Did BMW Screw Up Visual Design of i3 Electric Car?

By · October 29, 2013

2014 BMW i3

2014 BMW i3

The all-electric BMW i3 is a marvel of lightweight aerodynamic design. But, in order to succeed in the marketplace, cars have to appeal on a visual and emotional level. That’s what so many BMW vehicles do. And that’s what electric cars especially need to do—given historical misconceptions that electric cars are glorified golf carts. But as the BMW i3 car gets closer to market, criticism of the all-electric city car’s design is starting to grow.

In July, Slate.com, the daily web magazine, compared it to what many reviewers believe is the ugliest car of the 20th century, the Pontiac Aztek. “Let's hope it drives better than it looks,” said Will Oremus,a Slate staff writer. Hannah Elliot, Forbes staff writer, was a bit more kind. “It’s not exactly ugly but it doesn’t exactly offer the taut, sporty appeal of a M3 or a Z4, either,” she wrote.

And just last week, Elon Musk, Tesla’s outspoken chief executive, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper: “My initial impression of the i3 is it looks a bit funny and the range is not high enough. It seems to have been made intentionally weird, as opposed to letting the form follow function. Form should not be artificially weird.”

Taking Medicine

Tesla’s design philosophy—which can be seen in its Roadster and Model S—is to make battery-powered cars every bit as exciting as other luxury performance vehicles. The Maserati-like lines of the Model S are a big part of its success. BMW’s other upcoming plug-in vehicle, the i8, starred in the most recent Mission Impossible movie. But it’s hard to imagine the i3 in a major motion picture, unless perhaps it’s a Will Ferrell comedy.

A couple years ago, just as the first electric cars were hitting the market, Kenny Schachter, a U.K.-based art dealer, criticized EVs. “When you look at electric cars today, it’s almost like the cars are made to look bad,” he said. “It’s almost like the manufacturers want it to be like taking medicine.” Schachter didn’t do much to dispel the notion of an electric car as weird, when he commissioned internationally renowned architect Zaha Hadid to create a limited edition sculptural design for an electric car.

Zaha Hadid EV

Based on the electric car design of famed architect Zaha Hadid, it's best to leave vehicle designs to auto industry professionals.

Part of the problem with Hadid’s design, and the i3, is its size. A full-size sedan, regardless of powertrain, is an easier format for a cool look. Designers have had an hard time finding an appealing design for an electric city car—as evidenced by the design of cars like the i3, Spark EV, and Scion iQ EV. Perhaps the most successful small EV design is the electric version of the Fiat 500, especially when decked out in a striking color combination.

Scion iQ EV
2014 Fiat 500 EV

Top: The Scion iQ EV. Toyota only made about 100 of them.
Bottom: 2014 Fiat 500 EV.

The stakes are high for BMW, because the i3—at $42,200 without the optional range-extender, and $45,300 with it—can’t afford to be dorky.

We shouldn’t rush to judgment on 2014 BMW i3 design, until we see it in the wild. Maybe the i3 will look fresh and exciting in the context of the road. Maybe it could even be a cult hit.

Or it might take a generation or two for BMW to get the design of an all-electric city car to have all the appeal of the company's more attractive gas-powered sedans.


· · 4 years ago

Yes, they did. I know, it is not THAT bad and aesthetics are subjective. But from the amount of negative comments about it, I just don't think one can objectively say a design that gets that many negative comments was a smashing success. At least not in popularity.

· · 4 years ago

It just seems to me after reading articles this week on this web page all car companies want these cars to fail to get back to producing ice cars. Except tesla and if your looking to buy a electric car only tesla should be rewarded, if you can't afford one do as i am WAIT.

· · 4 years ago

Amongst "the regulars" here at Plug in Cars, I've probably been more critical of the i3's visuals than anyone else . . . and it pains me. BMWs are typically very sharp looking cars, even the small ones. What went wrong here?

As noted before, I was lucky enough to get a pre-production copy of the i-3 make an appearance at my NPID event. The car does come off better in person than in photos. The so-called suicide door arrangement makes for easy entry to all seats. That set of dropped windows on the rear door - visually jarring when viewed from the outside - makes for easy viewing from the driver's seat in an area where most cars have a blind spot. The cargo hold isn't enormous, but is generously proportioned for a car of this size. There's actually a lot to like here.

No, the part of the i3's design that makes absolutely no sense to me at all is the hideous, bumpy hood. I do understand that there was a desire to integrate the traditional split BMW grill into the design, but they could have done in a thousand other ways that didn't have it coming off like a Schnauzer nose.

The insistence on offering the car only with a black hood and roof doesn't do anything to help with this unfortunate dog snout look. On a practical level, a car in the Arizona climate, where I live, with a black finished roof is eminently undesirable. It's going to be instantly 10 degrees hotter inside (have to run the air conditioner more aggressively, burn up more electrons in the battery by doing so.)

Also . . . I haven't checked the dates on the Forbes article, where the Pontiac Aztec analogy was made. But I might have beat the them to it, as I stated that here in early September . . .


· · 4 years ago

Sorry Mr. Nead. The Forbes "Aztek" reference was in July. :)

· · 4 years ago

Yes, I now see that, Brad. I will say that I came up with that analogy on my own and only saw the Forbes article for the first time this morning.

Speaking of the Aztek (not Aztec) . . . I now have new appreciation for that ugly ride, after recently watching numerous archived episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix. If Walter White got such good use out of his ungainly Pontiac, what will future high school chemistry teachers turned meth lab maestros be driving driving in the age of EVs? A Tesla S seems to be too flashy in such circumstances. The i3? Just about right!

· · 4 years ago

The i3 looks like a mix of styling elements from a number of designers, all isolated from each other. In other words, it's not very harmonious.

Yes, the Aztec reference is apt. I also see a double shot of 1958 Edsel in the front end. The twin nostrils should have been ditched, if only to allow BMW to more easily distance itself from it should it tank.

· · 4 years ago

I wouldn't worry about the sales of this car. I'm convinced that BMW aficionados would buy a just about anything with a "roundel" on the nose, and they will buy this car. But, they are an overall small segment of the market.

Will the mass market chose this over a LEAF? Doubtful at the far, far higher price and similar (not very good) sub-100 mile range. The looks don't help it, either.

Plus, BMW is already a niche product in the USA, unlike Nissan. When you throw in the GM/German specification quick charge port with no place to charge, the pendulum swings further to the LEAF with hundreds of quick charge stations. If the i3 is still around when Tesla releases it's Model E with great looks, nationwide quick charging, and 200 miles range at a similar price, I think BMW will get slaughtered.

Having sat in the i3 for an extended period (this car had the motorcycle oil burning "range extender" engine), I don't find any "luxury" over a run of-the-mill Nissan LEAF SL with leather interior. It's spartan, and smaller than a LEAF.

My opinion is that the space and weight taken up by the 650cc motorcycle engine should also offer a range extended battery option.

But, no matter what happens, BMW is now a party to CARB-ZEV rules, and will absolutely sell these in California and other CARB states earning 3 credits per car for 0.79% credits of total BMW oil burners sold in California. They might even pop out a few 9 credit BMW hydrogen burners.

I sincerely hope they are working on the "next" BMW electric vehicle.

· · 4 years ago

The Chevy Volt is very sexy and the Model S is a close second to me, BMW i3 is third, it doesn't look bad and I like the style.
The Leaf kind of ugly but not that bad. Smart car, very ugly. Fiat 500, pretty good.

· · 4 years ago

I don't hate the look of the i3, but I don't love it either. I would definitely prefer a single-paint color, with a traditional window line. I don't mind the suicide doors, but hate the fact the back windows don't roll down. I don't mind the snub nose, but wish it was smoother and more aerodynamic. I would prefer a larger battery option over the REx.

I was strongly considering an i3, because I love the construction, materials, performance and LRR wheels. But the limited range and funky styling has me reconsidering. I suspect BMW will resolve many of these items in the future.

· · 4 years ago

According to Nikki Gordon Bloomfield and Mark Chatterley, the i3 in person is far better than looking at it from screen as a slightly poor quality picture that's usually stretched vertically like the one above.

At least as I should say I am truly left breathless and panting over the i3. It looks aggressive, unique and concept-like. It is identical to its concept we've seen over the years! How many cars currently for sale other than the Renault Zoe and Twizy that you can remember that can claim something like that?

Some and I would say that the style of the i3 and i8 reflect the advanced drive train and materials used that makes it different from most cars, considering its carbon fibre construction.
I like it when auto makers actually makes a car striking and not offensive! The i3 is striking, the Aztec is offensive!

It reminds me of the French. Renault AVANTIME, Citroen C6, DS3, DS4, DS5. They are beautiful in many respects, flamboyantly different, little or big cues used to highlight the car that makes me fall in love with them. And each of them with an obvious purpose or reason for their style.
I like a car like that. While the author says that one "can’t afford to be dorky". What about paying $40,000+ for a Hyaundai , dare I say Audi or VW, a generic, uninspiring and frankly a boring looking car?

I'm happy there was that much designer freedom involved in BMW's i series.

· · 4 years ago

Never seen one for real yet, but from the pictures I like the look of the i3 actually. It's different, saying "see, I'm the future", which I consider a plus, save for the fact it might become "I'm that old weird thingy, remember?" later.
The biggest turn-off for me would be that "de-facto non-standard" DC quick-charge port. I'd go without the REx so quick-charging would come in handy; too bad BMW picked the wrong horse here.
Anyway, it's a BMW. I trust it handles beautifully... and doesn't fit my budget.

@jah: I was actually saving for a Tesla after Musk suggested that the car coming after the Roadster would be half its price. The same promise was made about the Model E, and I expect a similar result. Fool me once...

Meanwhile Nissan, with its massive investments, convinced me that it's dead serious about EVs too. So I stopped waiting, got a Leaf, spared over 800 gallons and counting. Love it. I should have bought it sooner.

My advice to people on the fence: don't wait for tech to improve; it always will, slowly but surely, but will never reach perfection anyway.
If an EV today fits your needs and your means, go for it. Start saving on gas already. You can always upgrade later.

· · 4 years ago

The competition with the "normal-looking" MB B-class ED could show whether the looks of the i3 would hurt its adoption.

An EV should not make the observer to gag and sputter "WTF!" It should cause them to exclaim "Wow!" Too many EVs have done the first rather than the second begging the question if that was intentional.

The i3 looks are heavily age-biased toward the younger audience. Objectively that is a good thing if they can afford to buy it.

· · 4 years ago

Overall, I'd say Musk's assessment is on target - visual weirdness for its own sake, rooted in no functional advantage, is not a virtue. One can argue about the aesthetic merits of the quasi-Bimmer snout, and the suicide doors actually make sense for this form factor (at least as reasonable as the old Saturn coupes and today's Hyundai Veloster), but the mandatory (and as Ben notes highly counterproductive) black topside and the bizarro greenhouse are just visual noise, serving little purpose that I can perceive beyond setting the i3's appearance apart from that of more conventional city-cars. This is the worst BMW styling miscue since that "car with a different car's trunk" fiasco. For heaven's sake, a Honda Element was less objectionable, and that was ALL about function. A body enclosing the same space with comparable functional virtues, less gratuitous weirdness, and a bit more class was certainly achievable.

That said, styling issues may be manageable given the car's other characteristics and target market. In the end, I don't think people will laugh at a BMW the way they laughed at the Aztek (remember the one about a guy getting his Aztek totaled when he took a roadside nap and an emergency crew used the jaws of life to get him out because they assumed it was a wreck? Just a joke, but one that stung). And while CCS QC may be a drawback, that matters a lot less given the i3's unique REx configuration and consequent unique CA HOV status, a likely winner with well-heeled Angeleno greens - no other PHEV of any type can match that today, and probably not for a few more years to come.

· · 4 years ago

Actually, after re-reading the above, one might conclude that the REx would be in a very high percentage of i3s, perhaps the majority, especially since CA (unlike most places) actually has some CHAdeMO infrastructure in place, putting the all-BEV i3 at something of a disadvantage unless/until CCS support rolls out. It'll be interesting to see if that's how things shake out.

· · 4 years ago

The physics of a city car and it’s environment dictate the tall, boxy shape and small footprint, which is just hard to make sexy and still meet NHTSA and IIHS requirements . To me, the mistake is bringing the Megacity out under the BMW brand. It would have been much less jarring to the traditional BMW buyer to have made the i3 a “MINI”, or separated the i brand more distinctly, as say “Isetta”, with it’s emphasis on the City Car market. A traditional BMW buyer, who thinks the i3 is BMW's misguided replacement for the M3, will never be open to the i3’s strengths and true purpose.

· · 4 years ago

I like the i3 I think it looks great, no its not your typical BMW, but no other BMW is trying to launch a revolution within the brand. And like most major manufacturers BMW is starting small, they're not going to go after the Model S right away. So for a small, high tech, luxury branded, electric hatchback, it looks great. It's not a 6-series Gran Coupe, but it isn't trying to be, look at it for what it is and you might like it.

· · 4 years ago

vike1108, in California, we have the following agreement with NRG / eVgo, so over four years starting at some day in the future, we should get this:

(4) Charging Standards. Initially all Freedom Stations shall have one (1) or more DC Fast Chargers compatible with the CHAdeMo Standard and one (1) Level 2 Charger compatible with the SAE Standard. Upon the occurrence of (A) approval by SAE for a charger standard for DC Fast Chargers and (B) the commercial availability from at least two (2) unaffiliated manufacturers of one or more DC Fast Chargers that are SAE Standard compatible or equipment capable of making the Freedom Stations’ DC Fast Chargers compatible with both the SAE Standard and the CHAdeMo Standard (and in each case that are approved by the Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories), then NRG shall have six (6) months to complete the modification of all installed.

Freedom Stations to include at least one (1) SAE Standard compatible DC Fast Charger and one (1) CHAdeMo Standard compatible DC Fast Charger or one (1) CHAdeMo+SAE DC Charger. Thereafter, all newly installed Freedom Stations will have at least one (1) DC Fast Charger that is SAE Standard compatible.

Notwithstanding anything else to the contrary herein, if at any time during the Installation Period the CHAdeMo Standard and/or the SAE Standard become abandoned or superceded such that no electric vehicles utilizing the CHAdeMo Standard or SAE Standard (as applicable) are available for purchase in the California market, then NRG shall not be required to continue to install CHAdeMo Standard compatible or SAE Standard compatible (as applicable) DC Fast Chargers as part of the Freedom Stations; provided that in the event of such an occurrence NRG and the CPUC shall meet and confer to identify and mutually agree upon the new commercially prevailing standard.

· · 4 years ago

@TonyW: Thanks for that - so we know NRG will be rolling out CCS support, and likely will complete deployments before the CCS alliance throws in the towel. Then again, who knows for sure? Once GM sells out its quota of Spark EVs (they've shown precious little interest in selling even one extra unit), what if BMW stops offering CCS on the i3 due to lack of interest (it may not be worth it on a car with REx, after all)? If nobody else steps up to offer a car with CCS before then, that circumstance could well trigger this language [all emphasis mine]:

>>>>>>>>if at any time during the Installation Period the CHAdeMo Standard and/or the SAE Standard become abandoned or superceded such that no electric vehicles utilizing the CHAdeMo Standard or SAE Standard (as applicable) are available for purchase in the California market, then NRG shall not be required to continue to install CHAdeMo Standard compatible or SAE Standard compatible (as applicable) DC Fast Chargers as part of the Freedom Stations;<<<<<<<<<

If it would save NRG some bucks, they could be tempted to call it quits on CCS at the first opportunity.

Of course, even if that doesn't happen, it still leaves CCS with problem #2 - the rest of the QC stations in America not covered by the NRG settlement. We should keep in mind that CA can't actually dictate what sort of QC stations are installed in general, they just have this oddball settlement with NRG that gives them control of the ironically named Freedom Stations, but that won't be true elsewhere. Nissan's obviously not backing down on CHAdeMO, so I still think the i3's QC problems are very real. The REx looks better all the time.

Side issue: did the guys who drafted and published this language not know how to spell "supersede"? "supercede" is a popular variant, but long regarded as a misspelling, so I'm surprised to see it in anything legal. This may be symptomatic of a capitulation by language authorities, the same way they gave up on defending the real definition of "paradigm" and seem to be caving on "obtuse". It's sad to see the language fall apart right in front of our eyes.

· · 4 years ago

This is sure going to be a love it or hate it car as far as looks. Personally I really like it except for the ridiculous kidney bean grill. I sure hope some aftermarket company comes out with some sort of cool replacement.

I've never been a BMW fan. I would never consider a BMW and I don't know why. Although it could be related to the old joke:
"What's the difference between a porcupine and a BMW?"
Answer: "a porcupine has pricks on the outside"
Boy, I've always loved that one.

Anyway, I think BMW has done the right thing here. I would never consider buying a kraut-wagon and with THIS car and I am seriously considering it because of the departure from the norm. You can tell they were trying to appeal to a whole different crowd and I can really appreciate that. Also I think the comparable MB e-drive is going to turn off a lot of US folks by not offering a gas backup. That's just a no-brainier for a lot of folks who do a lot of errands. Kudos to BMW by getting that right on the first try. And a 40 mile range would work for me so the 80 to 100 figure with backup is just a dream come true for under $50k.

To be fair I really want to buy an American car (like all the others I have). I went to seriously consider buying the Volt, but when I went to buy it, it wasn't in the Portland market yet. And didn't feel like waiting the 9 months it was going to take. So I bought a loaded Buick Lacrosse instead and it's awesome. If there was an electric model JUST like it, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. But, there's not....

And so this whole time I've been waiting for the ELR. And lo and behold the $75k price tag the same week I first hear about the i3. Well as much as I'd like to buy a ELR, it's just not going to happen at $75k for me, but the BMW could be affordable for guys like me who really some range over 50 miles and hate the Asian styling EV cars. Sorry, I didn't know that the Leaf could actually turn out uglier than a Prius... Yeesh, no thanks!

Personally I'm really looking forward to the i3's showing up here. I also really look forward to the one pedal driving concept as I've been dreaming about that for about a decade now. I will bet that the i3 will be very successful in the Portland market. People here love green. There's 9, count them NINE of those ugly little Prius rice grinders on my street within ONE block ONE street alone. I think that's saying something like people will put up with ugly for mileage. Especially true when I'm thinking of buying one of these with that dumb-ass grill....

· · 4 years ago

Thanks for the well-written article, Brad. Interesting discussion in the comments section as well. As some of you might know, I have been part of the ActiveE field trial for the past year and half. This trial has preceded the launch of the i3, and helped test some of the drivetrain components. I was an early LEAF driver as well, and have to admit that both experiences were quite formative. If nothing else, I have made new friends in two EV camps, which I really appreciate.

On the topic of the visual design, I've been trying to be as unbiased as possible, and even though I have developed a lot of goodwill towards this program, I have to admit that the design is controversial and polarizing. Why that is, I don't know. I linked an interview with Benoît Jacob below, where he explains some of his rationales and the overarching design decisions for the i3.

I went out of my way to see the i3 in person, and as others have noted, it looks better in person than on photos. It's very futuristic, and its format and the relatively small size will fit well into busy cities around the world.


I grew up in Europe, and one thing I noticed is that hatchbacks are well received and more acceptable there than here in the US. Let's recall that even the LEAF had faced many pointed comments about its looks shortly after its market introduction. Some Volt or Ford Focus drivers would go as far as noting that they could not bring themselves to purchase it because of its nontraditional exterior, and went with a different plugin vehicle instead, even though they originally wanted a hatchback for its versatility and hauling capability. The Prius might have drawn similar comments, but its design seems to be accepted now. Although I did not mind the look myself, I nearly traded in the LEAF because of the challenges we faced with charging infrastructure both at home and at work.

When you look at the interior of the i3, it's universally accepted and even hailed as beautifully designed. I wish that the exterior would draw similar comments, but that's clearly not the case. The i8, on the other hand, has been very well received in this regard, but that's a sports car with a limited set of use cases. Additionally, its battery is much smaller and more easily absorbed into the chassis. It does one thing well however, it helps establish plugin cars as cool and desirable. When Tom Cruise sped away in an i8 prototype in Mission Impossible 4, my friends definitely took notice, and saw the LEAF with different set of eyes on the way home.

I think what often gets confused is the positioning of the i3. Although I think that BMW will happily build as many as they can sell, I don't believe that the i3 was designed for the same market like the LEAF. Nissan's goal when conceptualizing the LEAF was ostensibly to make an EV, which would be affordable and very widely adopted. While I can only guess, I would think that BMW did not aim for quite the same volume.

This does not mean that they wanted to build only a limited number, it's just that they operate in a different market segment. When you look at how Nissan will position Infinity EVs, this might be more of a direct comparison, except that these vehicles are not available for sale yet. Even though BMW might not be aiming to sell 100,000 i3s in the first two years, their contribution might be different but equally important.

As Tony noted above, the roundel is well regarded and if BMW builds plugins, the gear-heads will take note. This will help establish this class of vehicles as both mainstream and desirable. Granted, Tesla has done much to further that goal, but BMW has more advertising dollars, and is known for clever and snazzy and marketing. While we might not have seen TV ads for the Model S, there will definitely be ads for BMW i, and they will take a different direction than what Nissan did with the LEAF. There might be additional product placements on the big screen as well.

That said, I think that both the i3 and the LEAF have something in common. They will very likely attract new customers, or conquest buyers as they are often called in the automotive jargon, to their respective brand. Nissan has confirmed this early on, and there are increasing signs that the i3 will follow a similar trajectory. It won't be just the BMW faithful adding a new electric horse for their stable.

So instead of deriding or second guessing some of the design decisions and overall goals, perhaps it would be better to accept the fact that for EVs to be successful and be taken seriously, they must come in many different shapes, forms and sizes, and from several manufacturers. They will all play their own and important role in automotive history. Their unique strengths and design language will cater to different needs, tastes and preferences of EV buyers around the globe.

· · 4 years ago

I am actually very sorry of the ugly weird look of the i3 since I really like its configuration of 150 Km EV and Rex for longer trips. I was hopping a BMW series 3 like look instead which would have been really great and able to attract my buy. This i3 now is only repulsing me further from an electric and just make me hang on my Prius.

· · 4 years ago

The i3 has what you need, especially with the range extender, but it looks hideous. What were they thinking?

· · 4 years ago

By the way, here's the designer dude that gave the i3 its "unique" looks . . .


Far more entertaining and enlightening is this series of videos, which are mostly
unnarrated, showing the i3's manufacturing process . . .





· · 4 years ago

I personally like the Z Car concept. Frankly, it's the only white car I actually like. I hate cars in white. I would drive that thing proudly. I do however, belong to a different generation than most of the people on this forum.. (18-24 y.o.)

· · 4 years ago

Deven, I think you might be way off in terms of demographic profiling.

· · 4 years ago

I think the best looking electric car so far is the Renault Zoe.

· · 4 years ago

I agree, JP. Entirely. I even contacted them, but they have no plan on launching the Zoe here...

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