Exclusive: Interview with BMW’s Product Manager of the i3 Electric Car

By · July 29, 2013

BMW i3

BMW i3

The enthusiasm in Jose Guerrero’s voice was undeniable. I spoke with Guerrero, the product manager for the BMW i3 electric car (and the upcoming i8 plug-in hybrid) a few hours after the production version of the i3 was introduced today, officially (and simultaneously) in New York, London and Beijing. “I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction,” he said. When we talked, Guerrero was still working closely from the corporate script, answering each question with superlatives about the i3—and why it deserves to be called an ultimate driving machine.

According to Guerrero, the i3 is a legit Bimmer, first of all, because even the base Mega trim level is loaded with features, such as adaptive LED headlights, navigation, leather-trimmed steering wheel, alarm, and a relatively fast 7.4 kW on board charger. “The i3 is not a compromise,” said Guerrero. The jump from Mega to the Giga level adds 19-inch wheels, sunroof, and fancy stitching on the leather steering wheel—while the top-of-the-line Tera brings leather throughout.

This strategy follows the pattern established a few years ago with the LEAF and Volt—to give a small electric car a quasi-luxury feel to make up for any perceived notions of an EV as a step down. In the case of BMW, a luxury brand, it’s even more important—especially when it comes to its road manners.

Guerrero played up the i3’s agility. “There’s nothing else out there like it, because of the lightweight carbon fiber body. The tight turning radius is amazing,” he said. “It has a nice direct feel in the steering wheel, not electronically disconnected.”

BMW i3

BMW i3

The light carbon fiber body will also help with range, which Guerrero pegged at a real-world 80 miles, “not the fictional 100 miles of range you hear about.” The use of the i3’s driving modes—such as Comfort and Ecopro—can bring you closer to 100 miles, according to Guerrero, without compromising what you’d expect from a BMW in terms of responsiveness. “But if you drive it hard, you’re going to get 80 miles.”

That’s why a rear-mounted 650cc, 34-horsepower, two-cylinder, gasoline-powered range-extending engine is being offered as an option. It would roughly double the vehicle’s range. Guerrero was not willing to commit to a forecast on how many i3 buyers will opt for the range-extender—only pointing to what he said has historically been a take rate of 60 percent of plug-in buyers choosing a range-extender Volt, and 20 percent buying the all-electric LEAF. (That ratio of three-to-one for plug-in hybrids over pure EVs is roughly true for 2012, but the Volt and LEAF are in a dead-heat for sales so far in 2013.)

Poised to Sell

Instead, Guerrero emphasized the simplicity of sourcing and adding the range-extender from a production standpoint—and the willingness of BMW to let the market decide. That held true for overall production numbers for the i3 as well. He said, “We’re making sure our dealers are ready to push them out.” But the planner for the i3 would not say how many BMW is planning to make.

However, on one point he was certain: the repeated problems encountered by drivers of the BMW ActiveE—the failures, faults and bugs that have kept many ActiveE models in the shop—are isolated to the company’s test program. “That’s our lessons learned, our double-edged sword,” he said. “We can’t address all the issues with the test platform but we made sure that they won’t be there for our mainstream production model.”

BMW i3

BMW i3

While it remains to be seen if BMW has zapped every bug found in its EV test vehicles—based on the 1-series and Mini—there will be no surprised about the i3's looks. Its design is locked down, and frankly, my biggest concern about the model is its stubby choppy appearance. I haven’t seen the production model in person, so maybe I’m jumping to conclusions. But to me, BMW designers veered too far away from what makes a BMW a great looking car. Instead, designers took a big bow to notions about what kind of consumer would buy an EV—namely, geeks.

Hasn’t the Tesla Model S proven that an electric car will do best when it looks like an Aston, Lotus or Maserati? Instead, the i3 looks like a high-tech urban gizmo—a really cool one for sure, but I don’t see a lot of BMW in it (except for the kidney-shaped grille).

“We’re gong after a new customer set,” Guerrero explained. “Short overhang, extreme turning radius, different tech packages. All of these things function to reach the consumer mindset focused on sustainability.” He added that the carbon fiber body, and the availability of a 20-inch sport wheels, get him personally excited. “This car is the ultimate driving machine,” he repeated, before giving the pitch that he admitted came right from the press materials.

“The i3 has a footprint smaller than a 1-series, the interior space of current 3-series, and the level of equipment of 5-series,” he said.

Comments

· · 4 years ago

So is it BMW's official position that this car is the 'equivalent' of a Model S for half the price?

· · 4 years ago

From a styling standpoint, the car is far from smooth and aerodynamic looking. In fact it looks all cut up, worrying and busy outside and inside.

I'm sure the engineering is good and saves the car from a possible bad first impression.

· · 4 years ago

Can't call it equivalent with 1/3rd the range. That said it covers my needs provided it has 100k+ on the pack. Will we be able to rent the range extender as needed, until more advanced batteries become available? Will the firmware OverTheAir update like Tesla? I like an option for that dash, too.

· · 4 years ago

I like it. I like the looks. I like the 7.4kW charger. I like the optional gas generator. I like being able to choose. Just batteries or batteries plus gas generator.

I would LOVE a third choice. Forget the 350 lbs gas generator system and throw in another 350 lbs of batteries. I bet that would get the range up to about 150 miles. Price it loaded for under $50K and I'll buy one.

The BMW i3 could have been the perfect tweener EV. We have lots of "Commuter EVs" that can go 50 to 70 miles. We have one marathon EV with a 300 mile range. We NEED an in between EV that will go 150 miles for under 50K.

I like the attempt BMW has made. I do feel somewhat drawn to it. But after putting 21,000 miles on a LEAF and not a drop of gas, I would feel like a caveman again filling up its 2 gallon generator tank.

Keep working BMW.

· · 4 years ago

As noted elsewhere, the game changer here is the range extender. Guaranteed HOV access plus freedom from range anxiety, all for a (relatively) modest premium over the Volt, will be a unique combination once those 40,000 "green" stickers run out, and perhaps a winning one. Beyond that regulatory-born marketing edge, the configuration of the i3 w/RE will beat the Volt at its own game for a significant number of EV shoppers. I was skeptical at first, but I'm coming around - it will be interesting to see what happens.

· · 4 years ago

I don't expect too many buyers not to check the range extender box when ordering this car. $3700 extra will buy you a lot of peace of mind and will double your operating range if you are willing to compromise on performance. Come trade in time I expect most of that extra investment to come back.

· · 4 years ago

@Murray,

I also like the idea of a bigger battery as a third option to the REx. Tesla offers two battery sizes and consumers like having the choice. I would love to see BMW do the same. With a 30+ KWh battery, the i3 could probably get close to 200 miles in Eco Pro+ mode.

· · 4 years ago

Obviously the 2014 Volt's $5k price drop changes the math on all this - the i3/REx's "modest" premium is now a "hefty" one.

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