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Electric vehicles: The iX marks the spot for BMW’s future

(Photo: YouTube)

When it comes to electric vehicles, the Munich company has catching up to do. But this electric SUV is a hell of a flex.

Up-front, to declare an interest: I once worked at BMW for a few years. It’s a super company and I enjoyed my time there. So, there it is. Make of it what you will. During that time, the company released the iNext concept car, an electric SUV that was designed to showcase everything BMW could be in an electric age.

Its looks were met with near-universal disapproval and – as is the way with the frenzied cultishness that surrounds the brand – that drowned out the main message. The fact that BMW was planning to build a modern electric SUV that it claimed would set new benchmarks in everything was missed in a sea of online spittle about kidney grilles.

BMW, by then, was playing catch-up. Having led the way with the i3 urban EV, the Bavarian car company had gone rather quiet on electric mobility, just as Volkswagen AG was undergoing an electric transformation brought on by self-inflicted corporate trauma related to the Dieselgate disaster.

Still, time marches on and the iNext was revealed for sale as the iX, a large family SUV. That BMW chose to place its electric-mobility marker in the sand with a family SUV, as opposed to a car more aligned to the brand’s famous core attributes – specifically a fast rear-drive sedan or coupé – is a surprise only to those who don’t pay attention.

From Porsche to Mercedes-Benz to Volvo, the SUVs look after the balance sheets of the luxury brands whereas the sportcars and traditional sedans and coupés do the brand’s heavy lifting. For BMW to have an electric future, it needs a kick-ass electric SUV.

The question as to whether they have done it is, therefore, more than just a car review. In reviewing the iX, one feels rather a more weighty question than whether this is a good car or not. In fact, it is to get a glimpse of how BMW sees its future, and to ask whether it’s going to be okay.

This is not a given. The inherent simplicity of electric mobility is allowing a swathe of new entrants to come barging into the car market. Tesla is bearing down fast on all three major German luxury brands and, in 2021, was just 25,000 units short of Audi globally. Cheap, surprisingly good EVs are arriving fast out of a China that has its eyes on wealthy western markets.

There are things to worry about. BMW is loud in its opposition to the European Union’s planned CO₂ standards for 2035, which essentially phase out internal combustion cars, including plug-in hybrids.

The BMW X Series. (Photo: Supplied)

For a company that works so hard to communicate its environmental credentials, it lobbies to perpetuate internal combustion technology, be it via e-fuels, hydrogen or the use of plug-in hybrid technology. This seems odd. The company has done a great deal to remove waste and emissions from its production processes, so one can only presume that the EU’s timelines are uncomfortable for the Munich company.

Generally speaking, the car that comes out of a giant corporation such as BMW is exactly the car they planned to build. These companies seldom make mistakes. One could say that they make too few.

And so, the iX looks just like BMW wants it to look, which is to say different, futuristic and challenging. Its principal job is to express change.

BMW will need to be a different kind of brand in the electric age, and, as the standard-bearer of this new era, the iX needs to express it. It does this. Whether I actually like it is very much a secondary concern.

As it happens, in the flesh, it’s really okay. I don’t mind it, but it’s not a design hill your correspondent is prepared to die on either.

Inside, it’s a different story. I really loved it. Dual electric motors mean no chunks of oily scaffolding under the floor, opening up acres of space for the rear occupants. It’s very unlike an X5, much more considered and less performative in its execution, carrying through a cleanliness of design from the i3 all those years ago.

To touch and look at, it’s distinctly BMWi. A notable feature is the huge curved screen running across the centre and driver’s side of the car, which stands proud of the dash.

In step with the industry trend, BMW has used its introduction of its all-new operating system to reduce buttons to a minimum, leaving much of the controls to the touchscreen and – fortunately – to the familiar iDrive controller (now made of glass) in the centre console. I didn’t spend enough time in the car to get used to it all – there’s a lot going on in there – but I can tell you that it looks great and is reasonably simple to use.

Another notable thing is the steering wheel, which is not round but rather a hexagon that’s been chopped in half. It forces you into a quarter-to-three hand position on the wheel. It didn’t bother me, but I have seen complaints elsewhere.

As a driver’s car, BMW has really aced it. The xDrive 40i is probably where the sensible money goes, but the 50i’s 0-100km/h dash in typical EV style of 4.6 seconds is pretty damn quick, as is its real-world range of more than 500km on a charge (more like 6.6 seconds and 350km in the 40i).

Much of this is due to the genuinely impressive efficiency of the car. On a good mixed driving route with all the toys on (and not sparing the horses), I averaged 21kWh/100km, which is bang on what the company claims, and better than most other EVs I’ve driven.

The company’s expertise, learnt years ago with the i3, in using carbon fibre in production, has given the iX the lightest touch of all the large EVs. That’s to say, then, that it remains a BMW SUV to drive; the nicest to steer by a long way, a situation that will likely remain unchanged until we see an electric Porsche SUV.

It’s very quick, making mincemeat of overtaking manoeuvres, and has a gigantic amount of grip out of corners. You can cover ground fast in this thing, and it goes round corners like a BMW SUV should – surprisingly flat and pointable, but ultimately drifting to safe understeer and electric nannying.

It is, somewhat obviously, exceptionally quiet, and comes with the most powerful “engine braking” on over-run I’ve ever experienced in an EV. It takes some getting used to, but, in the end, it means you really do drive almost completely with one pedal.

I did find the lane-keeping assistance too keen to interfere on an ordinary road, but I expect mighty useful on a long freeway run.

Speaking of which, on the 50i, that huge usable range really does change things for South Africans obsessed with their occasional long drives. It gives you 1,000km of real-world range in a day with one longish lunch break to charge up.

So, BMW has built a phenomenally good car. As a glance at the future, it’s hugely encouraging. BMW has a giant challenge in the next decade: the motor industry’s disruption continues and emissions regulations will tighten as the EU and others keep their eyes on the Paris Agreement targets. If they can build cars as good as the iX in other segments, then their competition had better watch out. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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