We all know concept cars are generally made from a formula of 60 percent marketing bullshit, 30 percent technical wish-magic bullshit, and 10 percent actual new good ideas that will move a company forward. I’m not saying the BMW i Vision Circular concept necessarily breaks this formula, but I do think what’s in that 10 percent is very worthwhile, and shows an interesting path for BMW’s future car design. I like this concept a lot. But let’s deal with that required 90 of bullshit first, just to get it out of the way.
First, BMW is pitching this as a “a compact BMW for the year 2040" so that immediately warns you not to take anything shown too seriously, because you know that the further out a carmaker says its concept represents, the less likely it is to actually be anything like whatever will happen in that year.
Doing a lot of heavy bullshit lifting was BMW’s promo video shown before the car’s presentation. The film features some spokesperson I’m not familiar with bopping around in a sort of Second-Life-meets-William-Wonka-school-of-design nightmare that BMW PR seems to call “Joytopia.”
Here, you can watch a mercifully short bit of it here at the beginning of this promo video about the car and its goals:
Okay, I’m going to resist the temptation to lube up my eyes and roll them dizzyingly at all this and focus instead on what I think actually works well here, which is the car itself.
Fundamentally, it’s got a general design I’ve always liked: a compact, space-efficient one-box (i.e. no long hood or trunk) sort of design, with wheels at the corners and plenty of room in between them. It seems like BMW took their novel and bold i3 EV design and pushed that FF button into the future, maybe grinding up some Renault Avantime and Twingo and even a pinch of Brubaker Box and mixing that in.
It’s a roomy, luxurious one-box sedan, but that box is sleek and interesting and has a nice mix of materials and textures, along with a new linear, hash-line-based design language that shows up on various surfaces including glass, wheels, and in the ornate lighting design of the car — all to what I think is great effect.
The most important design element on the car, at least when compared to BMW’s current cars, is this dramatically different interpretation of BMW’s iconic kidney grille.
The modern incarnation of BMW’s kidneys is the dramatically oversized, porcine nostrils seen on the current lineup — nostrils that, to put it mildly, have been controversial. In the iVision Circular, the kidney grilles have been widened, something BMW has certainly done before on cars like the amazing 507, and if you’ll let me be a bit of a jerk, it’s a path I suggested to BMW back in 2019.
I think it works. Also, in an age of EVs that don’t require the same volume of incoming air that those full grilles could provide, the kidney grilles now also contain the primary lighting, which is heavily stylized here, with decorative diagonals and a pair of bolder hash marks on either side as the primary headlamps.
Based on talk I heard from BMW people, this general design direction—the wide kidneys with inset lighting—is something that is actually going to be happening on upcoming BMW designs, and I think it’s a welcome new direction, one that solves the very nontrivial problem of integrating an old iconic design with a new, modern design language the original design could never have anticipated.
The interior of the, uh, Circular is interesting too—the pillarless body has rear suicide doors that create a cavernous opening, and while I kind of think the cabin’s seating looks a bit like thrift store couches done up in that peculiar shade of mauve-gray that seemed to only exist between 1989 and 1994, I have to admit it looks pretty comfortable in there.
All the instruments and displays are projected onto the windshield, which eliminates the need for physical screens, in keeping with the lean design concept that underlies the car. I’m not sure what to make of the massive chunk of what looks like a glacier rendered on a Nintendo 64, but we can just chalk that up to concept car goofiness.
Now, one part that I did deem as part of the bullshit spectrum, but that actually seems not to be is the whole “circular” angle—where everything on the car is recyclable and recycled, a completely sustainable loop of materials across the entire lifespan of the car. This sounded to me like the usual pandering PR sustainability talk, but when I candidly suggested this to BMW head of engineering Frank Weber, he emphatically denied that it was just marketing and made it clear that the only possible way such a claim could work would be if BMW started the process right now, which he insisted they have.
With that in mind, this concept becomes more impressive and important. BMW seems to be taking this very seriously, and the design and engineering shown in the iVision Circular, with a lot of very deliberate parts reduction strategies and a lot of thought into materials used and re-used reflects this.
So, yeah, it’s not free of the usual concept car hyperbole and self-aggrandizing bullshit, but under all that, under the goofy name and far-future timeframe, what we have is an interesting design direction for BMW with a lot of care taken into the sustainability of actually producing cars in volume.
It’s bold, smart, and exciting.
Just lose that cringey Joytopia goofiness and we’ll be great.