PERHAPS THE BIGGEST threat now facing Tesla isn’t its ability to scale up Model 3 production, or nail down autonomous driving software; it might actually be that the mainstream auto industry is finally entering the market Elon Musk’s upstart car company has long dominated. For five years, Tesla’s Model S has monopolized the luxury electric sedan market, but that dominance is now besieged. Porsche is spending more than a billion dollars to develop the the Mission E, a svelte speedster it plans to launch in 2020. Audi’s planning an onslaught of new EVs over the next three years, including the A9 e-tron, which will become the automaker’s new flagship.
Now, BMW joins the enemies at Elon’s gates. This week at the Frankfurt Motor Show, it revealed the i Vision Dynamics, a four-door electric car it says will offer a range of 373 miles and performance specs that rival Tesla’s (a top speed of 120 mph, and a 0-to-60 mile-per-hour sprint in four seconds). As the “Vision” bit of the name indicates, this is just a concept—for now. Compared to the fully bananas Vision Next 100 Concept it made to celebrate its 100th birthday, the i Vision is all about the near-term future, and will go into series production at some point in the next few years. Indeed, it looks more like a car you could buy than many concepts—it just needs real side view mirrors and maybe some regular door handles.
BMW’s been making electric cars for a few years now: In 2013, it introduced the funky-looking, fun to drive i3, a $42,400 urban runabout. A year later came the plug-in hybrid i8, a $143,400 two-seat supercar made mostly to attract attention. But those niche models make up a tiny percent of the vehicles BMW sells every year. When the i Vision makes the leap from concept to production, it will mark the first time BMW applies electric propulsion not to the outskirts of its portfolio, but to the kind of car on which it has built its brand and most of its sales: sporty sedans.
“Electro-mobility has reached the heart of our brand,” BMW board member Klaus Frölich said on stage in Frankfurt. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are prepared to strike.”
We don’t know much about how an production version of the i Vision Dynamics will drive, but the i3 and i8 have shown BMW knows how to transfer its performance prowess to electric powertrains. The i3 can go nearly 200 miles between charges if you get one with the gasoline-powered range extender; the i8 can hit 155 mph.
And we know it will be just one weapon in that coming strike. By 2025, BMW will offer 12 fully electric models, CEO Harald Krueger promised in Frankfurt, including sedans, sports cars, and SUVs. It’s not the only automaker stocking up on power cords. Volvo, Jaguar Land Rover, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Audi and others have all promised an onslaught on electric cars in the next decade.
“Tesla was the only game in town for years,” says Karl Brauer, an auto industry analyst with Kelley Blue Book. “Now it won’t be so unique anymore.”
Now, these automakers aren’t building electrics to meet consumer demand, or even to take Elon Musk down a peg. They’re building them in response to increasingly harsh government demands. The leaders of the UK, France, Norway, and China have all said they intend to ban the sale of gas and diesel cars in the next 20 years or so. Even if those plans remain light on details and far from concrete, the regulatory trend bends strongly toward zero-emissions driving—and no major automaker can survive without a presence in those markets.
So If BMW is to hang around another century, it can’t restrict electricity to cars like the i3 and i8, which mean more to the marketing department than to the bottom line. It must electrify its mainstream offerings, the cars it sells in the tens of thousands every year. And so the i Vision Dynamics isn’t just a cool concept or one more performance-happy sedan. It’s the future.