Did BMW Screw Up Visual Design of i3 Electric Car?

By · October 29, 2013

2014 BMW i3

2014 BMW i3

The all-electric BMW i3 is a marvel of lightweight aerodynamic design. But, in order to succeed in the marketplace, cars have to appeal on a visual and emotional level. That’s what so many BMW vehicles do. And that’s what electric cars especially need to do—given historical misconceptions that electric cars are glorified golf carts. But as the BMW i3 car gets closer to market, criticism of the all-electric city car’s design is starting to grow.

In July, Slate.com, the daily web magazine, compared it to what many reviewers believe is the ugliest car of the 20th century, the Pontiac Aztek. “Let's hope it drives better than it looks,” said Will Oremus,a Slate staff writer. Hannah Elliot, Forbes staff writer, was a bit more kind. “It’s not exactly ugly but it doesn’t exactly offer the taut, sporty appeal of a M3 or a Z4, either,” she wrote.

And just last week, Elon Musk, Tesla’s outspoken chief executive, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper: “My initial impression of the i3 is it looks a bit funny and the range is not high enough. It seems to have been made intentionally weird, as opposed to letting the form follow function. Form should not be artificially weird.”

Taking Medicine

Tesla’s design philosophy—which can be seen in its Roadster and Model S—is to make battery-powered cars every bit as exciting as other luxury performance vehicles. The Maserati-like lines of the Model S are a big part of its success. BMW’s other upcoming plug-in vehicle, the i8, starred in the most recent Mission Impossible movie. But it’s hard to imagine the i3 in a major motion picture, unless perhaps it’s a Will Ferrell comedy.

A couple years ago, just as the first electric cars were hitting the market, Kenny Schachter, a U.K.-based art dealer, criticized EVs. “When you look at electric cars today, it’s almost like the cars are made to look bad,” he said. “It’s almost like the manufacturers want it to be like taking medicine.” Schachter didn’t do much to dispel the notion of an electric car as weird, when he commissioned internationally renowned architect Zaha Hadid to create a limited edition sculptural design for an electric car.

Zaha Hadid EV

Based on the electric car design of famed architect Zaha Hadid, it's best to leave vehicle designs to auto industry professionals.

Part of the problem with Hadid’s design, and the i3, is its size. A full-size sedan, regardless of powertrain, is an easier format for a cool look. Designers have had an hard time finding an appealing design for an electric city car—as evidenced by the design of cars like the i3, Spark EV, and Scion iQ EV. Perhaps the most successful small EV design is the electric version of the Fiat 500, especially when decked out in a striking color combination.

Scion iQ EV
2014 Fiat 500 EV

Top: The Scion iQ EV. Toyota only made about 100 of them.
Bottom: 2014 Fiat 500 EV.

The stakes are high for BMW, because the i3—at $42,200 without the optional range-extender, and $45,300 with it—can’t afford to be dorky.

We shouldn’t rush to judgment on 2014 BMW i3 design, until we see it in the wild. Maybe the i3 will look fresh and exciting in the context of the road. Maybe it could even be a cult hit.

Or it might take a generation or two for BMW to get the design of an all-electric city car to have all the appeal of the company's more attractive gas-powered sedans.

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