BMW morphs electric flagship iNext from car to SUV

Oliver Sachgau and Gabrielle Coppola

BMW AG unveiled the latest iteration of its planned electric-car flagship, morphing what started out as low-slung cruiser into a sporty SUV, as the German luxury-car maker scrambles to keep pace with rivals.

The slender and distinctive rear lights extend a long way into the iNEXT’s rear end and emphasise its appearance. The air flows along the roof and this combines with a diffuser – that is illuminated for added impact – to enhance the car’s aerodynamics.

The iNext concept – revealed inside a cargo plane – is close to the production version, which is set to be released in 2021, according to development chief Klaus Froehlich. Design touches include a diamond-patterned front, replacing the iconic BMW grille.

In the centre of the front end stands a large, upright kidney grille. As with all electrically powered vehicles, the grille is blanked off. With no combustion engine to require cooling, the kidney element now serves as an “intelligence panel” housing various sensors.

The stark changes from the original 2016 prototype, known as Vision Next 100, reflect the difficulties developing a model intended as a standard bearer for future design and technology. It also suggests BMW misread the market as rivals already roll out electric SUVs. Mercedes Benz will start production of the EQC crossover in the first half of next year, Audi is showing its e-tron crossover in San Francisco next week, and Jaguar’s battery-powered I-Pace is already hitting the streets.

The BMW iNEXT will assume the role of a new technology flagship for the company.

BMW counters that it beat peers with the battery-powered i3 in 2013, while the iNext will go beyond what competitors are offering with advanced self-driving capabilities and a driving range of about 600 kilometers (370 miles).

“It’s very important that this car adds something, but it doesn’t take away anything of the typical BMW,” Froehlich said.

The large panoramic roof of the iNEXT floods the interior with light, creating a cheerful, welcoming atmosphere.

The iNext is a critical part of BMW’s efforts to regain the lead in global luxury-car sales from Mercedes and also fend off the likes of Tesla Inc. The company is banking on the vehicle to rekindle excitement for a broader rollout of new models on the coattails of the 2021 launch.

Two individual seats in the front plus a one-piece bench in the rear mean there is room for up to four people.

In the meantime, BMW is taking a conservative approach to electric vehicles. It’s planning to sell an electric-powered Mini in 2019, followed by a battery-powered variant of the X3 SUV.

Glass surfaces such as the large windows and the lights are integrated seamlessly into the design and have the appearance of elaborate inlays.

The iNext’s focus will mainly be on self-driving. The car will be able to steer, brake and accelerate on its own but a driver needs to be prepared to grab the wheel – what’s known as conditional automation, or Level 3 technology. While the car could do more, unlocking those capabilities will depend on new rules being passed.

At the BMW AG Annual General Meeting in May 2018, Harald Krüger, Chairman of the Board of Management at the BMW Group, described iNext as follows: “The iNEXT project will provide our building blocks for the future, from which the entire company and all of its brands are set to benefit.”

“The regulators in the world work at different speed,” Froehlich said. “I am quite concerned Europe won’t be fast enough.”