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Car and Driver: BMW i Chief: i5 EV Model Coming, Will Offer Optional Range-Extender

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BMW-i5-Christian-Schulte-e1457460340361-
-It’s fair to say that BMW’s i range has, until now, been more a pair of distantly related cousins than it has been a close-knit automotive family. The i3 and i8 are both fascinating vehicles, but being an electric city car and a hybrid sports car, they have left what could be described as a chasm-sized gap in the middle of the range.

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Which is where the BMW i5 will come in, as a car capable of appealing to those who want to travel longer distances and carry more stuff under electric power. Details are still being kept under tight guard, but an interview with i’s head of product, Henrik Wenders, has shed some light on what we can expect.

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First, and most significant, we have confirmation that BMW will offer a range-extending internal-combustion engine as an option, meaning that the i5 will be an electric vehicle rather than, as some reports have previously suggested, a hybrid. “The range extender plays an important part in the next years when range remains a limiting factor and a source of anxiety,” Wenders told us when we spoke to him. “Of course once we get to a range that is more comparable with that of an internal-combustion engine it will become obsolete. So this is the reason I can say we will continue to offer the range-extender in the future as optional equipment, to address different customer needs.”

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Apparently the i3’s optional engine (we tested this version of the car roughly 18 month ago) has tended to be little more than a comfort blanket. “At the beginning of the i3, the [take rate of the] range extender was much more than we expected,” Wenders said. “More than 60 percent. It’s decreasing dramatically now and what we’re seeing is that people are almost never using it and that it was purely a psychological thing; it is being regularly used in fewer than five percent of i3s.”

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“The i3 is mainly the second or third car in the household,” Wenders told us. “We are thinking of a new i model above it to attract families, and that means it must be capable of being the first car in the household. We are still working very hard on the usage concept, but this needs to be defined by the market and not by us.” (You can see our artist’s interpretation of what the i5 might look like at the top of this post.)

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2015 BMW i8

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Range is always the big question when it comes to future electric models, and although Wenders acknowledged that a larger car would be expected to deliver a longer range, he refused to be drawn into specifics of what he would regard as a minimum. “Internally, there are lots of discussions. I try to represent the customer and I am always requesting maximum range, but the engineering perspective is that you have to be very careful. We have to provide a battery with a certain longevity, and we need to provide a battery and drivetrain that—from a CO2 investment—still makes sense. We are not going to join the race about maximum range figures. Currently if you compare those figures and see what kind of energy investment is behind it, you often see the total carbon footprint of those models is higher than for a car with an internal-combustion engine. That doesn’t make any kind of sense.”

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BMW’s strategy is to use developments in battery technology to offer incremental upgrades over time, hence the recently announced decision to offer the i3 with an upgraded battery pack alongside the existing model. Wenders also confirmed that a carbon-fiber structure is a certainty for the i5, and any other future i models. “One of i’s roles is as an enabling brand, to help industrialize new materials and processes. We have already opened the door with the i3 and we will take it from there.”

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But will future i models be able to match the emotional appeal that has given Tesla its sometimes rabid fanbase? “I am highly subjective here, but I am convinced that we have the emotional connection already with our audience,” Wenders said, “but we are not keen on building a separate brand with a separate portfolio. That would be to talk about a separate company, one that you might see as an independent competitor to the Tesla brand. But that’s not our story, we are a sub-brand, part of the most successful premium carmaker in the world. We want to continue that story. We have the opportunity to be the spearhead, we can test new materials, new design languages, new body concepts. Innovation is our strength.”

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The talk of new body concepts brings a more prosaic angle: Why haven’t we seen a convertible i model yet? Wenders refuses to be drawn on the specifics, but does admit, with a broad smile, that “the advantage of the carbon structure is that it’s so rigid you could take away the roof without destabilizing the car.”

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A range extender for a hybrid car has been around for years ... it's call a gas can. A range extender for a full electric is called a tow truck.

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