In Detroit: BMW's Premium Electric Branding

By · January 17, 2013

BMW i3 with Jacob Harb and Henrik Wenders

The BMW i3 coupe concept with Jacob Harb (left) and Henrik Wenders. (Jim Motavalli photo)

With the two-door i3 “megacity” concept and i8 plug-in hybrid convertible prototype as a backdrop, I talked to BMW’s braintrust about electric mobility this week at the Detroit auto show. The company is committed not only to battery power, but to making it all insanely great, as the late Steve Jobs might say.

Jacob Harb is BMW’s new North American manager of electric vehicle sales and strategy, taking over from the very energetic Rich Steinberg (who’s moved over to overseeing BMW car-sharing operations). Henrik Wenders is project manager for the i8.

Both i cars have lightweight passenger compartments made out of carbon fiber, which allows them decent EV range without huge battery packs. Wenders said that both composite materials and plug-in hybrid drivetrains could migrate out of the i brand and into mainstream BMWs.

Leveraging Technology

“The i brand is leveraging the technology for other models,” Wenders said. That’s interesting, and it shows that the company is hedging its bets about how big the green revolution (and international fuel economy and greenhouse emissions regulation) could get.

BMW i8 convertible concept

The BMW i8 makes a great convertible, thanks to very rigid carbon fiber construction. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Harb said that, for American customers, the i3 “needs to be compelling, and it is, with 1-Series dimensions outside, the interior space of the 3-Series, and the fit-and-finish of the 5-Series. I’m confident it will sell well in the U.S.” In contrast to the Nissan Leaf, he said, “the i3 is a premium product.”

Is Premium Pricing a Problem?

And it could have a premium price that would eat into those potential American sales. The carbon fiber construction, which requires a lengthy supply chain stretching from Japan (the raw fibers) to Moses Lake, Washington (carbon fiber sheets) to Germany (molded panels) is going to be expensive.

There’s no real price for the i3, though various sources have pegged it between $35,000 and $50,000. My guess is that Harb is working with the bean counters to keep the bottom line as close to the former as possible. Given recent pricing trends, it could be $40,000 in the U.S. and $50,000 in Europe.

BMW's Adrian van Hooydonk

BMW's design chief, Adrian van Hooydonk sees a new stylistic language in electric drive. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Adrian van Hooydonk, the chief BMW designer who took over from the celebrated Chris Bangle, told me about another big advantage of carbon fiber—it’s so rigid that it makes it easier to change styling and model type without affecting the structure. Hence, the i8 convertible on the stand.

Maybe an i8 Convertible

“A convertible production i8 is possible,” said Wenders. “It wouldn’t be that difficult to do an open-top version.” I say go for it, because the i8 looks very good, and a bit less cluttered, letting the sunshine in. I think the people who can afford the estimated $100,000-plus price of admission would like a drop-top option. The insanely expensive Porsche 918 Spyder plug-in hybrid offers al fresco driving.

Electric drive, says van Hooydonk, “offers a new chapter in design, a new form language, or at least it can be. Some companies are converting their existing cars to electric, but our approach is ground up. We used a carbon fiber structure because it counters the weight of the batteries. Our design is futuristic, but it’s also a very light, premium product. We could be the first producer of truly premium electric vehicles.”

Across the hall, Cadillac was announcing its own luxury version of the Volt, the 2014 ELR. Interestingly, GM emphasized the car’s high-end aspirations over its green credentials in introducing the ELR. But both automakers (and, of course, Tesla, too) see opportunity in prestige branded EVs, even if the price is fairly high.


· · 5 years ago

Would be nice on these concept cars if BMW would leave some engineering specifics ( the big German advantage, right?) or pricing instead of just talking about
"A New Language" or whatever the heck that is supposed to mean, like "Chevy Runs Deep",..... Huh?

· · 5 years ago

Can someone get a picture of the Rex that is supposed to be in the i3?

· · 5 years ago

Priusmaniac: Nope. The ONLY thing BMW will say about the REx is that it will be available on the i3 as an option. No pictures, drawings or anything else. They won't even say if it will be housed in the frunk or above the rear axle next to the motor. I have asked everyone there to offer any tidbit of info but it's not happening yet. It's my belief we'll get the first real i3 technical details at the Geneva Motor Show in March.

· · 5 years ago

$35k i3? Hahah. I don't believe it.

BMW is good at starting at one price range and then milk for 50% of the base price in options.

If its 1 series is barely $35k, I don't see how its more expensively built i3 can be cheaper than $50k unless it is willing to lose money on every single one of them...

· · 5 years ago

Thanks Tom, so that will be March in Geneva, that’s not too far away.

Perhaps I found something with this link in the mean time:

· · 5 years ago

ModernMarvelFan: I believe you are correct. Jim was just quoting the range of guesses that others have made. I believe i3 pricing will start at about $44K, lets see.

Priusmaniac: My guess is Geneva, that's not official information. It makes sense to me because it's about 6 months before the suspected European launch of September. That's an interesting link, but the e-drive system there is definitely not from an i3. I've seen the i3 motor assembly and it looks totally different.

· · 5 years ago

I was under the impression that BMW was coming out with an EV, not a plug-in hybrid. So what am I missing?

· · 5 years ago


The i3 pictured at the top will be a BEV, it's expected to have a ~100 mile range (EPA rating n the 90's). You can also order it with an optional range extender if you like, technically making it a PHEV if you get the option. The range extender will not lower the AER, you'll still go the same ~100 miles before the range extender turns on so I would suspect most people will use it range extender very little. Heck, most Volt drivers I know say they use the range extender very little and the i3 will have between double and triple the AER a Volt has.

The i8 sports car you see pictured below will only be available as a PHEV.

· · 5 years ago

Regarding 35k - and Tom's 44k, the funny thing is they are close by !

35k could be after tax credit - so 42.5k before the credit. Add in some destination charge and we are within $1k of Tom's guess.

My guess is $45k+. After essential options, and after tax credit, I'm hoping for $40k or about $500 lease.

· · 5 years ago

Thanks Tom for clearing it up. It is electric, but with or without range extender. I will be surprised if it costs less than $50K. Big battery, carbon fiber construction, 5 series fit and finish, imported from Germany, BMW name tag, all things considered it sounds too exotic to be priced in the $30-40K range.

· · 5 years ago

EVNow: You are probably pretty close. I'm with you on the price, but the only thing that has me wondering is that I've heard from multiple BMW people that "I'll be happy when I see the price" whatever that means. Perhaps they'll have a base i3 without many options for a little over 40K? Either way, I suspect once you equip it nicely it will be closer(but under) 50K.

Tra2S: It will cost less than 50K. Maybe not loaded with options and the range extender, but the base i3 will not cost 50k.

· · 5 years ago

Either way, I don't see BMW price it below $40k or above $60k. Tesla S's base model of 40KWh is around $60k. I just don't see how this i3 can be better than Tesla S...

I don't see how BMW can make money in that range...

· · 5 years ago


Why would you care if BMW makes money on the i3? Maybe they won't make money on them at all. They wouldn't be the only company that doesn't make money on their first electric offering.

As for "better than a Model S" - Better for whom? The Model S looks to be a great EV, but it's not for everyone. There are a LOT of people that don't want a car that big, and I have talked with many of them.

There will be a considerable price gap between a comparably equipped i3 and Model S, probably between $13,000 and $15,000 and that's pretty significant. The 40kW Model S costs $63,650 with just the tech package as an option. I included that because I really think any $50,000 car should have navigation standard and it comes in the tech package. Navigation is particularly important in an EV because it can route to charging locations when needed. I'm pretty positive you'll be able to get an i3 with navigation and their premium electronics package for under $50,000 and it will include self parking and adaptive cruise control which isn't even available on any Model S.

The model S is an great car for people looking for a large sedan with long range. I think the i3 will be equally great for people looking for a smaller EV with an AER better than any electric car that doesn't have a Tesla power train. It's good to see we are finally getting some compelling choices.

· · 5 years ago

@Tom " I've heard from multiple BMW people that "I'll be happy when I see the price" whatever that means"

Interesting. I hope it is not like what GM CEO told Lyle once that Volt will sell in low 30's that was interpreted as before tax credit.

BTW, BMW's navigation is some 2,300 - so I hope i3 includes navigation, heated seats in the base version.

· · 5 years ago

I remember that very well. I was then really surprised(and disappointed) when the Volt's price was announced. I have never been told the price, only that I would be happy.

Don't know if nav is standard or not either, but I'll tell you I have seen a little of how it works with finding you a charging station and telling you your available range and it looks really cool. It looks like a spiders web with you in the middle of the map and shows you how far you can go in any direction and where there are charging stations that are within range.

· · 5 years ago


It is perfect to like a car car full of i-things like navigation and the like but that is all very expensive stuff that is not essential to make an electric car. The same for electric seat heating, or perhaps for some, a Rex.
The best would be a cheap base car that comes with a lot of options instead of an all included unaffordable car. People should be able to choose for themselves what they want, in that way they only pay for what they want as well.

· · 5 years ago

@Tom: " looks like a spiders web with you in the middle of the map and shows you how far you can go in any direction and where there are charging stations that are within range."

That's really cool! On of my peeves about the Leaf's "range" display is that it simply shows you a circle. If you have 50 miles remaining, the radius is 50 miles, with you in the center. We all know that roads twist and turn. Chances are very low that you could make it to the edge of that circle while only covering 50 miles. They mitigate this by showing another circle of about 80% of the radius, but it's still only so good.

· · 5 years ago

Unlike physical additions, software costs nothing to add. It only costs money to develop which will be covered by all the other vehicles that use the software. If BMW wants to make the i3 more appealing, they'll include navigation and all other console features as standard.

· · 5 years ago

@Priusmaniac ·

Actually navigation is very inexpensive (you can get one for $100 after market, right ?). So are heated seats. But when they come as options, they tend to be very expensive.

BTW, heated seats are a must for EVs, you can use them instead of whole car heater and will cost just a few hundred watts, instead 2 kW or more.

The whole "basic car" has been debunked with the failure of cars like Mitsu i & Coda. We are paying a premium price for EVs and they should come with usual premium accessories. These accessories cost very little - but add a lot of value. If Manufacturers take them out, it saves them little but removes a lot of value for customers.

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