Thursday, April 10, 2014

Is The BMW i3 "Too European" For the US Market?

It's been called edgy, futuristic, polarizing, ground breaking and even flat out hideous. It has funky lines, rear coach (suicide) doors that can't be opened unless the front doors are and rear windows that are permanently closed. The nose has a pronounced "underbite" that any respectful orthodontist would love to correct and the tires are so skinny they look like they should be on something coming out of BMW Motorrad, and certainly not on a proper BMW automobile.

The internet is full of extremely harsh criticism of the i3's exterior styling. However most seem to praise the interior for it's modern, stylish and open feel, especially for such a small car. I don't think I've read a single article where the author didn't at least approve of the interior design, while most gave it very high marks. The term "Scandinavian loft" has been used frequently to describe the modern, open feeling the i3's interior offers.

But then there's the unconventional exterior styling that many people just can't get past. I have to admit, I didn't love it when I first saw it, but I never actually hated it. Then I felt a lot better once I saw it in person and got to drive it. The styling has definitely grown on me and I genuinely like how it looks now.  Others don't fell the same way. In fact, the i3's unique appearance has been discussed ad nauseum since its introduction. Here are a few examples:

On this message board, one person asked the question: Did they try to make it ugly?

Brad Berman of Did BMW screw up the visual design of i3 electric car?

Perhaps one of the most offensive stories was from The Slate when they wrote: BMW i3 review: Electric car is a cheap, ugly Tesla Model S with an SUV on the side

Would this Citroen be popular in the US?
Then I started thinking about all the criticism and began to wonder if it is mostly driven by American opinions. BMW has consistently maintained the i3 is a "city car". Unlike Europe, city cars just haven't been accepted here yet. The European roads are full of small cars that would certainly appear "unconventional" to American motorists. Take smart for instance. There are smart cars everywhere you look in Europe, yet smart can barely sell a few hundred cars a month in the entire US. Also, many of the cars there look a bit more modern than what you typically find on American roads. Are Europeans just more accepting of new ideas and styling that pushes the limits of acceptability? Is form following function an easier sell to the European car buyer than it is to their American counterpart?

John Voelcker, editor of Green Car Reports and one of the industries most respected journalists covering the green car and alternative powertrain scene recently wrote this: 

"I'd agree that the BMW i3 is the best city car yet developed. Which is fine for Europe. The problem is that in North America, virtually no one has ever said, "Honey, we need to go buy a city car!"

Will America warm up to the unconventional BMW i3?
This does make sense but I'd argue that while it is a "city car", it is just as well served for the outlying suburbs of the big cities, making it a great commuter car for the daily grind, while still offering the spirited driving experience many want for the weekend joy ride. Which leads to the next questionable decision BMW made which is likely part of the reason so many people have been critical and that's the range. You can't go too far on that weekend cruise unless you paid the additional $3,850 and got the range extender. The EPA range rating hasn't been announced yet but it's widely expected that the i3's electric range will be officially pegged at about 80 to 85 miles per charge. America's a big country and with gasoline relatively cheap compared to the average price in Europe it's common to drive hundreds of miles at a clip here. I believe if BMW would have increased the i3's range a bit, so the EPA range rating was 100 or more miles, they would have eliminated a lot of the negativity surrounding the car so far. Of course the Europeans would like more range also (who doesn't?). It just seems less important there since they are likely to drive less than we do in the US and some would argue that European customers look at a car purchase more pragmatically in many cases.

BMW CEO Reithofer introduces the i3
Will the "unique" styling and short range conspire to limit the i3's success in the US market? Only time will tell. There will certainly be an initial surge of orders but once they are filled will the i3 continue to attract eco-conscious buyers to the brand. According to BMW, i3 ordering has been robust and they have over 11,000 orders in the bank worldwide. US ordering has just recently begun and the first deliveries are due here in only a few weeks but BMW hasn't said how many of the 11,000 orders have come from American customers.  BMW must be happy with i3 sales so far though because they recently ordered two more Engle molding machines that make i3 body shell components. They are only about six months into production so if they need to buy more production machinery already, that is likely a good sign.

Ready or not America, here i come!
What do you think? Do you like the i3's appearance? Do you hate it or are you in the middle? Will it be more accepted by European customers or will it have universal appeal? Let me know in the comments below.


  1. Very interesting angle that I have to back up. I've lived in the US for twelve years. When I first arrived, I couldn't find any US cars that had styling or design that I liked the look of - none. Was that because the US can't design anything? I thought so but then the Apple Mac disproved that. The Mac embodied industrial design that was striking fresh and clean... Oh, that was designed by a brit. So, I'm left with the impression that the US can't design. This cannot be true - a whole nation cannot be bad at design, the laws of average don't stack up.

    Then I realized, there are no small hot-hatch designs and it was those that I missed. But, why are American cars big, great in a straight line, softly suspended and useless at going around corners? Answer: The same reason that elephants are big - it’s all down to the habitat. UK cars are typically found on backroads often only marginally wider than the car, roads that are cut along the property lines of 12th century land owners rather than point-to-point interstate flows - there’s no concept of a twelve lane highway in the UK.

    I grew up loving hot-hatches like the GTI, XR3 and R5Turbo so for me, the i3 is pretty normal apart from one problem - why is the interior brown? Where’s the black, silver, and the carbon fibre from the UK version? That’s still a mystery for me.

    1. Excellent analysis Michael. Good to hear that from someone that has experienced both cultures. Thanks for chiming in!

    2. Michael, the iconic first Macintosh was indeed an American design. Jonathan Ive, the Mac-designing brit you're referring to, was only 17 when the first Mac was introduced in 1984. His involvement with Apple Products began as a consultant with the initial Powerbook designs. He became a full-time Apple employee in 1992.

  2. Nice commentary, Tom, and pretty much on point. As you know, I'm not a big fan of the i3 styling, but I've gotten used to it and don't notice the odd rear side window so much any more. I think that is representative of American car tastes, as well. Mainstream America likes the familiar—that's why the big-selling family sedans pretty much all look the same: Accord, Camry, and yes, BMW's 3-Series (all comfortably boring). Edgy designs do well in the niche and youth markets—Hyundai and Kia come to mind.

    The suicide doors are a compromise, adding accessibility at the cost of complexity—in structure, and in the way seat-belts are anchored. I don't need the extra doors, so would rather have the simpler structure. For a world population that is increasingly less athletic, however, easier accessibility was obviously seen as a big plus.

    BMW did its i3 marketing research all over the world, and you're absolutely right: long range is not so important elsewhere. But even in the U.S., most people do not drive that many miles per day (notwithstanding a very vocal minority in the EV enthusiast community). "Range anxiety" was a creation of automotive journalists, who seem to be, for the most part, high-power ICE junkies—a pretty conservative bunch, always looking for the sensationalist angle to a story. There are plenty of other choices for people who need greater daily range.

    I think we should keep in mind that the i3 and i8 are BMW's first electric cars, with more models to come. The i3 doesn't have to gain mainstream acceptance to do well; demand seems to be outstripping production capacity. Its funky styling is attracting attention to BMW's i cars, however, in a way that more conventional styling never could. And what automotive journalist could ignore the i8?! The most interesting question for me is what BMW will do with future models. I suspect likely less controversial, and more familiar (but hopefully a little edgy, with a big dose of feel-good!).

    1. You make good points. I'd also like to add that the edgy design lets you know you're driving something different/special. To me, the i3 and i8 look like Sci-Fi cars and have that cool factor. Conversely, the Tesla Model S does nothing for me. In fact. I think the Model S front is ugly and the car itself looks like a 4-door Mitsubishi Eclipse or Mercury Cougar. The Model X is pure ugly to me. Everytime I see it I envision Mork adding wheels to his spaceship from "Mork and Mindy".

      Living in CA, I live in a condo with no private charging port. I think a lot of young professionals that would like an EV are in the same situation. We just don't know when we'll be able to get to a public charger. If I lived in a single family or town house I would go BEV. However, I think since a majority of sales will be in CA and large numbers of people live in condos, that is why the REx is the popular option.

    2. Chris Liana, I will not try to discredit YOUR experiences with driving in the US, but I can tell that from MY OWN, the concept od range anxiety is not a creation of automotive journalists. Some days I barely drive 35 miles total. Others (yesterday) I drive over 100.

      I work in the auto industry (though not as a journalist) and I've been on both sides of the range anxiety coin. On the positive side of the coin, my wife's vehicle is a Chevrolet Volt. It has a gasoline powered range extender for the sole purpose of eliminating range anxiety. I can say that the times I've driven it, it does that quite nicely. Even so, I tend to focus on driving in a manner to not need it. In the two years she's had it, I've filled the 9 gallon tank 8 times.

      I also spent a weekend with a battery electric vehicle that, after charging overnight on my wife's 240V charger told me it had 85 miles of range. To that car's credit, it was spot on. The fact that I know it was spot on is because I drove it to within 2 miles of its range limit. The last several miles was anxiety inducing. First the HVAC turned itself off. There were 4 of us in the vehicle. The windows started to fog quickly. Then the stereo turned itself off. Final it announced that it was going into low power mode. Think "turtle mode". The only thing that kept me from panicking was the fact that the info center said I had 5 miles of range and I knew the 240V charger in my company garage was 3 miles away. Had that not been the case, I would have panicked and wished I were behind the wheel of my wife's Volt.

    3. James, most people in the U.S. drive fewer than 40 miles per day. Anxiety is created when journalists say that 65 or 80-mile range BEVs are likely to leave you stranded after the battery runs down. The impression given is that the range limitation is the big flaw of BEVs, making potential buyers anxious about buying or driving one.

      If you regularly drive at or above the average range of a particular BEV, then you should not buy that car. People in that situation (often automotive journalists who regularly drive more than the BEV's range, but who have been tasked with reviewing it) should just accept that they need to buy a different car, that better meets their particular needs.

      You cite your OWN experiences of having BEV range anxiety as evidence that it's a trait of BEVs. It seems you should be driving a car that satisfies your driving requirements, and therefore does not give you range anxiety.

      BEVs aren't for everyone. I for one like the idea that a BEV can start out every morning with a full "tank," versus an ICE car that too often greets you with a fuel gauge needle hovering near "E."

  3. I've heard many people comment about my Active E that the reason they like it so much is because it looks like a "normal" car. Having said that, the Prius only starting ramping up sales when the body styling was changed to make the car look distinctive. I think there are certainly going to people who dislike the i3 styling enough not to buy the car but I hope there will be enough others out there who like the fact that it looks very different than anything on the road. People like to make a statement with their car. I think when people start associating the distinctive i3 styling with both unparalleled high performance and eco-friendly living, the demand should be strong. I pledge to help enhance that marketing effort along by driving my car as aggressively as legally possible ;-)

  4. Nicely put. We have our share of niggles about the appearance but I don't believe we're as critical as the US press has been

  5. It seems to me that the design of the car is one of the best currently in the automotive industry, I liked since I saw the first prototype and luckily have retained most of its design and also the compact car i like much. But then, I'm european, live in Europe and I live near a large city, and I value the design on a car, both the design of the exterior and interior.

    By the way, I also love the design of the Citroen C4 Picasso that you put in the picture, and his successor has just hit the market.

  6. Tom, in terms of my use I am not really sure what a city car is. Besides local driving, I drive California freeways three times a week from Huntington Beach, California to the Westside of Los Angeles, downtown, the eastern end of the San Gabriel Valley and just to get around Orange County. The I3 is perfect for the greater part of my travel needs--needs which I think replicate the driving habits of many Southern Californians. Thus, my decision to buy the i3 had little to do with the notion of it being a city car, but, rather with it being a car that could meet my all-around weekly driving needs. I think BMW would be well suited to changes its PR pitch with regards to the city car business in the states.

    I did purchase the i3 Rex--yet to arrive--as I was anxious about the range issue, but I suspect I will use it very little once I accustom myself to the intricacies of driving electric. In short, I don't think the decision of American drivers to purchase the i3 will have much if anything to do with the notion that it is a city car. You are right, that's a European designation and mind set. You are also right that it will have to do with the question of range and only experience and word of mouth will calm anxieties in this matter but BMW will be well served to extend the range of the Rex or develop a larger battery.

    As for looks, well, California roads are covered with Priuses. The new Prius C, smaller my guess than the i3,is seen everywhere. The beauty of these cars if it exists at all is nothing to write home about and yet they sell in great numbers. When the Volkswagen Beatle dominated roads years ago they similarly were not a thing of beauty but they were deemed funky or cute or whatever. and they appealed to a particular demographic in the market. My opinion is that the i3 will not succeed or fail on exterior looks. Nor will it fail on the spaciousness of its back seats--look at the Prius C.

    Americans like acceleration and the they will get it with the i3. Americans like hi tech and gadgets in their vehicles and they will get them with the i3. Americans like convenience and they will get that with a few exceptions with the i3. I am giving up my Lexus LS 460 L, the largest sedan made by Lexus for the i3. Like many others switching to electric vehicles for the first time, there is an anxiety factor even as we are excited about our purchase, and a large part of that anxiety has to do with the issue of range and the unfamiliarity of dealing with charging stations. These are the issues that will make or break the i3 in my view in the American market. Meanwhile, I am anxiously awaiting the sticker decision of the ARB in California and hope that BMW will get its act together with the ARB to make this happen soon as I cannot complete the purchase of my i3 until the vehicle is certified. Now that's something that will discourage potential buyers and make those of us already committed to think twice about our decision.

  7. Tom, this is really great food for thought. As you know, I am a European living in NJ and driving (and enjoying) iMiEV for over 2 years, now. Yes, Europeans appreciate little cars much more. It has a lot to do with the price of gasoline in Europe and different infrastructure. In the USA, we are spread out, driving long distances a lot and those distances grew during 20th century as the vehicles got improved.

    Car manufacturers (just like other manufacturing businesses) work vastly on consumer insight principle, that is, we (car makers) observe our consumers and deliver on their needs. Quite frankly, they have done a great job. And, since we (EV advocates) tend to stress that EVs are simpler in design than ICE, we have to give hats off to those who have been perfecting "more complicated" ICE cars over the last 100 years. The engines got much more efficient but the overall MPG did not because the consumer asked to increase vehicle size and performance in exchange for better MPG. This trend makes me nauseous but I guess it is a human nature. I continue to be naughty and drop off my 2 kids to a day care every day with my iMiEV while others drop off one child in a big SUV.

    Do I know how the consumer behavior will evolve in the future? Absolutely not! I just hope that it will move towards EVs. And BMW is doing wonderful job with their i3 campaign. At the same time, I start to think that the US entity that will benefit from EV proliferation the most will be the whole nation or government, not the individuals (that is why they are giving us the tax break on EV purchase). Conversely, in Europe, governments are used to collecting hefty tax on fuels, hence they will only loose from EV's (I think). In Europe, the end consumers will benefit the most... ... once the upfront cost of EV's drop below certain threshold.

    So, regarding my perception of i3 design - I do not care as long as it is efficient EV!


  8. Hi Tom,

    I can only comment as a european here, if that’s ok.

    What the $1m question could be: do Americans, especially suburbians, dig short cars ? Note that I’m calling the i3 ‘short’, because exactly small it is not, by EU standards at least. My family members and friends were/are usually surprised by the substance of the car. It’s just very short with its stubby nose and no behind.

    It could absolutely be that i3 doesn’t appeal to 99% of the American public, but that *could* be right on target. Just look at the marketing material of BMW closely, it tells you what their target demographic looks like. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that the whole of Europe (or Europeans) looks like BMW’s video’s. It does not. So 99% of ‘us’ don’t buy into that i3 thing as well…

    The styling or percieved quality will not be the defining aspect I guess. American design can be as good as any (the Eameses, Frank Lloyd Wright, Raymond Loewy, Frank Gehry, you name it) as can the eye for product quality (eg. Herman Miller, Apple and many more). So I would guess a nice and well made product could find its way on the USA market.

    But does BMWs dreamed target, the American, well to do suburbian neo-yup, self conscious enough to be seen in such a strange, short car, exist in the real world ? That’s my question back at you ;)

    Regards, Steven

    PS: the i3 was very well perceived in the Dutch press. The funny thing is that the road-test in ‘Autovisie’ (the leading Dutch magazine) they weren’t going on about range at all. Coverage was mainly about i3s many strong points. In the roadtest of the E-golf in the last issue, it was back to bashing E-mobility (translated loosely): …it is a VW golf as we know it and expect it to be, but with a limp,because it can only drive 150 km… (and so on). The i3 has stolen some hearts here :)

    1. As a reaction to rereading myself: likely not the best piece of prose ever produced. Perhaps it did come out more 'pointy' than intended, sorry 'bout that. Steven

  9. Is the 3 series a "European" design? It is very much liked and accepted in the US. If the current objective of the EV is to be accepted by a wider audience, then making a quirky and controversial design, which is unnecessary from the vehicle's capabilities standpoint, is puzzling. That applies to the LEAF as well to a lesser extend.

  10. I am an Active E owner, and I think BMW clearly would have achieved more sales of the i3 if they stuck with the 1-series styling (plus minor badging to suggest the BEV-nature of the car). That's not what I would have done. I would have created a kick-ass design that suits American tastes, and the i3 does not do that. It is pretty ugly (on the exterior), totally European, and I am getting the i3, but doing so in spite of its looks. BMW totally screwed up here, in my opinion. I would have created a beefier car with normal BMW tires and more range. So: more size but more range (because there's more space to add battery), and I would have done without the rEx. Sexy styling, rather than quirky styling. The i8 looks gorgeous, and I wouldn't have expected that for the i3, but I'm guessing they'll go with more conventional styling on the i5.

    1. I'm sure you're not alone with those thoughts either. However for me personally, I definitely wouldn't have bought it if they stuck with the 1-Series and electrified it. It's so much less functional than the i3. The i3 has more interior passenger room and cargo space, especially with the rear seats down. The rear seats on the ActiveE are pretty much useless and it's very difficult to get in and out of the back in the first place. I would have left the brand if they offered a 1-Series electric conversion like the ActiveE for sure. Yes the exterior appearance is very controversial and many don't like it (thus the point of this post!), but the interior is much nicer than the 1 series (my opinion again) and I spend most of my time looking at the interior of a car anyway. :)

    2. Hmm. Want a big, heavy, powerful EV with wide tires, lots of range, and sexy conventional styling? There's a car for that! Thankfully BMW provided those of us who wanted something different with an alternative.

  11. In So Cal the "city" IS the suburbs. Drive the 210, 405, 5, 57, 22, 605, or 105 freeways and the city never stops! There are level 2 chargers everywhere and I am sure Fast Chargers soon to be. While the freeways are 12 lanes, to get around well, you need to be nimble. To park, a small frame is welcome. To stand out, you need interesting styling. Everyone here has a 3-series or similar 4-door sedan. They all look the same. Like the Tesla S. Many times when something new comes out it takes a while to gain acceptance. The Prius was deemed ugly, too => and I see scores of those everyday. Beauty is not skin deep! I like the visual on inside frame of the carbon fibers. I like the way it looks "European". Will people in Kansas, Oklahoma, or Iowa buy it? Likely not. But I think BMW has done a wonderful thing here and it will sell.

  12. I'm very surprised everyone is omitting the big elephant in the room: BMW doesn't want to cannibalize their ICE car sales. BMW sedans have always been beautiful, so they definitely know how to make a car sexy and desirable. The look of the i3 is intentional & clearly differentiated from other BMW ICE cars.

    The i3 as designed cannot compete in styling with the 1 or 3-series at a comparable price. It's like when IBM made the PC Jr less powerful so it could never be seen as a replacement for their bigger mini/office computers. As for the i8, it doesn't compete with the larger BMW sedans & is mostly a low volume niche vehicle.

    I actually agree with BMW on this: keep making money with ICE cars, but be ready with working EV technology if there's a competitive or legislative need -- like in California. This also keeps the dealers happy as they don't have to invest in new technology & can keep selling cars on performance. Tesla will make a lot of sales in the US, but as we've seen recently, not in Europe where consumers are patriotic & not about to turn their back on BMW/Mercedes/Audi just to be green.

    BMW is very profitable, and its leadership wants to keep things that way. As a BMW & Tesla fan, I have to agree.

    -- Nick --

  13. Interesting one Tom, I actually believe that cars have got uglier, heavier and wider worldwide over the past 15 years and that is mostly down to globalisation. A one size fits all mentality in car design means savings for the accountants.

    As you know, I'm an advocate for efficiency, aerodynamics and weight reduction without compromising dynamics or safety. The technology is there and the i3 has some things right. Many US motorists and plenty here in the UK (who didn't own cars older than the 1970s) are ignorant of narrow tyres with their benefits in snow/slippery road condiitons and the excellent steering feel and progressive breakaway they give. If anything the i3 is too wide to be an ECO car with it's 1990s Toyota Camry CdA. It is very wide for a 4 seater vehicle because of the American sized Coffee Cup holders! I also blame the US market for the humongous X5 and Europe's poor relation the X3 which clog up the EU road system. many of our country roads are just 12 feet wide wit solid hedgerows. People are now complaining about being hit in Supermaket car parks because their 2760lb, F56 MINIs are now 68 inches wide instead of the BMC original 1350lb Mini's 55 inches! Better to avoid a collision in a narrow car (aim for the gap!) than hit each other in overweight juggernauts!

  14. i have had i3 (no REX) for 3 months & really love it.

    the only thing that i obviously don't like the rear view is quit narrow & the blind spot is huge.
    (since my previous car is a 20 yr old faithful Volvo; i got used to the big windows all around the "box".
    although narrow rear view seems to be the trend for modern cars (more aerodynamic )

    i think those people who think it ugly probably like sporty & regular looking cars better.
    but i happen to like cute & funky cars (i'm quite fond of the VW Beetle & Smart Car)

    re. it looking European, i did notice when i was in Europe, the cars look quite different than American cars.
    there're more cars int he "small, cute & funky looking category"
    European friends of mine really like the i3 look & all say it looks "European"

    > 90% of my driving is local & short; i may use the freeway once/week. so i3 fits my need nicely.
    i dont' see lugging a huge weight of Tesla is very efficient solution fr me.

    i think the profile (side view) of Tesla is nice.
    but i agree the front view is just ugly (like a shark) & serves no purpose at all.
    i don't care for the rear view either. & sitting in the rear frankly uncomfortable.
    the car is too big yet not big enough (my head was hitting the ceiling &i'm not tall)

    my problem w/ Telsa's approach is it attemps to solve a humongous problem by a humongous solution; e.g., low cal. food thingy. they just go out & eat twice as much & feel guilt free. instead of consume less, they consume more just because the cost seems free.