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New Car Focus: BMW i4

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By making its latest electric vehicle simpler, Rob Marshall finds that BMW has made the electric car better.

Regardless of whether you are a Bimmer liker, or hater, the company deserves credit for its stance on EVs. Back in 2008, BMW had embarked on ‘Projekt i’, an exercise that involved leasing 500 Battery Electric MINIs to selected North American punters and a further 24 to designated Londoners. This was not environmental greenwash. As BMW saw its moral responsibilities extending beyond the motorcar and into its ‘fuel’, it partnered with Norsk Hydro, the Norwegian hydroelectric firm that generated 28% of Germany’s total electricity supply at the time.

Sure enough, the fruits of the ‘Projekt’ included a continued relationship with hydroelectric power, which BMW now sources more locally and uses it in its factories. This is a crucial point, because EV’s environmental worth is undermined, if produced in a country, where fossil fuels provide most of the electricity, which is the situation in Germany, unlike the UK. ‘Projekt i’ also spawned the intriguing and promisingly different i3 and i8 models. Unfortunately, those high-voltage BMWs were built on expensive bespoke platforms and, despite being interesting and desirable, they are hardly mainstream. The new i4 five-door hatchback, or ‘Gran Coupé’ in BMW marketing parlance, is being launched alongside the iX SUV. Both vehicles are underpinned by the same basic Cluster Architecture (CLAR) BMW’s new i4 Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) is a Gran Coupé (i.e. a five-door hatchback) with dimensions that are similar to those of a current production 3-series. Pictured is the rear-driven i4 eDrive40 platform that is shared with other petrol/diesel/hybrid BMWs, including the G20 3-series.

The BMW i4 eDrive40 is rear-driven, using a 335bhp (250KW) motor, and possesses a 366 miles range between charges and can dispatch 0-60mph in 5.6s. The i4 M50 has the honour of being the first all-electric BMW M car and is equipped with an additional electric motor on the front axle, giving all-wheel drive capability (albeit still with a rear drive bias) and a combined output of 536bhp (400KW), translating into a 0-60mph acceleration time of 3.9s and a 317 miles stated range.

The fifth generation eDrive drive unit comprises the electric motor, inverter and a single-speed transmission. BMW claims it has a 50% higher energy density than a current i3.

BMW claims that the electric drive motors boast a 93% efficiency rating, which helps to keep down the battery size and weight.

Addressing the critics…

The i4’s handsome but conservative looks hints at technical convention. Indeed, on the surface, there is little to surprise and delight: the battery pack is fixed to the floor pan, while the main motor/transmission/differential is mounted beneath the boot floor. Yet, looking closer reveals clever thinking to address common EV criticisms. While the precise battery cell technology is not revealed, BMW has made the batteries less bulky, championing a cell height of 110mm. It is also another manufacturer that realises how disproportionately heavy battery packs harm handling and efficiency. It has also strived to keep pre-assembly component distances as low as possible. BMW produces its prismatic cell modules in Dingolfing (Germany), the flexible assembly specifications of which vary according to model. The batteries are then transported to Munich. The i4 possesses four modules, containing 72 cells each and three 12-cell modules, giving a gross energy content of 83.9kWh. The battery warranty lasts for just under 100,000 miles, or eight years.

While it cannot do much about the locations in which the precious metals are situated, BMW has taken the human rights problems of cobalt mining into its own hands, by sourcing the rare element from mines in Australia, rather than the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The company has also strived to reduce the cobalt content within the battery packs, although as the ~5% cobalt (traditionally) accounts for ~95% of a traditional high voltage battery’s scrap value (lithium is relatively worthless), this might make it harder to justify recycling from an economics point of view. Even so, BMW claims a 90% recycling rate, compared to the EU legal limit of 50% by weight.

BMW i4 assembly takes place in Munich, on the same production lines as petrol/diesel/hybrid 3-series and M3 models.

The i4’s high-voltage battery pack is fitted to the underside by a fully-automated system.

Perhaps more importantly, BMW utilises electromagnetism to replace permanent magnets within the drive motors, avoiding the need for expensive and rare earth elements to be used in their production. This is a radical departure from convention, by making its EV less dependent on very rare and expensive elements. With the US considering the imposition of tariffs on neodymium magnet imports, BMW’s decision may be crucial to reduce the cost of EV production – although whether these savings will be passed to the customer, or not, is another question altogether.

Under the skin…

The voice-activated HVAC system possesses three zones. The cabin filter uses nano-fleece technology and more conventional activated carbon to enable ultra-fine dust and even certain micro-bacterial particles to be kept out of the cabin. A pre-conditioning function can be activated by the driver via the BMW smartphone app, prior to entering the car.

The basic thermal management (i.e. not just cooling but also heating) for the battery and associated hardware comprises three coolant circuits, interconnected by electric valves, all of which share a common expansion tank. This can, for example, allow heat from the drive motor to warm the battery pack. The new heat pump system uses 75% less energy than the current i3 and consists of a high-voltage refrigerant compressor, a pair of evaporators, a water-cooled condenser, and two 9KW heaters for extremely cold conditions. Surprisingly, the resultant energy savings can increase driving range by up to 30%. While the advantages offered by enhanced battery density, less weight and a more efficient drive unit benefit handling and acceleration, BMW has also considered that EVs tend to have feeble towing capacities. Yet, the i4 can tow up to 1,000 kgs.

Dependent on specification, up to 40 ADAS systems can feature, although they all work using camera, radar and/or ultrasonic sensors. Out of the six categories of automation, defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, the i4’s systems achieve Level Two (i.e. ‘partial automation’), where both steering and speed are controlled simultaneously. While Distance Cruise Control is hardly novel, the i4’s system can also stop the car at red traffic light signals. While BMW says this feature is unique to the segment, it has not been confirmed if its availability is restricted only to the German market. The Route Monitoring function is another noteworthy feature, because it uses the satellite navigation system to select the appropriate speed for the selected route.

Summary: By normalising its new BEV, BMW has improved the electric vehicle in several important ways, especially by reducing its environmental impact at the manufacturing stage. The i4 will be available in the UK from November. Prices start at £51,905 for the i4 eDrive40 and commence at £63,905 for the i4 M50.

Compared with the i4 eDrive40, the i4 M50’s suspension differs by possessing adaptive M suspension dampers, an additional front strut brace, an increased track width (26mm front, 12mm rear), increased negative camber at the front axle and additional rear axle reinforcement. Both models boast self-levelling rear air springs.

 

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