CHRISTIAAN HETZNER

BMW envisions its iNext as an SUV

BMW's sketch of the iNext concept shows the long roofline and boxy wheel arches typical of an SUV.
Christiaan Hetzner is Automotive News Europe's Germany correspondent.
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BMW looks likely to follow Audi's e-tron and Mercedes-Benz's EQC with its own battery-powered full-size SUV, the heart of the premium EV market, when the iNEXT debuts in 2021.

A design sketch of the model BMW was teased at its annual meeting on May 17. It showed the silhouette of a vehicle with an extended, downward sloping roofline common to sporty off-roaders.

Although its name would indicate it might be a production version of the BMW Vision Next 100 concept, BMW execs said the iNEXT had nothing to do with the shimmering copper-colored study shown at the brand's centennial celebrations two years ago.

Instead, according to a a BMW executive who declined to be named, the vehicle will be an SUV rather than a passenger car like the Vision Next 100 or the upcoming i4 sedan, which is essentially a battery-powered 4-series Gran Coupe. BMW has not given a launch date for the i4.

This suggests the iNEXT would slot in above the iX3, the i sub-brand's first electric crossover due in 2020, which was shown as a concept in Beijing last month.

It's not without reason that the first purpose-built electric cars by Audi and Mercedes, crucial for lowering their fleet’s CO2 emissions, are full-size SUVs. The addition of an expensive electric powertrain, which is not expected to be cost competitive with combustion engines until 2025, would be less noticeable in the 60,000 euro price segment as opposed to a segment below, like the X3, where crossovers typically sell for 15,000 euros less.

Executives say SUVs are also the body style most in demand worldwide, therefore they offer greater pricing power over a sedan, hatchback or wagon. In China, the world's largest market for both EVs and conventionally fueled cars, the market share of SUVs eclipsed that of sedans last year, according to Volkswagen.

The iNEXT will not only be electric, it is also expected to be the first BMW to feature autonomous driving technology developed jointly in a consortium with key suppliers such as Mobileye, Intel, Continental and Magna.

For now, BMW will have to remain content trying to sell as many i3 electric city cars as it can to help reduce its CO2 fleet emissions ahead of stringent EU targets that take effect in 2020.

Perhaps one day the i3 will find a following, but for now the car remains a slow seller due to its singular focus on sustainability. Tesla has proved that EV buyers may be environmentally conscious but they still want to drive a sexy car, which the i3 is not. BMW has started offering an “s” performance version of the i3, but the problem has always been the basic proportions of the boxy car, not its performance.

The electric vehicle, which also comes with an optional range-extending combustion engine, was egregiously expensive for the company to develop. It required its own dedicated sandwich-style architecture and a plastic body reinforced entirely with carbon fiber.

Despite the heavy costs to produce the vehicle, BMW made headlines recently when it emerged that dealers were offering the car in the U.S. at a monthly lease rate of just $54.

BMW has since said it would limit the use of carbon fiber, which is typically found only in exotic sports cars, to protect profits and it will sell its stake in a joint venture that makes the material.

The iX3 will also be the first in a series of cars from the i subbrand to use a new flexible architecture that can be used for combustion engine cars and battery-powered ones alike, abandoning the approach taken with the i3.

You can reach Christiaan Hetzner at christiaan.hetzner@gmail.com.

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