 25k miles and cost $600 to replace at Costco (might be more, now, but not exorbitant). I also returned two different leased i3s with ~20k miles on them and BMW said the tires were acceptable for lease return, which is a higher bar than normal replacement. I don’t know what the people are doing to get only 10k miles out of a set of tires.

OverlandingSprinter
OverlandingSprinter
1 year ago

Of course, being David he bought the cheapest one he could find, and it needs a battery replacement, but still it’s a start. 

Comedy gold.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
1 year ago

Personally I love the style of the i8 much more and I think it will be a future classic purely from a design/style perspective. If I had the money to collect cars, the i8 would be one car I would get.

I like the style of the i3 interior much more than the exterior. The exterior has too much weird to it in my opinion.

But the main reason I wouldn’t buy one isn’t due to the style, but mainly because it’s a BMW and I’ve read of too many stories (and personally know some people with similar experiences) about BMWs aging poorly and getting ridiculously expensive to keep on the road.

Beer-light Guidance
Beer-light Guidance
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Getting in and out of them requires a certain degree of flexibility and strength as well.

Paul B
Paul B
1 year ago

My biggest complaint about the i3 is the skinny tires.

As for the carbon fiber technology used, a bigger, and very successful use was the wing on the Airbus A220.

Shout out to the team in N’orn Iron:

https://www.compositesworld.com/news/bombardier-wins-uk-royal-academy-of-engineering-award-for-resin-transfer-infusion-wing

Ed Dale
Ed Dale
1 year ago

I did not like the i3 when it was new. But I kind of want one now. I like the wool seats and the interior touches. Have they gotten cheap? Or do the cheap ones all need new battery packs?

3laine
3laine
1 year ago
Reply to  Ed Dale

I’d go with 2017+, which has a bigger battery than the 2014-2016s and therefore is less likely to have as many cycles on it and less likely to have lots of deep discharges and charges to 100%. Also, 2017+ have aluminum motor supports instead of plastic. I wouldn’t be too worried about a 2017+ battery, but the early ones, I’ve seen a lot with ~30% capacity loss. Not all, but some.

Don Mynack
Don Mynack
1 year ago

Sorry, how do I say this to not offend? Screw it, that thing looks like ass.

William Domer
William Domer
1 year ago
Reply to  Don Mynack

and your issue with it looking like ass is what? I mean think yoga pants….

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