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BMW's quirky new i3

Wed, 31 Jul 2013

The side view of the new BMW i3 electric vehicle takes some getting used to, with no two windows the same size or shape. The i3 is high-waisted through the front door and then there's a notch for a taller rear-passenger window and the rear-hinged rear door and a narrow, tapering window at the rear quarter.

Yet when you look at the underlying structure -- made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic -- an innovative choice for a mass-produced car -- there's a giant side opening from front to rear. There's no B-pillar, even though it looks like there is one where the side doors and the windows meet.

Tall for its size

So why the up-and-down side profile, when structurally there's nothing stopping a smooth, unbroken side profile? Is it form, or function?

“A bit of both,” Adrian van Hooydonk, global head of BMW Group Design, told Autoweek in a recent interview.

“One of the challenges with this car is that it's somewhat taller than the cars we usually do,” he said. The designer explained the purpose-built electric vehicle is laid out with the occupants sitting relatively high for its size, on top of the approximately 500-pound battery pack.

Van Hooydonk said the design team experimented with a lower beltline and smoother lines for the side profile, but straighter lines for the so-called greenhouse made the i3 look disproportionately tall and “heavy,” he said. The notch-y look is also distinctive, the designer said.

No back-seat barf bags

On the practical side, he said that without a notch for the rear-seat window, visibility was poor for rear-seat passengers.

“The likely users of this vehicle will be young families. With the glass pulled down for the rear passenger window it allows a child in the rear seat to easily see out,” van Hooydonk said. “I don't have kids, but I'm told that's key to them not getting sick.”

So the quirky look might take some getting used to, but at least it's less likely to make small children sick.

Wait 'til next year

Ludwig Willisch, president and CEO of BMW of North America, Woodcliff Lake, N.J., said in a separate interview that U.S. sales are expected to start in April 2014. Suggested retail starts at $42,350, plus destination and before a $7,500 federal tax credit, he said.

Suggested retail for a version with a range extender, a two-cylinder gasoline engine to recharge the battery, starts at $45,200. BMW says the expected range on battery power is 80 to 100 miles. With a range extender, expected mileage without recharging or refueling roughly doubles that.

Willisch said “most” but not all of BMW's 330 U.S. dealers are expected to offer the BMW i3. The exceptions will likely be small dealers in isolated markets, he said.

By Jim Henry