If someone asked me back in 2014 or 2015 which of Germany’s core luxury brands would be the leader in electric vehicles by now, I probably would’ve answered BMW. Not because BMW was doing anything revolutionary at the time, but simply because it was the first of its segment rivals to market with purpose-built EVs, like the i3 and i8, while Audi and Mercedes were mostly stuffing batteries and electric motors in cars designed for gas.
Yet here we are, with 2021 nearly behind us, and neither of BMW’s EVs are sold on our shores anymore. The i8 was discontinued worldwide last year, and new i3 production for the U.S. ended this past summer. BMW’s next EVs, the iX and i4, won’t begin deliveries on this continent until summer 2022, according to the manufacturer’s website.
Last year, BMW sold 1,508 i3s here, while Audi sold 5,919 e-tron SUVs, InsideEVs reported. (By the way, the Tesla Model Y notched more than 12,000 deliveries in California in the first quarter of this year alone.)
The i3's slowing sales and limited appeal for U.S. buyers, particularly due to its short range, have left BMW coming off as something as a laggard in the EV race — even though it was earlier to market than its contemporaries. The company is projecting a 50/50 split of sales between EVs and ICE-powered cars by 2030, which is more conservative than how Audi and Mercedes envision things playing out.
How did BMW get here? By striking the market at the wrong time, according to shareholders and experts quoted in a recent story from Financial Times:
Far from being rewarded for its pioneering spirit, BMW was punished for being “too early”, said Michael Muders, a fund manager at Union Investment, a top 20 BMW shareholder.
“They burnt €2bn on the i3, and the market was not ready yet,” he said. Faced with steady, but muted demand for the vehicle, BMW did not follow up with the widely expected i5, and several of the engineers and designers who worked on the i range left, mostly for EV start-ups.
When electric vehicles finally began to take hold in the past couple of years — more than 3m are expected to be sold in 2021 — Muders said, BMW “were not prepared, they were late”. The company “had to start from zero, or almost from zero,” said Ingo Speich, portfolio manager at Deka, another BMW investor.
Did BMW introduce EVs too early? Maybe, but it’s difficult to ignore other factors likely at play. The company entered the dedicated EV space with a two-door sports car and a city car priced above $40,000. Meanwhile, other manufacturers waited until they could offer battery-electric versions of practical vehicles most people might actually consider buying, like crossovers and family sedans. The i3's production volume was also hampered by the extensive use of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic in its monocoque. Of course, BMW’s choice of that weight-saving material and the manufacturing complexities of employing it drove up the car’s price tag as well.
Perhaps the i3 was before its time; perhaps BMW also put all its proverbial eggs in the wrong EV basket. And while BMW was never an EV leader, the company’s inability to capitalize on its head start is reminiscent of Toyota and Honda driving the industry toward hybrids, only to squander that authority on hydrogen fuel cells as the global market shifted to BEVs.
It’s not enough to invest in new tech and alternative energy; you’ve got to pick the right solution, and roll it into a product people want. BMW seems to have realized this before our eyes. The commercial reception to the iX and i4 will determine if and when the company is ready to be as ambitious about EVs as its local rivals are.