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Baby Beemer: An artist's impression of how BMW's new mini 'Megacity Vehicle' could look. Image: Chris Harris.

BMW confirms it could release its first electric vehicle as early as next year

24 Mar 2009

BMW has confirmed it will deliver its first mass-production electric vehicle (EV) in the first half of next decade, and it could emerge as early as this September’s Frankfurt motor show.

According to widespread media speculation, this year’s German automotive extravaganza will also play host to the debut of an all-new concept from Fiat, on which BMW’s so-called ‘Megacity Vehicle’ will be based.

If it eventuates, however, this year’s surprise appearance of BMW’s mould-breaking new micro-car will come at the expense of a new entry-level Mini model to be shared with Alfa Romeo’s upcoming small MiTo hatchback, which is itself based on the Fiat Punto and should not be confused with the Megacity project.

The smaller new Mini is the result of a proposed agreement between the BMW and Fiat groups, made public in July 2008 before being finalised late last year, to share vehicle architectures and components between the Mini and Alfa brands.

The resulting sub-Cooper Mini model, which would be closer in size to the original Mini, appears to have been put on the backburner as BMW fast-tracks the Megacity vehicle project in the face of slower sales and increasing demand for even smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles.

BMW announced its ‘Project i’ sustainable mobility strategy at last year’s annual accounts press conference, the first product of which was the Mini E – the first 500 examples of which are now being ‘field tested’ by Californian customers. Berlin and Munich will soon join what is claimed to be the world’s largest EV fleet.

14 center image Left: Alfa Romeo MiTo. Below: Volkswagen Up!

Precisely one year later, BMW chairman Norbert Reithofer used last week’s annual conference to reveal that a similar electric drive system, as well as conventional engine technology, would be offered in a series-production small-car that could go on sale as early as next year.

The same event saw the global BMW chief announce a fall in net profit of more than 90 per cent in 2008, before forecasting 2009 would be a “transitional year for which we cannot yet make any reliable forecasts”.

But it appears the company’s 2008 before-tax automobiles segment earnings of €690 million ($A1.34 billion – down 80.0 per cent) and before-tax profit of €318 million ($A619 million – down 90.2 per cent) will not prevent it from investing for the future.

Group vehicle sales were down 4.3 per cent to 1,435,876 units in 2008, and Dr Reithofer said BMW expected the car industry to be down 10 to 20 per cent this year before rebounding in 2010. “At that point we will also gain additional momentum from our renewed product range. The ramp-up of our highest-volume models between 2010 and 2012 will reinforce this trend,” he said.

While BMW’s first two hybrid models would go into production this year in the form of the X6 sports-SUV and the new 7 Series limousine, Dr Reithofer revealed that Project i would soon unveil its second tangible outcome in the shape of the Megacity EV.

“The second specific result of Project i will be our Megacity Vehicle,” he said. “This vehicle will be the first of a range of near-zero emission vehicles.

“Customers will have the choice between a fully electric drive and a high-efficiency combustion engine. Large-scale production could start in the first half of the next decade,” revealed Dr Reithofer.

When he announced the Project i initiative 12 months ago, the BMW chairman said it had not been decided whether the vehicle(s) that emerged from the new BMW skunkworks would form a fourth brand, to join BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce.

“As part of the new strategy, a new organisational unit called Project i is working on completely new car and mobility concepts for megacities,” he said in March 2008.

“This project is fully independent and even free to act beyond BMW structures if necessary. The task of the Project i team is to present specific solutions already in the first half of the next decade. Whether this will require a fourth brand or not, will be decided at a later date.

“It is not yet clear which alternative drive system based on which technology will come out on top. This is why we have decided to focus on a wide range of technological options.

“An electric motor is an option we are looking into as well. It does not only work at a zero-emission level. The technology is now sophisticated enough to offer sheer driving pleasure. This is one of the reasons why we are evaluating the option of launching a battery-powered car. A decision will be taken this year,” he said.

GoAuto sources understand the much-anticipated Project i model, which is widely expected to be sold under the Isetta brand name taken from BMW’s original 1955 city-car, will be based on an all-new micro-car platform co-developed with Fiat.

Respected UK media outlet Auto Express last week claimed Fiat would also reveal its version of the all-new mini-EV at Frankfurt, dubbed the Fiat Topolino.

Like its Isetta-badged relative from BMW, the new Topolino micro-car is expected to feature a rear-mounted engine and four seats, going one step further than Daimler’s Smart ForTwo by offering as much accommodation as Volkswagen’s new ! and Toyota’s trend-setting iQ.

While the latter is under consideration for Australia to rival the nation’s first sub-light-sized model in Suzuki’s upcoming Alto, both new models would also be similar in size to models from Holden (in the Chevrolet Spark) and Ford (Ka).

The Topolino would be an even smaller version of the premium-priced and highly profitable new-generation Fiat 500, which has also been confirmed to receive hybrid and all-electric drivetrains. Fiat’s all-new small-car could be produced at the company’s new Punto plant in Zastava, Serbia, which will commence annual production of up to 30,000 Punto models from this month.

For BMW, meantime, the Megacity will provide the German luxury car giant with a premium front-drive micro-car for city populations of more than 10 million people such as Los Angeles, New York, London, Tokyo, Mexico City, Paris, Barcelona and Shanghai.

Just as Fiat could choose to introduce the Topolino under a new ‘premium eco-brand’ similar to that previewed this year by Citroen’s DS3 concept, BMW could continue to spruik the rear-drive chassis configurations and exclusive engine technologies offered by its models by marketing a family of front-drive city-cars under the Isetta brand name.

While the front-drive Mini models already share their engines with Peugeot models, the Isetta family would be the first BMW-produced vehicles to be based on a joint-venture chassis architecture.

According to Auto Express, both the BMW and Fiat group vehicles are advanced enough to be revealed in concept guise at Frankfurt, before going on sale in Europe by 2011.

If Auto Express is correct, extensive use of aluminium and carbon-fibre chassis materials and plastic body panels will put both new models at the expensive end of the micro-car spectrum.

Of course, an all-electric drivetrain borrowed directly from the Mini E, featuring an electric motor for each wheel plus a sandwich-style battery pack under the passenger compartment floor, will make any potential battery-powered version of the new-generation Isetta even more expensive.

However, GoAuto sources suggest that Fiat’s new ‘Multiair’ petrol engine technology, which is due to debut in the 1.0 and 1.4-litre engine family that will power the 2009 Alfa MiTo (due here in late 2010), could delay the need for more costly all-electric drivetrain technology in either vehicle.

As Fiat revealed two weeks ago, the second application of its Multiair system, which Fiat says can cut fuel consumption by up to 25 per cent and CO2 emissions by 10 per cent while increasing power and torque, will occur with a new two-cylinder engine “that will be used in an as yet unlaunched model which could provide the fuel consumption and emissions of a hybrid for a fraction of the cost”.

Fiat says the two-cylinder Multiair engine could also provide the basis for a new hybrid engine system for larger vehicles and that a Multiair diesel engine family is also under development. It says it plans to licence the technology, which took three years and 100 million Euro to develop, to other car-makers.

Indeed, BMW has indicated that while Project i is the tool by which it will reach its goal of sustainable mobility, and that its “near-zero emission” Megacity vehicle will be powered by both electric and internal combustion means, it is unlikely the all-electric version will come first.

“The Mini E is also a technology leader…,” said Dr Reithofer last week. “But euphoria is not called for - not yet anyway. It will take years and years before electric cars will be a common sight on our roads.

“Why is that so? First off, electric cars do not meet all the different mobility demands. And secondly, there are many open questions-regarding affordable technology, battery lifecycles, infrastructure, etc. Currently all manufacturers - and our society for that matter - are going through a learning process.

“There are still a lot of areas to be defined when it comes to electric mobility. Political decisions have to be taken on the EU level at the least. And Germany should play a driving role in this process.

“But the point is that the BMW Group is working hard on developing solutions and that we are investing a lot of money in creating a new era of mobility.

“With the Megacity vehicle, we are also pursuing a radical approach toward establishing a truly sustainable value chain - from development to production and sales,” said the BMW boss.

Read more:

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