Almost every automotive brand has a sense of mythology built around it, and for a brand as storied as BMW, which once stood for Bayerische MotorWerke, or ‘Bavarian Motor Works’, it’s around the blue and white circular logo. The company’s origins lie just before World War I when its predecessor started the licensed production of aircraft engines and rose to prominence, thanks to the BMW IIIa engine that powered the Fokker D.VII—an aircraft that became the scourge of the skies over the western front. As a result, the new company’s logo was believed to be a spinning propeller, but in reality, it is just a small section of the checkered blue-and-white flag of Bavaria, the southern German state, whose capital, Munich, BMW has always called home.
But the myth never died, even as BMW graduated to manufacturing motorcycles and then cars, the legend of the spinning propeller remained, and in fact, even grew, thanks to the legendary BMW 801 radial engine that powered the Focke-Wulf 190, the ultimate German piston-engined fighter in World War II that cut American bomber formations to ribbons. So when post-war Germany emerged from the ashes, the logo remained. Even though BMW was making cars that were quite unlike what they do nowadays, cars like the Isetta. But in the 1970s, the firm came upon a cracking idea—to make a standard family-sized sedan but give it sporty dynamics and performance, thus creating the BMW 3-series. Sure, it has grown bigger, wider and heavier in almost half a century of existence over seven generations. But what BMW has done to the car now is what will likely redefine it for the next half-century.
You see, they have removed the engine.
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The new generation of BMWs
So, what does a car without an engine do? It now has a battery pack and an electric motor instead. And, well, they don’t call it the 3-series but the i4 instead. But true to the 3-series heritage of being a sporty car with unmatched handling dynamics, the i4 delivers. And how. The electric motor powers the rear wheels, much like the engine does on the 3-series. And when you tackle this car on sharp turns as I did at the International Centre for Automotive Technology (iCAT) test track in Manesar, it is a 3-series all right. Just one that disappears faster than a regular petrol or diesel one. Because while the i4 has an electronically limited top speed of 190 kilometres per hour, the ferocity with which it gets there when you ‘push the pedal to the metal’ is similar to that on performance variants of the 3-series such as the M340i. The power is there across the range, and you’re left thinking that this should not be the case. And then there is the noise. I might have said in the past that the most disconcerting thing about driving electric cars is the lack of noise, but the i4 plays an electric soundtrack through the speakers as you accelerate. A sound akin to no other car, but more from the movie Tron. And if you drive it sensibly, the 83.9kWh battery will last for 600 kilometres—more than enough to get from Ahmedabad to Mumbai.
But this was not the only BMW electric car we drove. BMW India had laid out the entire range of electric cars that they have started offering. The Mini Cooper SE hatchback, which starts at Rs 47.2 lakh, the Rs 69.9 lakh i4 sedan and the range-topping Rs 1.16 crore BMW iX SUV. And while the i4 was, by far the most dynamic; the big iX, whose interiors could easily make the cover of an interior design magazine, particularly in darker colours, resembles Darth Vader’s helmet. It could shock anyone with just how quickly it can move its two-ton heft while keeping you in unmatched comfort. Those suede seats (you also have a leather option) and their crystal controls, and the infotainment system are something else. And while you could possibly fit the Mini SE, which was left in the dust by the bigger cars, inside the iX, it performed like Minis always do—like a small, excitable dog. Though it is nowhere near as fast as the other two, the Mini is a Shitzu or a Terrier that puts a smile on your face.
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A new fight for the Bavarian giants
All these cars, however, like virtually all electric vehicles brought by global brands today, are full imports. Vikram Pawah, president of BMW India, told me that BMW’s philosophy is that ‘production follows the market’, although he did admit that all cars are completely sold out for the year. “From a capability standpoint we are ready but it is important that the market matures.” And to enable that maturity, the company has installed the largest network of fast chargers across the country that even owners of other brands can use.
But it does not stop here, where once BMW engines powered machines that fought in the skies above Europe, the company now aims to fight for the planet and has committed itself to the Paris Agreement, which wanted to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. As a result, both British brands in the BMW umbrella, Mini and Rolls-Royce will become all-electric brands. And by next year, BMW will have 25 electrified (all-electric and hybrid) models. But it is in 2025 that we will see the ‘Neue Klasse’ (New Class), which BMW promises will be ‘electric, digital and circular’. I’m not sure I want a circular electric BMW, but if it can drive like the i4, I don’t think I’ll have a problem.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)