LAS VEGAS – Take a BMW i3 electric vehicle, reconfigure it so there’s room for just one passenger with NBA-length legs, and you’ve got the BMW i3 Urban Suite Concept. As in a suite in a hip, boutique city hotel. The car uses medium-blue fabrics, nicely grained woods without a hint of high-gloss varnish, a drop-down infotainment screen, and a sliding ottoman for the passenger’s legs. It works because there is no right front seat (gone) or left rear seat (replaced by a wood shelf with a mushroom lamp on top).
The BMW Urban Suite is a placeholder for EVs coming in a year or so. Urban Suite also comprises software that could help create a public or private ride-hailing service in the same fashion as Uber or Lyft. At the same time, BMW was showing at CES 2020 this week, the kinds of ideas that go into future BMWs designed for use in and around cities. That includes the interior furnishings of future cars, and infotainment that will come from 4G and soon 5G in-car service. At a press conference Tuesday, BMW with infotainment partner Samsung vowed that it would be the first to deploy 5G in cars, by 2021.
From the outside, the Urban Suite i3 looks like a regular i3 with a slick multi-tone paint job, the words “Urban Suite,” and a car number. The i3 is BMW’s first mass-production EV and helped BMW pioneer carbon fiber production techniques. It has been available since 2014. BMW suggests the i3 is best in its pure EV form with a range of up to 153 miles (100 on early models). But about half of i3’s sold in the US had a range extender, a small gasoline engine with a small gas tank that doubled the range. An i3 you can buy is about $50,000, which means it costs more and has less range than the Chevrolet Bolt EV, but the Bolt doesn’t have carbon fiber or the BMW logo.
The i3 you cannot buy – the Urban Suite Concept – is a whole different vehicle. It has been reconfigured to bring to mind, BMW says, “the relaxed feel of a boutique hotel.”
The Urban Suite is done up with the environment in mind. Recycled materials go into the fabric upholstery. The woods are from certified forests. What leathers there are, are olive-tanned. The “circular economy” floor mats also come from recycled materials that can be recycled again at end-of-life. Of course, BMW had circular-economy, recyclable mats a generation ago in the form of sisal mats (sisal is made from the agave plant) that lasted forever and shed like crazy.
BMW converted a couple dozen i3’s into Urban Concept cars and brought them to Las Vegas for demo rides and as a private Lyft / Uber-style ride-hailing service. The sole passenger has lots of space, legroom and headroom both, since the seatback is canted backward into a slight recline. (In the mainstream i3, the back seat is snug. The car is five inches shorter than a Honda Fit.) A largish LCD display pivots down to provide entertainment from your own device, or streamed via BMW Connect, its telematics and emergency assist cellular network.
It was nice to see an upscale car where the wood is not overly processed with multiple layers of varnish. One problem with high-gloss wood and high-tech chemistry is that in some cars, you just don’t know if that’s wood or plastic under the layers of gloss.
Were this a real – on-sale – vehicle, the market would be pretty clear-cut: an executive, rock star, maybe celebrity chef, who wants to be driven about town, solo, in an environmentally sound manner. The car’s 157-inch length makes it easy to carve through traffic and also easy for the driver to find a place to park and wait. This is not the car for clubbing because if you pick up a date, they’ll have to go in a separate car. Or ride on your lap, because the table lamp on the wood bench is fixed in place.
With no new cars to announce at CES this year, BMW used the show to talk about the future of luxury transportation and the concept of spacious seating in cars that might not have steering wheels or other controls. At the BMW stand, the company showed the BMW i Interaction Ease concept, meaning full-width seats with footrests that go from semi-inclined to more inclined, touch-sensitive areas for issuing or confirming commands, and LED lights that, ah, light up to provide relaxing colors, or confirm a command. A variant may well be announced within the year on an EV or electrified (plug-in hybrid) BMW.
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