Ever since BMW launched its i3 electric car, i3 REx range-extended electric car and i8 plug-in hybrid sports car back in 2013, the automotive world has been asking a pretty simple question of the German automaker: what will BMW’s next i-brand electric car be like?
For the past few years, we’ve heard plenty of different rumors that all tried to answer that question. Most agree the next BMW i-branded plug-in will be known as the BMW i5, but that’s where the similarities stop. From a mid-sized SUV to a luxury sedan and even a city car built on an extended version of the BMW i3’s lightweight chassis, we’ve heard all the i5 rumors there are.
But earlier this week, Car and Driver lay claim to some of the most concrete news about the BMW i5 we’ve heard to date, straight from the mouth of BMW i-brand boss Henrik Wenders.
Wenders, whose official title is BMW i Head of Product, gave an exclusive interview to the publication in which he painted the BMW i5 as a car designed to be the principal car of a multi-car family, with enough range to tackle everyday driving with ease and an optional range-extender similar to the one found in the BMW i3 REx.
Despite the presence of an optional gasoline range-extending engine however, Wenders was keen to reiterate that the BMW i5 won’t be a plug-in hybrid like the BMW i8 (or to that matter, any of BMW’s mainstream plug-in hybrid models). For the i5, electricity will be the primary fuel choice. In addition to cementing BMW’s commitment to electric drive, the news puts to bed the rumor that the BMW i5 was to be a plug-in hybrid with electric assist, a fact that we’re guessing will make a lot of BMWs i3 fans very happy indeed.
“The range-extender plays an important part in the next years when range remains a limiting factor and a source of anxiety,” Wenders told Car and Driver. “Of course, once we get to a range that is more comparable with that of an internal-combustion engine it will become obsolete. So this is the reason I can say we will continue to offer the range-extender in the future as optional equipment, to address different customer needs.”
Like the BMW i3 however, BMW expects the range-extending option to slowly fall out of favor as more and more customers realize the true potential and versatility of an electric car. When the BMW i3 launched, the BMW i3 REx was offered as something of a ‘comfort blanket’ to customers, offering the reassurance that misjudging the range of the car’s battery pack wouldn’t necessarily result in being stranded. But it’s worth noting that while the range-extender gives customers that reassurance, it often ends up never being used. Ironically, those with range-extended versions of the i3 are more likely to push their cars to their all-electric limits and as a consequence, learn where their car’s all-electric limits really lie. Those drivers end up driving further between charges, but not actually needing the range extender.
“At the beginning of the i3, the [take rate of the] range-extender was much more than we expected,” Wenders said. “More than 60 percent. It’s decreasing dramatically now and what we’re seeing is that people are almost never using it and that it was purely a psychological thing; it is being regularly used in fewer than five percent of i3s.”
As to the car’s role? While the BMW i8 captures supercar aspirations and the BMW i3 provides urbanites a way to get around town with minimal fuss, Wenders told Car and Driver that the BMW i5 will be built with a more mainstream market in mind. Neither the BMW i8 nor BMW i3 are particularly family-friendly, and Wenders says BMW will address that with the i5.
“We are thinking of a new i model above it to attract families, and that means it must be capable of being the first car in the household. We are still working very hard on the usage concept, but this needs to be defined by the market and not by us,” Wenders explained. “We are a sub-brand, part of the most successful premium carmaker in the world. We want to continue that story. We have the opportunity to be the spearhead, we can test new materials, new design languages, new body concepts. Innovation is our strength.”
When it came to discussing range or performance, Wenders was coy about specifics. But as a sub-brand of BMW, he hinted that whatever BMW ultimately chose to do, it would be in keeping with both the BMW i-brand thus far and the BMW brand as a whole. For the most part, that means a car with decent performance, attention to detail, and premium feel.
The lack of indication of range is, we’ll admit, frustrating. But with the BMW i5 generally expected to enter into the market in the next few years, we’d suggest a range in excess of 200 miles will be essential for the brand to continue to grow given the impending launch of the 200+ mile Chevrolet Bolt EV and the as-yet unrevealed Tesla Model 3. The former may not be a direct competitor to the luxury marque in terms of size or performance, but it does mark the start of a brand-new wave of affordable longer-range electric cars that BMW will have to equal or preferably best across its lineup in order to stay relevant. Its price point, while something BMW will not have to match, will set expectations among consumers over how much a long-range battery pack should cost moving forward.
As to the Model 3? That’s a car that BMW will have to match in terms of performance, price and specification. With a predicted pre-incentive price tag of $35,000, the Tesla Model 3 is expected to sit squarely in the middle of BMW’s 3-series territory. And that probably means it will also cross-shop extremely aggressively against BMW’s next i-brand car.
Will BMW’s i5 be a successful addition to the BMW i-brand family? What features will it need in order to make an impact in the electric car marketplace? And what price would you pay for a family-friendly all-electric BMW with moderate range capabilities?
Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
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