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This Car Is No Fantasy. It Has M3 Performance, Yet Returns 27kmpl. And It’s Coming Soon
Welcome To BMW`s Future
Story Ben Oliver Photography Alex Howe

It’s ten o’clock at night when the taxi pulls up outside an anonymous, square building on a deserted industrial estate on the outskirts of Munich. The unveiling of a new concept car is usually rather more glamorous than this. CAR has been granted an exclusive photoshoot with BMW’s awkwardly named Vision EfficientDynamics, but it has only just been finished and every minute in the life of this sole example is accounted for between now and when the silk covers are pulled off before a phalanx of cameras at the Frankfurt motor show. So it`s ours through the night.

A journalist ought to leave his own preferences, prejudices and reactions out of a story on design; you can see the car and decide for yourself. But it`s relevant that I declare an interest here: I am not a concept car kind of guy. The far-off, far-out musings of black-clad designers don`t hold much appeal. At motor shows I head straight for cars I`ll be able to drive soon, cars I hope will drive well, and best of all, cars that radically re-imagine how cars should work or be made or be used. If they happen to look great ` well, great. And I suspect a lot of you are like me.

But despite all of this, when I first saw the Vision EfficientDynamics, all that concept-car cynicism just evaporated. This is an extraordinary looking vehicle, with bodywork unlike any you’ve seen before, that floats and folds and flips itself over and, like some futurist sculpture, looks like it is thrusting forward even when stationary. It also packages a series of radical engineering novelties that will stand your notion of what a BMW should be on its head. In these straitened times, a concept car needs to work hard; it can’t just be an idle doodle from a disconnected designer, and there is arguably more new thinking and greater significance in this one car than in any previous BMW.

Double glazing
The world goes by even more quickly when you can see the road close up

And you thought chris Bangle’s design ideas were rdical… Wheel right
It’s an eco-warrior, yet you’ll still have fun in here

So how should we understand it? Decoding a concept car can be a tricky business. This is not, as many are, just a blinged-up version of a production car BMW has already signed off. Instead it`s a free-form exploration of how a future BMW might look if it was designed from scratch according to the firm`s EfficientDynamics mantra. So far, ED has been a collection of incremental eco-tweaks such as stop/start systems, brake energy regeneration and active aerodynamics applied to current production cars. Applying the same principles to an entirely new concept unconstrained by an existing platform or drivetrain results in a BMW configured unlike any you`ve seen before.

It`s a sports car simply to show that green can be fun too, and that, in the EfficientDynamics era, dynamics remain as important as efficiency. M-car go with small-car CO2 is the intention.

And the styling is just as important as the engineering. While the exterior might look like the result of unfettered free thinking, Adrian van Hooydonk’s real achievement with the first car designed entirely on his watch as group design boss has been to produce something so original and so good – to my eyes, at least ` under the tightest aerodynamic constraints.

Will it be built in this form? No. Will the engineering it showcases make production? Absolutely, and soon. Is it a better hint at how a future BMW halo-supercar will look under van Hooydonk’s guidance than the retro M1 Hommage concept? ‘You can forget the M1 after you’ve seen this,’ he says. ‘There are bigger changes happening, bigger questions that need answering.’

Let’s start with the fundamentals. This is a mid-engined 2+2, an unusual layout shared with the Lotus Evora and one often difficult to make attractive; think of the Ferrari Mondial. A hybrid power unit, consisting of a three-cylinder, 1.5-litre diesel engine and an electric motor capable of giving another 51bhp for brief periods, sits forward of the rear axle line. The diesel alone produces 161bhp and 290Nm, which will give it a higher specific output than any production diesel when it’s introduced in the 1- and 3-series in the next three years. There’s also an electric motor on the front axle producing a steady 80bhp and a peak of 139bhp for up to ten seconds. Add this up and you have a total system output of an astonishing – if brief – 351bhp and 800Nm, which is how this three-pot diesel claims to be able to match an M3 for performance, with 0-100 km/h in 4.8sec and a top speed limited to 250 km/h.

The claimed economy and emissions figures are even more impressive. Driven as a regular hybrid it will average 27kmpl and 99 g/km. Charge the 85kg, 98kWh lithium-polymer cell battery pack for 150 minutes on a domestic supply – 44 minutes on a 32A supply – and you’ve enough juice to run electric for 50km. Although there would be no tailpipe emissions, BMW claims that your well-to-wheel emissions based on the average EU electricity grid mix would be under 50g/km. Regenerative braking and a thermo-electric generator using heat from the exhaust stretch the electric range, and the 25-litre fuel tank gives another 644km before needing a refill.


It’s a wrap
Carbonfibre skin manages airflow, and looks stunning
Tail spin
Just like those twin front lamps, the rears put a twist on a trad BMW shape
Those eyes
Twin lamps and kidney grilles: in spite of everything, it could only be a BMW

But why mid-engined? Development engineer Jurgen Greil points out that traction becomes problematic if you give a front-wheel drive car enough torque to get to 100km in less than seven seconds. Mounting a petrol/electric powertrain at the front and sending its power to the rears adds weight, and the propshaft and exhaust occupy space that could be used to house the battery. With an engine as small as this, you can mount it in the rear without affecting boot space; in this concept the engine compartment only reaches mid-thigh height. The boot is only 150 litres, but the car is also just 1240mm high; a more upright hatchback would have decent luggage space.

BMW claims a remarkable spread of ability for this powertrain: powerful and clean, with diesel, hybrid or electric power and front-, rear- or four-wheel drive as circumstances demand. At the risk of sounding overly credulous, the firm isn’t in the habit of making claims it can’t stand up, and there’s nothing particularly radical, unproven or unattainable in the Vision’s drivetrain. Greil says it could be offered for sale in a 6-series at an affordable premium within five years. ‘Everybody talks about downsizing, but nobody really practises it,’ he says. ‘All these components are already being tested in other cars, but you only get the full potential if you use the whole architecture of the car. This is the most ecological car you could think of today, using technology we can produce in the next couple of years. It’s very hard to beat.’

Once you’ve installed the cleanest drivetrain you can build there are, as Greil points out, only four variables an engineer can control to maximise efficiency. The first is mass; Greil claims the mid-engined layout and small engine means the Vision’s drivetrain, including batteries, weighs no more than a conventional one of equivalent power. With its aluminium chassis and carbonfibre bodywork, BMW says it weighs 1395kg.


The second is rolling resistance, and here we might have to prepare ourselves for a shift in fashion as fundamental as that from kipper ties to Mad Men-style shoestrings. Wide tyres have, since the 1960s, become easy visual shorthand for power. They also increase rolling resistance and fuel use. But if you run a very tall tyre with a narrow section, you cut rolling resistance radically yet keep the same contact patch; you’ve just turned it through 90 degrees.

You also get a big, good-looking rim, made to look even bigger by the partial plastic cover that extends over part of the rubber for aero purposes, but – to modern eyes – an odd, spindly-looking tyre. They were all the go in the 1950s and earlier; we might have to get used to them again. The Vision’s narrow 195/55 x 21 rubber is largely hidden behind aero addenda, but van Hooydonk agrees that they ought to make a virtue of them.

The last two variables are cross-section and coefficient of drag. Of course, making a car lower is always going to help its stance, but surely van Hooydonk’s creative freedom was limited by the need to get the drag down to just Cd0.22? ‘No,’ he insists. ‘Actually this layout allows us a lot of different solutions. The battery pack is small and central and the engine is much smaller. For us as designers that’s a good situation. Good aero and low mass should show in the design, but we didn’t want any movable aero devices. And although computer modelling tells us how long to make a trailing edge for optimum aero performance, we still have design decisions to make. Longer might be better, but we decide where to cut it.’

Man-talk, pt1
Engineer Jurgen Greil (left) tells CAR’s Ben Oliver how it works
Wheel spin
Narrow tyres are more efficient; saved from spindliness by wrapover rims

Man-talk, pt2
‘You’ve never seen anything like it before,’ Ben Oliver tells us. Adrian van Hooydonk (right) is the visionary

The Vision’s blue and white carbonfibre skin is purely there to manage airflow, and attaches to the aluminium chassis beneath. That’s why it can pull such extraordinary visual gymnastics; sometimes smooth, flush and fairly conventional, as it is around the nose, but in places inverting itself, or sitting perpendicular to the structure of the car, as it does around the tail lamps. Both Greil and van Hooydonk use the flat of their hand to describe how the bodywork manages the airflow around the car; the curtain created around the wheels is particularly important, and the rear lamps – unlike anything you’ve seen on a car before – not only look sensational but turn out to be perfect, tiny rear wings too.

And let’s not forget the cabin, bathed in light from the darkening polycarbonate glass doors and roof, and drawn with the same visual movement as the exterior. From the major dashboard forms to the spokes on the wheel, everything is designed to look as if it is rushing down the road ahead and it sucks your eye in with almost painful intensity.

So what will make production first? According to van Hooydonk, the Vision previews some very aerodynamic new wheel treatments, a broader, lower interpretation of the kidney grille, double-ring LED headlamps, more visible, active aerodynamics and, from the cabin the new, 3D head-up display and a touch-pad i-Drive system.

‘The themes are more important than the whole car,’ says van Hooydonk. ‘The designers were allowed to step away from the current line-up, and asked to show how a car would look if it was built from the ground up with this drivetrain.’

But could that amazing bodywork be used, maybe for a limited-volume, largely hand-made halo car, as the Z8 was? ‘We haven’t investigated whether we can build it. We’ve built one, though, and it’s functional and not completely out of this world. But we’ve done no crash or stiffness evaluation, and we haven’t fulfilled every legal requirement. It shows where we want to go, but not necessarily where we’ll end up.’

For van Hooydonk it’s more important to show that BMW’s focus on efficiency won’t mean ugly cars. ‘Few people are buying green cars because they love the looks. We are in the early stages of a transition where looks don’t matter so much. Yes, maybe the odder they look the more clearly they communicate that they are green. But is that what people really desire? I’m not sure. If you can make it sexy too, why would you not buy it?’
Good question.


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