BMW revives electric-vehicle push with low-slung 'i' sedan

By Bloomberg News, September 8 2017
BMW revives electric-vehicle push with low-slung 'i' sedan

BMW will add a low-slung electric sedan to its stalled “i” sub-brand, part of plans to accelerate the rollout of battery-powered cars to counter Tesla.

The four-door model, kept under wraps as BMW showed journalists around its Munich design headquarters on Thursday, is set to go on sale by 2021 and will slot in between the squat i3 city car and the sleek i8 plug-in sports car. BMW declined to specify its name.

Overall, BMW plans to offer at least 12 fully electric vehicles by 2025, including battery-powered variants of mainstream models like the X3 SUV as well as the futuristic self-driving iNext.

New technology is facilitating the revival of the “i” sub-brand, which hasn’t been assigned a new car since the i8 in 2014. BMW is predicting that next-generation batteries will allow driving ranges as far as 700 kilometers (435 miles).

“We wanted to have a sufficient range that’s coming with the next technology jump,” Chief Executive Officer Harald Krueger said at the event, an early showcase of the manufacturer’s plans for the Frankfurt motor show next week. For the green-car sub-brand, “there wasn’t a big gap. We planned it.”

Luxury-car leadership

BMW, which lost the global luxury-car sales crown to Daimler's Mercedes-Benz last year, is looking to claw back its leadership role in the segment. That includes being more aggressive with new technology, especially electric systems as European environmental rules tighten in 2020.

The extent of BMW’s plans are similar to what’s in store at Stuttgart, Germany-based Daimler, which has set up the EQ sub-brand and plans a lineup of 10 battery-powered vehicles through 2022.

Industry pioneer Tesla, which started initial deliveries of the mass-market Model 3 sedan in July, is pushing automakers to respond with more attractive lineups of electric cars. A host of new entrants is also readying plans for green vehicles, as the complex engineering involved in making combustion engines is replaced with a much simpler setup around battery power.

“There are a lot of technology companies that currently don’t have any car, like startups and also bigger consortia,” BMW development chief Klaus Froehlich said at the Munich event. “Of those, 95 percent are going to fail.”

BMW’s presentation also included an electric prototype of its Mini car with a range of about 250 kilometers that’s slated to go on sale next year.

The company’s focus on battery-powered variants of existing models differs from Mercedes’s plan for standalone electric cars with their own distinctive designs and underpinnings. While this means losing out on the drawing card of an all-new vehicle, BMW contends its program will be more cost effective.

‘Any powertrain’

“We’re preparing all of our plants at BMW Group for electric mobility,” Krueger said. “In future, we’ll be able to build any of our cars with any powertrain.”

Jaguar Land Rover is mixing the two strategies. While it’s building the I-Pace SUV as a battery-powered model, the British luxury-auto producer will offer wholly electric and hybrid variants across its line-up by 2020, division chief Ralf Speth said Thursday in a Bloomberg Television interview from London.

Consumer demand for the i3, which BMW brought out in 2013, has been sluggish due to concerns about its limited driving range and high price.

But with the new regulations coming into force, automakers have little option but to make electric cars more appealing, especially as consumers shy away from diesel in the aftermath of Volkswagen's emissions-cheating scandal.

“The environment is changing; it’s much more tense,” Froehlich said. “Because of the actions of some, and I emphasize some, the credibility of our industry has been severely compromised.”

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