Concept to reality: BMW i3 Concept to BMW i3

BMW's first foray into electric vehicles is still going strong

Concept cars can excite us all, showcasing models that are coming soon, or merely ideas that could still be 20 years in the future. But occasionally they are used to help gauge how big a leap the buying public is prepared to make.

We’re highlighting such a litmus test in our latest episode of Concept to Reality. For while there are few differences between the BMW i3 Concept and the production model that followed it, at least one tweak was instigated not by production considerations or profit margins, but by what potential customers told the brand they were willing to buy.

The BMW i3 is now pretty much the oldest model in the manufacturer’s line-up. But when the car was conceived, it represented a huge leap of faith by the firm. The premise behind BMW’s thinking was that the world was (and still is) heading towards domination by huge cities, where more and more of us live in close proximity to each other.

Conventional combustion-engined cars are destined to struggle in this situation – or be legislated out of it altogether – so BMW wanted to create a model that would get around this, while still appealing to its brand devotees.

Enter the Mega City Vehicle, or the i3 Concept as it was known by the time it made its global debut at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show. This pint-sized, four-seat model had a small footprint, a novel approach to sustainable construction and materials, and a focus on efficient powertrains – a pure-electric version, plus a range-extender variant.

The concept car attracted huge attention, not least because it represented one of the first serious electric vehicles from a major premium manufacturer, plus an innovative method of construction and use of carbon fibre. BMW made great play on its investment in the lightweight material, even flying journalists out to visit the joint-venture factory in Moses Lake, USA, where it would be produced using clean hydroelectric power.

But when the Bavarian company came to putting the proposed production version of the i3 before customer clinics, it hit a small glitch. It had confirmed a five-door configuration, and the concept’s transparent lower doors were still technically feasible, because of the carbon-fibre passenger cell construction. Except that people whom the manufacturer surveyed at this stage of the model’s development simply didn’t feel comfortable with the road being visible beside them.

It was a similar problem to the one faced by Boeing and the design of the 787 Dreamliner aeroplane, whose construction actually allows for larger windows that are able to let in more light – but which made passengers feel uncomfortably exposed during clinics.

And so for production, the i3 gained conventional panel doors, albeit with a signature ‘dip’ alongside the rear passenger, a nod to what could have been possible but also a way of brightening up the cabin. 

The ‘suicide-hinged’ rear doors have remained throughout the car’s life. While they are a novel design element, it’s one that affects the accessibility when the i3 is parked between other vehicles.

What didn’t change so much was the car’s interior, because designer Richard Kim’s vision of a lounge-like cabin was carried over from the concept model with remarkable precision. Indeed, cabin treatments available at the i3’s launch included ‘Loft’, ‘Lodge’ and ‘Suite’, with materials such as recycled carbon- fibre off-cuttings, hemp and eucalyptus on board. 

BMW had ambitious plans for the i3; the carbon fibre plant in Moses Lake, Washington, had the capacity to expand fourfold and match the entire global production figure of the material. But the production car’s relatively high price came up against early consumer resistance to the idea of pure-electric motoring, so the planned ramp-up in production was quietly put on hold.

Even so, the i3’s interior continues to be among the freshest on the market. And the techniques learned in translating the i3 Concept into the vehicle that is still on sale today (in improved form, with much-extended range) will continue to play a role in BMW’s future models, including the next range of i vehicles, for many years to come. You would also assume that customer feedback on transparent body panels will continue to be a part of the process, too. 

Check out the Citroen C4 Cactus' journey from concept to reality here...

Recommended

BMW i3 production ends after nine years
Final BMW i3 leaving the production line
News

BMW i3 production ends after nine years

BMW’s long-lasting i3 will be replaced by the upcoming iX1 SUV
1 Jul 2022
New electric MG Cyberster roadster to take brand back to its roots
MG roadster exclusive image - front
News

New electric MG Cyberster roadster to take brand back to its roots

The all-electric two-seat MG sports car is poised to follow the likes of the MG TF and MGB, and our exclusive images preview how it could look
23 Jun 2022
SEAT Leon review
SEAT Leon front
SEAT Leon

SEAT Leon review

The SEAT Leon offers the tech and driving experience of the VW Golf, but for a lower price
15 Jun 2022
New Cupra Tavascan arrives as brand’s first electric SUV
Cupra Tavascan
Cupra

New Cupra Tavascan arrives as brand’s first electric SUV

New all-electric Cupra Tavascan will go on sale in 2024 as sporty Spanish brand’s second all-electric model
8 Jun 2022

Most Popular

Range Rover vs Bentley Bentayga: 2022 twin test review
Range Rover vs Bentley Bentayga - both cars front tracking
Car group tests

Range Rover vs Bentley Bentayga: 2022 twin test review

All-new Range Rover takes on Bentley Bentayga in luxury SUV face-off
2 Jul 2022
How to find the cheapest petrol and diesel near you
Diesel pump
Tips & advice

How to find the cheapest petrol and diesel near you

Cheap fuel is hard to come by in the UK at the moment but there are ways that you can minimise what you pay for petrol and diesel
1 Jul 2022
All-electric MG 4 to launch in September
MG4 - front static
News

All-electric MG 4 to launch in September

MG says the new MG 4 will be the first in a series of models using MSP architecture
4 Jul 2022