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.

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