Electricity is coming.
Say what? Yes, unfortunately it seems that time is running out for our beloved fossil-fueled machines from not only Munich, but the rest of the world. News has recently reported that German legislation is seeking to ban all new cars not capable of producing zero emissions. Though I can go further into questioning where and how electricity is produced (looking at you especially, China), the sad truth is we must prepare for a world of electricity. Tesla is showing that their surprisingly successful Model S can be a mainstream device with gobs of real world performance. However, this comes at a both a serious cost and weight penalty.
Furthermore, their incredulous straight line performance can’t be replicated on a circuit, falling easily to hot hatches even. BMW has made their own strides already into this market, with the I3 city and I8 sportscars. They’re even adding in so-called ‘I Performance’ models in the shape of the X5 40E and now 330e, both capable of limited electric-only range. The I3 has not been exactly the sales success BMW hoped, but having spent some seat time in a few, they’re a surprisingly a fun steer. With fantastic response from the 22kwh battery pack with the down-low power that only electrons provide, it’s truly not terrible. The steering and handling aren’t bad either, actually maintaining the feel of a (modern) BMW. The strikes against it though come in the way of range, or lack thereof, and the looks which are too polarizing. While I’ve seen some owners who regularly achieve 90+ miles of electric-only driving, it’s just not enough.
The updated 2017 promises about 120 of electric driving, but with Chevy’s Bolt coming at the turn of the New Year and promising 200 miles for less dosh, BMW will have to go further. It is, however, the most efficient vehicle on the planet per EPA ratings, thanks to a lightweight construction. Also, as with all electric vehicles, they take too long to charge. It’s not range anxiety by way of how many miles are available, but how long it’ll take to charge those miles back. Even with DC fast chargers, 30 minutes is a lot longer than popping in for gas for 5 minutes. But this can be expected, as the technology is still very new.
Can it improve though to the tune of 300 miles and quick charging in 15 minutes? Most batteries are lithium-ion based and I’m no scientist here, but if a battery uses a reaction with an element to produce energy, can the labcoats coax more energy out of the same amount of lithium without just increasing its mass? It seems that with electric cars, the only way to increase the range is to make a bigger battery, not a more efficient one. For now it seems batteries are not becoming more capable, but only larger. And yes, batteries are heavy, monolithic chunks of granite. Seriously, ever look up the curb weight of a Model S?
But this is all insubstantial to the real issue here. Can BMWs still be BMWs when every model is electric? Since they helped invent the sports saloon, BMW has always been the driver’s choice when it comes to luxury saloons. The 2002 and resultant 3-series threw the world on its face with their patented combinations of driver interaction and practicality. And then came the others. The M-cars. What will the world be like with electric M cars? Would they still be Ms? I honestly have no idea.
Part of what makes an E46 M3 so special is the emotion of revving the S54 to oblivion as it floods your senses with inertia and noise. The torque-heavy shove of atoms in an I3 is fun at lower speeds, but there’s no soundtrack to make it a thing of beauty and the acceleration drops off quickly. You could argue that I overrate how important sound is in a sports car, but I don’t think I can. A true petrolhead quivers and gets sexually aroused at the sound of a beautiful engine. Ever hear the M88 in an M1 Procar in person? Or what about an E60 M5 with an Eisenmann exhaust fitted? They’re pure theatre, a proper symphony worthy of being preserved in the Library of Congress. That’s how much I love and, frankly, need a sound. And back to weight again, how on earth would an all-electric M3 weigh 3500 pounds? Carbon can only do so much.
I think though, depending how electric road cars develop, there is one route I hope BMW follows in pursuing an exciting sound for an electric M: that of an LMP1 Hybrid. Watching Le Mans this past weekend, I did thoroughly enjoy the sound the Audi R18 and Porsche 919 made when riding onboard. During acceleration, it’s the not the internal combustion engine that provides the majority of sound, but the whine of electric motors powering the Rohirrim. I mean, seriously, it sounds like a TIE Fighter straight out of Star Wars. And more substantial, it’s bloody well cool and makes an LMP1-H one of the fastest accelerating things on the planet when coupled with the ICE. At lower speeds, an I3 makes a slight hum, but it’s mostly irrelevant. If a future M3 can pull off the sound of science fiction, then maybe, and this is a big maybe, it could somewhat replace the howl of individual throttle bodies and quad exhausts.
Perhaps the first step is to move all models into the realm of these sports hybrids. With the carbon and battery know-how that BMW has learned from the I8 and I3, this can be directly instigated into the next generation of M’s. I’m not against a hybrid M car, as long as the philosophy is to use electricity to supplement performance, like a Mclaren P1, rather than make an eco-minded car that also possesses speed.
Could a law define a zero emissions vehicle by its ability to go as long on electrons as what an engine/onboard range extender can take it? Say BMW makes the 2030 M3 capable of 200 miles electric driving, but then has an angry turbocharged 4 or even 3 cylinder that activates at full throttle or when put in a dedicated track mode. Maybe this could be a loophole for BMW and others to create wild hybrid sports cars. I’m sure some carmakers will get their lawyers going on a similar idea. The truth though is that we will just have wait and see what BMW and the rest of the car world comes up with to satisfy our petrol cravings.