28.04.2022

Engage reverse: a brief history of the BMW i3

So far in this series, we’ve taken a look back through history and focused on some of the most iconic car models ever produced, and what made them so successful. With both the MINI and the Fiat 500, the social and economic conditions in post-war Europe demanded that they be built.

The same could be said for the birth of the latest icon we’re delving into as part of Engage Reverse, the BMW i3. As the automotive industry entered the 2010s, the pressure to build greener, more sustainable vehicles was reaching the major manufacturers. The switch from internal combustion engines to fully electric drivetrains would be the biggest shift in car design since the start of mass production. Innovation was needed. Something special was about to happen.

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The birth of the BMW i brand

In order to understand where the BMW i3 came from, we have to go back a little further than the launch of the car itself. The origins of the i3 go all the way back to March 2008, when BMW first announced it was going to establish a new research division called 'Project i'. The sub-brand eventually launched in February 2011, and i vehicles were to be sold separately from BMW or MINI. The goal here was not simply to build a couple of electric cars, but to develop a range of technologies BMW could introduce across its entire fleet.

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The Mega City Vehicle (MCV)

Such a seismic shift in design and technology doesn’t happen overnight, especially in the automotive industry, so it’s no surprise that the years around the launch of the BMW i brand were peppered with wild concepts and futuristic CGIs. The one that stuck, however, was the so-called Mega City Vehicle (MCV). The MCV was not a single car, but represented that range of technologies we just talked about. As obsolete as the name sounds today, it was this concept that would eventually grow up to become the BMW i3 we have today.

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The BMW i3 concept takes shape

It was at the 2011 International Motor Show Germany (IAA) that the world finally got its first look at BMW's vision for the future of its electrified fleet. The i3 was still a concept car at this stage, but the press were already calling it Europe’s first premium electric plug-in city car. With the production model scheduled to launch in 2013, BMW took its shiny new design on the road for a promotional tour which even included an appearance for the BMW i3 prototype during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The hype was real.

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The BMW i3 hits the streets

The production model i3s started rolling out of the BMW Plant Leipzig in November 2013. By the end of 2015, one in every four electrically-powered vehicles sold in Germany was a BMW i3. In Norway, a country where the adoption of electric cars is extremely high, the BMW i3 was already the best-selling model across the entire BMW range. Just two years after its launch, the Munich manufacturer was selling i3s in 49 countries. BMW said at the time that 80% of i3 buyers worldwide were new customers to the BMW Group. The i3 had proved that drivers were ready for EVs.

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Car-sharing brings the i3 to the people

The development of fully-electric cars and new automotive technology was not just about selling EVs. The BMW i project was also about sustainability on urban roads. Mobility services such as car-sharing played a part in the rise of the BMW i3. Through its own car-sharing service DriveNow (now SHARE NOW), BMW was able to bring the i3 into city dwellers' lives. In September 2015 the then-largest BMW i3 fleet, totalling 400 cars, was put into service in Copenhagen. Today, the BMW i3 is in five SHARE NOW cities across four countries.

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Built for the future and beyond

By 2020, BMW had sold more than 165,000 i3s worldwide. We’re now at the stage where early adopters are hitting 200,000+ kilometers driven in their BMW i3s. The once-quirky concept car has become an icon, for many representing the moment in history when EVs stopped being the future and became the present. BMW plans to continue i3 production until 2024, and there is little doubt that the legacy it will leave behind will be significant. The factory in which it is built is now powered by four wind turbines and is home to 780,000 honey-producing bees and even an apple orchard.

It is fair to say that the BMW i3 deserves its place as an icon of modern motoring. Not because of a groundbreaking design, or because of its place in cultural history, but because of the visionary technology that was developed to create it. It is this technological platform that BMW, and others, take forward into the future. The BMW i3 will cease to be produced in just a few years, but the technological advances it sparked will continue to be refined well beyond that date. BMW is celebrating the i3 with a Unique Forever Edition - forever the world's first premium car designed from the get-go for purely electric mobility - and that's worth a place in history in our book. Get behind the wheel of the iconic BMW i3 in a SHARE NOW city near you and experience the future for yourself.