FRANKFURT -- BMW expects to launch a second-generation of its slow-selling i3 electric car even though the automaker has sold only over 60,000 units since its debut in late 2013.
During a similar three-year period by comparison, electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla had sold a cumulative 107,000 units of its Model S by the end of last year. Unlike its Silicon Valley rival, however, BMW took a fundamentally different approach, designing a car for major metropolitan areas where energy efficiency and compact dimensions take priority over electric range and quick acceleration.
When asked whether a replacement would come, i3 project manager Heinrich Schwackhoefer told Automotive News Europe: “I firmly expect that. It’s not the sentiment within the company that it’s been a failure – absolutely not at all.”
He said the i3, which recently won Germany's prestigious Golden Steering Wheel in the category of eco-friendly cars for the second time in four years, had a lower electricity consumption as well as a smaller carbon footprint on a well-to-wheel basis versus the Tesla Model S thanks to its lighter battery.
Nevertheless the i3 is struggling to gain traction, much like EVs in general. Figures from the EU Commission-backed European Alternative Fuels Observatory, show the i3 was only the fifth best-selling model among battery electric vehicles this year, trailing behind competitors such as the Tesla Model S and the Volkswagen e-Golf. At 5,421 units sold its year-to-date volumes are just a third that of Europe'S best selling EV, the Renault Zoe.
To shore up support BMW introduced in July a second, more powerful i3 with a 33 kWh lithium ion battery compared to the original 22 kWh version equipped with energy-dense 94 ampere-hour (Ah) cells. The energy-dense cells increase the i3's range to 300 km (186 miles), up from 190 km, measured by the New European Driving Cycle, without requiring longer charging times. This compares to the 190 km from the 22 kWh version now marketed as the “i3 (60 Ah).”
Since then sales have enjoyed a temporary surge, rising 34 percent year-on-year in July to 2,358 units worldwide and then by 70 percent to 2,848 in August, before volumes started to even out again.
While September sales dropped by 16 percent in September to 2,838, due largely to the U.S. where the newer version had just been launched, volume rebounded 5.7 percent in October to 2,367 cars.
A BMW spokeswoman said the September decline was partly due to delays with the i3 range-extender. Last year, just over half of all new i3 models registered in Germany were equipped with a small combustion engine to charge the battery and extend the car's range.
“The ‘i’ subbrand is stable and you can count on a successor to the i3, but I cannot say when that will be,” Schwackhoefer said.
The longer range i3 starts at 36,150 euros in Germany, or 1,200 euros more than the i3 with 60 Ah cells, in part because of the high-tech body structure is made up of lightweight plastic reinforced by a carbon-fiber weave for strength.
While BMW may not enjoy the same demand as Tesla, its traditional German rivals Audi and Mercedes-Benz have yet to even launch their own purpose-built electric vehicles. The Audi e-tron Quattro won’t debut until 2018 with the Mercedes EQ coming by the end of the decade.