BMW's Big Push on Electrics: Don't Believe the Doubters, the Company Says

By · September 21, 2012

BMW Active Tourer

Does the BMW Active Tourer Concept herald a bet-hedging push toward extended-range plug-in hybrids? (BMW photo)

BMW is, by most measures, making a major push into electrification. It has just introduced its Active Tourer Concept, a new plug-in hybrid, and confirmed it for production. And the all-electric “Megacity” vehicle, with a novel carbon fiber body structure, is being shown at the Paris Auto Show in a near-production version as it heads for a public debut late next year. Following soon after, the exotically styled $122,000 i8 plug-in hybrid, with zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds.

Is There Doubt?

All sounds good, right? Maybe BMW will eventually stand for Bavarian Motor Watts. But there are hints that the company isn’t pushing forward to the electric future on all its cylinders. Earlier in the year, Automobile magazine’s blog posted a dispatch from European correspondent Georg Kacher hinting that BMW’s top management, including i division leader Ulrich Kranz and chairman Norbert Reithofer were discussing “contingency plans” to pull the plug on the new division.

The blog post didn’t quote anybody, and it had the feel of one of those Obama Administration leaks that the top brass don’t want to leave their fingerprints on. Here’s what we’re thinking, but if you ask us about it we’ll deny it, in other words. The story said that other i division projects, including the i1 intra-city car and the i5 eco-van have been “put on ice.”

In that context, then the Active Tourer can be seen as the result of a canny reading of the tea leaves. If the Chevy Volt’s sales are pulling away from those of the Nissan LEAF, then we want to place a bigger bet on plug-in hybrids.

Dave Buchko, a BMW spokesman, denies this is happening. He says the i3 is nearing production readiness, and that it will be displayed in Paris with a new interior featuring bio-materials and natural wood.

Full Steam Ahead

“We are making a huge electric investment on a variety of fronts,” Buchko told me. “We’re continuing to develop the i3 and the i8. We also recently unveiled the i8 Spyder concept, and will be showing it at the Los Angeles show.” See what that’s all about in the video below:

Buchko also pointed out that BMW is making a big bet on lightweight carbon fiber, with the i3 and i8 as mobile test beds. With SGL, the BMW Group is investing $100 million at their joint facility in Moses Lake, Washington. Carbon fiber will travel in a long supply chain from Japan (where the raw material comes from) to Washington and then to Germany, where the ultra-light car bodies will be made.

“It makes perfect sense for us to do the lightweighting development work on these vehicles,” Buchko said. “The batteries in electric cars are not only expensive, they’re heavy. That’s a major reason why the ActiveE weighs 4,000 pounds—it’s heavy because of the batteries.”

Downsizing to Reduce Cost

BMW’s strategy with the i3 is to keep the 100-mile range that Buchko says appeared to work for drivers of the leased Mini E. In the i3, 100 miles of range in a very light platform means a relatively small 22-kilowatt-hour battery pack, which is both lighter and cheaper. Theoretically, that could mean a less-expensive i3, but BMW is still not putting a price on this car. (A German magazine has put the price at $45,000 to $50,000, which could make it out of reach for the megacity masses.)

So is BMW worried about the slow pace of EV sales? Buchko says no. “The electric car market is evolving,” he said. “We think there’s a lot of interest. How quickly that will translate into actual sales is a little hard to determine. But we’re not discouraged at how the market is developing.” Buchko said he recently put race drivers Bill Auberlen and Scott Pruett into the driver’s seat of ActiveEs, and they both loved them. So the image of BMWs as the ultimate driving machine appears safe.

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