Is BMW hedging its bets?
BMW recently announced the was 150,000th i3 produced at their Leipzig manufacturing plant. This marks an impressive milestone for the often-maligned electric car.
What's even more impressive is that every year since late 2013 that the i3 has been in production, they have sold more i3s than they did the previous year. I doubt many readers would have thought that to be true since it's rare that would be the case for a car that has remained relatively unchanged for 6 years.
Yes, the i3 had a minor facelift in 2018, and BMW introduced a Sport version, the i3s that year (which I currently drive). But other than that, they really haven't made any visual changes. They have of course improved the battery, and not once, but twice.
When the i3 launched in 2014 it had a 21.6 kWh battery. That was upgraded to a 33.2 kWh pack in mid-2016 as a 2017 model. Then, in 2019 they upgraded it again, and the i3 now sports a 42.2 kWh battery. Basically, they have improved the i3's battery every 30 months, which is a pretty aggressive timeline. Still, the i3's detractors point out that the range, even with these battery improvements is still less than its competitors, and the i3 still costs more, both valid points.
At some point three or four years ago, BMW decided they were going to employ a different strategy for their electric vehicles. When the i brand was initially launched, there were high hopes for BMW's electric future. There were talks about multiple all-electric offerings that would follow the i3, and that they would employ the same carbon-fiber body structure and be purpose-built electric vehicles. After all, "that's the only to make a proper electric vehicle", I remember being told by a variety of BMW product managers at the time.
However, in May of 2015 Harold Krüger took over as CEO of BMW, replacing Dr. Norbert Reithofer. Reithofer had been cautiously bullish on electrification and had been one of the driving forces behind the formation of BMW i. Things seemed to begin to change around that time.
It didn't take long before the warning signs started to surface. Less than a year after Krüger took over the reins, four of BMW i's top managers & VPs left the company to join a Chinese electric vehicle startup, later identified as Byton. Dr Carsten Breitfeld, Benoit Jacob, Dirk Abendroth and Henrik Wenders were all integral in the management of BMW's electric car sub-division, BMW i. Since then, other top BMW i executives have left, including the top BMW i program manager, Dr Ulrich Kranz.
I have since had the opportunity to interview two of the four that joined Byton, Dr. Carsten Breitfeld, and Henrik Wanders. They both had nothing but good things to say about BMW, and the colleagues they left behind. However, both said they left because they wanted to be involved in advanced electric vehicle programs, and after creating the i3 & i8, it was their opinion that BMW has a change of direction, and wasn't going to go as aggressively into full electrification as they had originally planned.
Then, in September of 2016, a few months after the executives left, we reported that the Board of Directors skipped the Paris Auto Show to hold meetings on the company's electrification future. It is our opinion that out of those meetings the Board decided they would no longer make purpose-built electric vehicles, with the exception of the two that were already in development, the i4, and the iNext SUV.
Moving forward, BMW would use a new flexible architecture, which they call their 5th generation of electric drivetrains, and they announced it at the 2017 LA Auto Show. Instead of being purpose-built for an electric powertrain, the new platform would allow the vehicle to be built in all propulsion forms, and done so on the same production line. Starting in 2020, all new models will utilize the flexible architecture, making it possible for every new BMW model available in ICE, PHEV and BEV.
The naming will be consistent across models. The all-electric version will have an "i" in front of the model, and the PHEV version will have an "e" after the model name. For instance, the next generation 5-Series may have three versions; the 530, the 530e & the i5. BMW has said that not every model will be available and PHEV and BEV versions, depending on their perception of demand for electric vehicles in the particular segment.
Time will tell if BMW's strategy pays off. Virtually every other automaker (including BMW in the past) has stated that purpose-built electric vehicle platforms are necessary for performance, safety and efficiency. Is BMW being left behind in the electric revolution or do they have the right strategy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.