BMW reboots its EV line with iX/i4 models: Big grilles, big screens

— BMW brought its traveling electric-vehicle show to the Garden Theater in Detroit this summer to show off the all-new iX and i4.

The i-siblings demonstrated an evolved BMW EV exterior design with bold, full-fascia kidney grilles and simplified interiors centered around big, high-resolution screens stuffed with smartphone-like electronics. Due in U.S. showrooms early next year, the Bimmers come in the wake of the Ford Mustang Mach-E and Audi e-tron vehicles (and ahead of Cadillac’s first all-electric Lyriq crossover, due in 2023) as luxury automakers race to catch up to EV sales-leader Tesla.

iX is a midsize SUV aimed at the Tesla Model X. With a similar footprint to BMW’s gas-powered, $62k X5 SUV, the iX starts at $84,195. The $56,395 i4 is an athletic sedan similar in size to BMW’s iconic, $42k 3-series and targets the $38k Tesla Model 3.

“The IX and i4 set a benchmark for our battery-electric vehicles going forward,” said BMW executive VP of operations Shaun Bugbee from the theater’s stage, where the models were displayed. “These vehicles are not just about performance but about sustainability. By 2050, we expect 50% of our sales globally will be electrified.”

The battery-powered iX and i4 amount to a reboot of BMW’s electric i-sub-brand, which debuted with the small i3 plug-in hybrid a decade ago. Like other EVs not named Tesla, the i-line has struggled with high sticker prices and inferior range compared with their gas-engine counterparts. EV sales made up less than 2% of the U.S. market in 2020 — with the highest number of sales in green-conscious California, where Tesla is headquartered.

The $45,445 i3 boasted 153 miles of range with the option of a small gasoline engine extending range to 200 miles. It debuted in 2013 to rave media reviews, winning two World Car of the Year Awards and 2014 World Green Car of the Year.

But the funky-looking box found few buyers, selling just 42,000 units by decade’s end. Its sister i8 sports car, replete with suicide doors and a $150,000 price tag, also sold few copies and has been discontinued. By contrast, Tesla’s midsize Model S sedan — introduced at the same time as i3, yet costing 50% more — sold 180,000 units by 2020. Tesla now sells that many of its Model 3 sedans annually.

The iX and i4 attempt to make the sub-brand more relevant to U.S. customers by right-sizing the cars to match popular segments — and by bench-marking to Tesla.

A brand that has been the standard for luxury performance for decades, BMW now follows the Silicon Valley automaker’s design and electronics lead.

Underneath a panoramic sunroof, iX and i4 feature chassis with big-battery modules beneath the passenger compartment. A digital key recognizes the owner’s smartphone and turns on the vehicles upon entry. Electric motors power the wheels with rear or all-wheel drive (iX comes standard with two-motor AWD). Regenerative braking allows one-pedal driving. Simple, screen-dominated interiors are roomy without a gas-engine prop-shaft to the rear wheels. Screens are lush with graphics and over-the-air updates.

Conspicuously missing is a “frunk” (front trunk) that manufacturers like Tesla and Ford use for extra cargo space.

The Bimmers tout a Tesla-like camera for theft detection, self-driving assist (though not as aggressive as Tesla’s controversial Autopilot) — even screen graphics indicating the proximity of other vehicles nearby.

The i-models, both hatchbacks, then build on this Tesla formula with signature BMW features.

The chassis are not clean sheet “skateboard architectures” but are derived from existing X5 and 3-series unibody platforms. The huge BMW kidney grilles — first seen on the gas-powered BMW 4-series — can practically be seen from space. They are largely decorative since there is no gas engine that needs to be fed air. But they contain radar, cameras and ultrasonic gear for self-driving assist as well as what BMW calls “self-healing.”

“(A) polyurethane coating reduces the kidney grille’s susceptibility to damage. The self-healing effect of its surface repairs minor scratches, for example — within 24 hours at room temperature or through a five-minute supply of warm air,” says BMW in its press release.

To enhance performance, batteries are integrated into the chassis for added stiffness. For example, i4′s battery pack is joined to the floor assembly with 22 bolts, and the battery enclosure is bonded to the front-axle subframe.

Though heavy compared with their gas-powered peers, the i-siblings use the low-slung battery weight to their advantage. The base-trim i4 eDrive40′s center of gravity is 2.1 inches lower than a gas-powered 3-series sedan. A more powerful performance variant — the i4 M50 — has a center of gravity 1.3 inches lower. iX and i4 benefit from aluminum chassis while iX also lightweights with carbon fiber body pieces.

BMW alphanumerics can make your brain hurt and i-models are proof. But the iX badge is consistent with the brand’s SUV nomenclature (X3, X4, X5, and so on) while M badges designate a performance version.

The dual-motor i4 M50 is the first M-badge for the sub-brand and features 536 horsepower/586 pound-feet-of-torque compared with the standard, rear-wheel-motor eDrive40′s 335 hp/317 torque. The AWD, dual-motor iX xDrive50 comes standard with 516 horsepower/564 torque and will hit 60 mph in just 4.6 seconds.

Bimmer cockpits are sparse — anchored by continuous, curved, 27.2-inch, horizontal screens that start behind the signature, hexagonal steering wheel (like a Chevy Corvette C8 to better view the displays) across the console dash. The screens stand upright with no traditional “hood” above the instrument display. Climate vents are below; head-up display is available.

Like Tesla, the screen can be controlled by touch or with voice commands. Unlike Tesla, the screens can also be accessed by a remote, rotary controller — wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available as well.

EV shortcomings in cost and range are on display in both the iX and i4.

i4 sedan starts about $14k more more than the gas-powered 3-series (before available federal and state tax credits). The i4 xDrive40 begins $18k north of a starter Tesla Model 3. The iX is about $21,000 more than a comparable BMW X5.

BMW has not invested in a proprietary, fast-charging network like Tesla but will instead rely on third-party chargers across the country. iX and i40 xDrive40 tout range of about 300 miles — or about half that of their gas-powered peers. The i4 M’s range is 245 miles.

Plugged into a 240-volt wall charger at home, i-models will charge overnight in eight to 11 hours. On the road, fast-charging can take up to 40 minutes to reach 80% battery capacity. To help plan your trip, BMW’s navigation software includes restaurants and retail stores near charging stations to pass the time.

To attract carbon prohibitionists, BMW heads for the moral high ground. “BMW has partnered with EVgo, the nation’s largest public fast charging network and the first in the U.S. to be powered by 100% renewable energy,” boasts the German brand.

The i-brand is more than transportation, it’s a comprehensive rework of the manufacturing process to address BMW’s concerns over its carbon footprint. “A climate-friendly car is not created solely by using green power. We must design our vehicles for sustainability from the very first day of development,” said Oliver Zipse, chairman of BMW’s Board of Management.

To that end, the BMW iX and i4 meticulously follow the green rule book with earth-friendly construction, including Australia-sourced lithium, leather tanned with olive leaves and recycled materials like “surface of floor mat and floor coverings made of 100% nylon (partly fishing nets recovered from the sea).”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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2022 BMW M340i. Metro Creative Service photo.

2022 BMW M340i. Metro Creative Service photo.
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2022 BMW M340i. Metro Creative Service photo.

Caption
This photo provided by BMW shows the next-generation iDrive operating system and infotainment screen that will debut on the upcoming BMW iX electric vehicle. (BMW of North America via AP)

Credit: AP

This photo provided by BMW shows the next-generation iDrive operating system and infotainment screen that will debut on the upcoming BMW iX electric vehicle. (BMW of North America via AP)
Caption
This photo provided by BMW shows the next-generation iDrive operating system and infotainment screen that will debut on the upcoming BMW iX electric vehicle. (BMW of North America via AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP