Inside the industry: was the BMW i3 too ahead of its time?

Inside the industry: was the BMW i3 too ahead of its time?

History is littered with cars that supposedly arrived before their time, commercial failures not because they didn’t excite people but because they were ahead of the curve, often too clever or simply too expensive to be appreciated.

Recent decades have provided ample examples for apologists to consider, many having put environmental considerations at their heart long before enough people cared about such things.

Examples include the Audi A2 (176,000 sales over six years), notable for its use of lightweight aluminium to maximise efficiency if not build and repair costs; the original Mercedes-Benz A-Class (1.1m sold over eight years but reportedly each at a loss of more than £700), with its under utilised and overly complex sandwich platform, which was in part there for potential battery or fuel cell storage but made it sit upright like a deeply unfashionable MPV; and the Chevrolet Volt/Vauxhall Ampera (177,000 sold over nine years), which featured a range-extender EV powertrain before such technology got even a hint of mainstream acceptance.

Now, with the news that it will leave showrooms this summer, it’s the turn of the BMW i3 to be lamented by people who didn’t buy it. It was never short of ambition, with its carbon-composite body and low-emissions manufacturing goals, but it was always low on sales, having notched up around 250,000 registrations across its nine-year lifespan, despite remaining well regarded as a result of continual updates.

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Worse still, at launch it was meant, alongside the plug-in hybrid i8, to be a precursor to a whole new sub-range of i vehicles that never came to be because of paltry sales. Anyone who walked through a major airport at around this time will recall the enormous (and effective) marketing campaign that heralded i as a new dawn. Alas, it was a neat idea that very few car buyers actually bought into.

Attempting to run ahead of the curve can be an expensive exercise, from the billions invested in engineering and developing such cars through to trying to sell them, as well as the reputational damage from having to drop them.

Ironically, previous BMW boss Harald Krüger was rumoured to have left the company in 2020 in part because BMW was perceived by investors to have slipped behind in the race to electrification.