2014 BMW i3: Carbon Fiber Chassis Sets Up Promising Future for BMW
May 22, 2015
Our long-term 2014 BMW i3 is BMW's Prius. Some enthusiasts decry its existence, but the i3 represents long-term strategic planning that gives the company a technological head start, one that will make the industry play catch-up for years to come.
BMW proudly shows off the i3's carbon fiber construction with the sills, door apertures and roof texture left visible to the naked eye. Their pride is justified. The i3 and i8 are the first fruits of BMW's partnership with carbon fiber producer SGL Group and their combined efforts to manufacture carbon fiber chassis on a mass scale.
No automaker has carbon fiber as a primary chassis material on this scale, not even McLaren, which has made the same(-ish) carbon fiber tub for its entire model range since 2011 at nowhere near the i3's price point. BMW has a huge - dare I say, insurmountable - head start.
Enthusiasts really ought to be excited by the prospects. Our i3 has an as-tested curb weight of 3,124 pounds, which is very light by hybrid-car standards. Then consider that it has no B-pillar either, so it's inherently not as mass-efficient as it could be. A traditional sedan form factor could be even lighter.
The company's endgame is to introduce the material, in part or in whole, across BMW's entire range to slash weight. Sure, the impetus behind the lightweighting effort may be to satisfy CO2/CAFE standards , but this rising tide will lift all boats. After all, who doesn't want a lighter and stiffer body shell? Or slimmer pillars for improved visibility?
We're already seeing the ripple effects of the i3 in the upcoming 2016 7 Series, which leverages lessons learned from the i3/i8 to save weight. The new 7 Series car will use carbon fiber in many of the passenger cell's primary load-bearing components.
Carbon fiber chassis won't be ubiquitous overnight. Cost is still a challenge. Scalability is another. But the potential is huge. I'm reminded of Toyota's decision to bear the exorbitant costs of hybrid powertrain development years and years before everyone else. It was a huge investment for the company, a calculated gamble that paid off spectacularly.
Likewise, BMW's carbon fiber long game is allowing them to stake out technological leadership in the art. Other manufacturers are only talking about carbon fiber. BMW is doing it.
So yes, the i3 represents a bright ray of hope for enthusiasts. A dorky-looking, skinny-tired ray of hope.
Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor