BMW’s iNext is a bold, all-electric vision of the near future that’s sure to divide opinion

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Pictures of the poster child vehicle of the all-electric motoring future BMW envisions have been circulating for months now, but on Tuesday morning in Los Angeles the German automaker showed off an actual car, one we could walk around, peer into and coo over, if not actually touch, sit in or drive. It’s unclear whether it’s fair to call the vehicle the iNext, or whether the term should only be used as a blanket term for BMW’s overarching electric strategy, but whichever it is, the SUV BMW showed off today is extremely, unambiguously, brashly ambitious.

The fast and the… futuristic

Despite leaping into the electric and hybrid markets relatively early with the all-electric i3 and hybrid i8 respectively, BMW has attracted plenty of criticism regarding its trepidatious, strategic roadmap for its electric vehicles (EVs). First, there hasn’t been much of a roadmap, at least none we’ve seen trumpeted. Second, the i3’s fossil-fuel powered range extender option hasn’t exactly help quell the range anxiety that dogs the EVs market (it may, in fact, have exacerbated it). And third, plenty of the German company’s rivals either have compelling EVs already, or public plans to release them soon… and most are in the SUV form factor.

BMW’s response to critics? The iNext: a semi-autonomous, undeniably eye-catching, tech-laden living room on space-age wheels that’s set to make the rare transition from concept to production vehicle — though we’ll be very surprised if there aren’t at least a few big changes between what was unveiled today and what rolls off showroom floors when the all-electric SUV/SAV goes on sale in 2021.

Hurry up and wait

That’s right, the iNext — in whatever final shape it takes — will only arrive in 2021. In consumer technology, three years is an eternity. In motoring… less so. Which is a good thing, because Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, VW and even Mercedes-Benz’s electric SUVs will all have been in the market for a while by the time the iNext shows up — but then, they all resemble cars as we already know them. The iNext wears its futuristic aspirations on every surface, fabric and, umm, illuminated crystal shelf.

BMW says the iNext will be capable of level-3 autonomy. That means once you get on a highway you won’t need to touch the steering wheel or pedals again until you take an offramp. Engaging the autonomous mode will require a mere touch of the BMW logo on the oblong steering wheel. Which is why the pedals can retract and wind up flush with the floor, and why the interior is more like a lounge than a conventional vehicle interior. The top portion of the front seats fold back so occupants can lean on them and converse with those passengers lounging on the asymmetrical, couch-like bench that serves as the rear seating.

Between the driver and passenger, meanwhile, there’s a centre console that looks like a slim coffee table, and beneath it a “faceted crystal glasswork” shelf that mimics a Pink Floyd album cover when you shine a light on it by creating a kaleidoscope of multicoloured beams. What obvious user-interface controls there are come in the form of two large touch displays — one of which we fear is set a little high for most drivers outside of Scandinavia. Climate controls and ventilation are now hidden, much like they are in contemporary architecture, according to one BMW exec.

Thrills without spills

Given the release timeline, we’ll forgive BMW for being so light on detail when it comes to specifications and performance. The company does assure us, though, that the iNext will be a “true BMW when it comes to the driving experience”. In other words, it’s going to enjoy going forward very rapidly, and to this end there’ll be a sports mode and the sort of driving dynamics we’ve come to expect from the X4 and its kin. Given the immediate availability of torque electric motors offer — and the grin-inducing experiences we’ve had in the BMW i8 and i8 Roadster — we believe it.

The only thing better than an electric car we want to drive is an electric car we don’t actually have to drive. Launching the iNext in LA, the spiritual homeland of the highway traffic jam, makes a lot of sense. Because what BMW’s promising is a car we want to pilot, but don’t always have to, especially in situations where driving is dull, tedious and downright soul destroying.

‘Shy tech’ (confident execution)

The exterior of the iNext looks, deliberately, like it’s carved out of a single piece of a fancy metal alloy. Instead of doorhandles, a swipe gesture prompts the B-pillarless doors to open. Forward- and rear-facing wing cameras can retract into the side panels. Then there’s the sure-to-be controversial grille. EVs don’t need cooling, but BMW’s hung onto a faux grille and packed some of the sensors needed for autonomy into it. Gone, too, is the iconic kidney shape in favour of — depending who you speak to — a portly letter H (or pair of buck teeth). All of which is pretty fancy, but it’s the interior that really looks out of both this world, and this time.

In sessions ahead of the big reveal, BMW showed off various aspects of the iNext, including two peculiar features. The first, the use of touch-sensitive smart fabrics to enable rear passengers to adjust things like the vehicle’s audio controls. Drawing a musical note on the right spot of the rear seat could start audio playback. A zoom gesture could boost the volume. And tapping with three fingers could turn the mute the sound or turn it off. We say “could”, because what this interface will eventually look (and feel) like remains to be seen. Unless the whole seat covering is touch sensitive and you don’t have to sit in (and touch) a specific spot we can’t see it being terribly useful, but we do like the idea.

Even more novel (and less useful) is an in-roof projector that turns the contents of a paper book into Harry Potter-like animated images. BMW calls it “intelligent beam”. Inventive? Sure. Essential? Not in the slightest. And like the smart-fabric touch interface, it’s tough to imagine this feature being integrated in a sufficiently consistent and helpful way that would make it practical, let alone indispensable.

BMW’s ambitions are laudable, though. It calls these understated — and at times, invisible — technologies “shy tech”, suggesting they should fade into the background when not in use and only speak when spoken to (so to speak). Which, aggressive and unconventional exterior aside, seems to be the primary goal of the iNext as a whole.

The model for modularity

It seems unlikely the iNext is going to cannibalise sales of the higher numbered X Series models when it comes to market. Instead, what seems more probable is that the architecture upon which the iNext is built, and the best of the technology BMW packs into it, will filter down through the ranks. The iNext’s drivetrain is developed from existing components, and BMW’s already designing with common architectures in mind that allow for any sort of drivetrain — whether it be combustion, plug-in hybrid or EV — in the same basic shell.

That commonality means production facilities can produce all three drivetrains in the same locations and react with relative agility to market demands. BMW says the modular approach that entails is key to its future, and key to its strategy for expanding its hybrid and electric offerings in years to come. On a more pragmatic note, modularity should also help the company keep costs down while being able to rapidly prototype new models and bring them to market.

How far? So far

Curiously, it’s not the smart fabric or novel user interfaces that are the boldest attributes of the iNext. Instead, it’s the claimed range of 435 miles (700km) to a charge. That’s, quite frankly, staggering. No other manufacturer claims anything near that today, not even Tesla (though some intrepid and patient Tesla owners in Italy did manage 670 miles in one, albeit at an excruciating 25mph). Moreover, no manufacturer is promising that sort of real-world range any time soon. One assumes BMW’s in-house battery tech is showing great promise — enough so that the company feels confident in claiming that sort of mileage will be possible in a mere three years, without having to prove it today.

For BMW’s sake as much as for ours, we hope the range bet pays off. As for some of the other outlandish details, there are many we’ll be neither sad nor surprised to see revised. Will proximity sensors really replace doorhandles? Perhaps. Though even Range Rover’s Velar settled for retracting handles rather than ditching them entirely — in instances of flat batteries it’s comforting to have somewhere to slot a physical key, you see. We also have to wonder where in the iNext’s stark and minimalist interior BMW expects to accommodate contemporary essentials like ISOFIX fittings for baby seats or cupholders for grownups.

Were the iNext still purely a concept car, these would be inconsequential trivialities, but by making it a real one that’ll need to attract real buyers (and pass the scrutiny of real legislators) there are necessarily constraints.

Nevertheless, BMW’s ambitions are impressive, and it’s encouraging to see the company responding so fiercely to its critics, and to the inevitable march of all-electric mobility. Whether or not BMW delivers on all of its promises might not matter in the long run, far more important is that it’ll still be shoulder to shoulder with the motoring industry’s frontrunners, jostling for position in a race the outcome of which none of us can currently predict, and pushing the boundaries of manufacturing, autonomous driving and luxury to their respective limits in the process.

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