Searching for the Meaning of BMW’s i Brand

By · December 09, 2013

2014 BMW i3

A separate BMW brand for plug-in cars might have made sense when the idea was hatched several years ago, but plug-in hybrids and EVs will make their way to most BMW and Mini models.

According to BMW, the upcoming i3 all-electric car is about more than just electrification. BMW’s surveys of 700 “Electronauts,” the company’s name for people who leased the Active E all-electric test vehicle, showed that sustainability matters. Of the 113 who responded, 85 percent either agreed, strongly agreed, or extremely agreed that renewable energy was important, Dr. Simon Ellgas, senior advanced technology engineer at BMW’s technology office in Silicon Valley, told But the question remains: does that justify creating a whole brand to sell the “i” cars?

The question becomes increasingly relevant, because it looks like BMW will offer plug-in electric cars across all its product lines. Peter Wolf, BMW head of production for larger vehicles, last month told Autocar that BMW is planning a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or EV for “each and every model series.” Won’t many of the innovative materials, design and engineering developed for the i series be incorporated, at least to some extent, into BMW’s other vehicles as well?

I put that question to BMW and was not entirely satisfied with the answer. “BMW i includes 360 Electric which is a portfolio of technologies and services tailored to make the best possible use of the advantages of electro-mobility while simultaneously providing our customers with the flexibility they expect from a BMW,” said Julian Arguelles, the spokesperson for product and technology at BMW North America.

I'm not sure what that means, but if the technology in the i series is so cool why not use it in the third generation Mini, which will include a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle option, according to BMW? In that case, will the Mini become a Mini i?

Perhaps the i vehicles will offer higher performance. That is the i8’s distinguishing characteristic, Arguelles told PluginCars. “The BMW i8 was also designed from the ground up as a high performance plug-in electric vehicle, and it is also significantly more efficient than an equivalent converted internal combustion-only vehicle,” he said.

2014 BMW i3

Cars with the i brand, like the i3, won't be the only BMW vehicles that plug in.

So is there a market for the i series, and will consumers understand the distinction between the brands? BMW thinks so, “based on the experience gained during the Mini E and BMW Active E projects, as well as several years of mobility research in mega cities,” said Arguelles.

Let’s see, 700 Active E and about 500 Mini E vehicles. Not a huge test group. At the end of the day, perhaps the i series is just a bunch of cool niche cars that BMW is willing to spend money on as it develops its electric car technology—that is, EV technology that will find its way to existing higher-volume BMW models. If that is the case, spend away!


· · 18 weeks ago

It might be easiest to just assess BMW's i "brand" for what it is - marketing. It's not like there are any objective rules for this - consider what's going on at Toyota. Yes, Lexus dealerships and brand identity are completely separate, but Toyota dealerships themselves are more of a muddle. There we have the Prius "family" of three quite different cars sharing a model name, styling themes, and distinctive drivetrain technology, all while still within the Toyota brand. Then across the showroom we have cars of the "separate brand" Scion tied together by little more than some faux attitude (oh, and a notable lack of electrification after they chickened out on the iQ EV - is Scion's secret slogan "Batteries are for cranks."?)

I think BMW's being a bit silly about this "new brand" thing, especially if varying degrees of electrification are coming to the rest of the product line, but no more so than Toyota. Perhaps like "Prius", BMW's "i" means "only available with electric drivetrain."

· · 18 weeks ago

I believe BMW is going to be a big player in electric car market. Im concerned about their price, but they are going to deliver a car that will get 90 to 200 miles ( with optional range extender ) under 50k. Without new battery technology that's about the best were going to get for awhile, but as most leaf owners will tell you its good enough for most people.

· · 18 weeks ago

I love the i8. Too bad that it is way out of my price range...

· · 18 weeks ago

How hard could it be to understand?

The i-series are built from scratch to be electric.

The rest are not, even though they might be electrified like the plug-in mini and other conventional cars electrified.

· · 18 weeks ago

+1 duckland.

A BMW board member is on record as saying that the i division was created so that BMW could produce clean-sheet electric vehicles without the institutional drag and internal politics (read: resistance) of ICE adherents.

An incredibly bold move, and the success of the strategy is BMWs ability to produce the first mass production carbon fiber vehicle, which dropped 1,200 lbs off of the car, a key requirement for efficient and effective EVs.

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