NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The purpose of this article is to relay something I heard about BMW's next-generation plug-in electric cars, and to offer my interpretation of what it could mean. Usually when I speculate my level of conviction is higher, but let me tell you what is going on.
BMW has invented an entire sub-brand, called "i" with its own factory in Leipzig, Germany, as well as as its own carbon-fiber source in Washington state. The i-series cars are all plug-in electric -- with or without an additional gasoline engine, depending on the model -- and are made from aluminium, plastic and carbon fiber for radical weight savings.
The BMW i3 was the first to hit U.S. roads just a few days ago, so you should be seeing them in your favorite chic upscale restaurant areas soon. This car is priced mostly between $42,000 and $55,000.
The BMW i8 is a very spectacular four-wheel drive sports car, capable of 0-60 miles per hour in approximately four seconds, while also able to run 12-22 miles on pure electric power. It will be delivered to U.S. consumers starting in the third quarter of this year, but don't expect high volumes because the price starts at $136,000.
Demand at this early stage seems strong. The i3 is sold out for several months, and my friends who are trying to buy the i8 are telling me the BMW dealers are sold out until the end of 2015. That would be 18 months. Talk about being supply-constrained!
That said, BMW sure could use a more mainstream version of the i series. What I mean specifically is a car that can fit more than four people and have more luggage space.
The BMW i3 is more mainstream for the European market, but the U.S. market wants cars that can fit five or even seven corn-fed tall people, dogs and lots of gear for outdoor activities. Just look at the increasing market share for SUVs and minivans of various configurations. General Motors (GM) has record demand for its Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe models, with extraordinarily low 10 and 17 days' supplies recently reported.
Therefore, the speculation has been the next models in the BMW i series would have more SUV/crossover and large-car characteristics. Secondly, the timing has been very much unknown, ranging from 2015 all the way to late 2016.
I recently spoke to a source who is in a position to credibly have at least some potential sense of what is in BMW's pipeline. Here is what I was told: A BMW i5 and i9 will both arrive in late 2015.
Furthermore, the BMW i5 will be a very futuristic interpretation of what the current BMW 335 GT is: a taller greenhouse crossover with ample luggage space. In contrast, the BMW i9 will be something akin to the recently released BMW X4: a more SUV-ish crossover.
Before I go any further, I have to re-emphasize the possibility that this information could simply be wrong. In my view, the timing (late 2015) does seem reasonable, but I think most people were looking at these cars to be delivered closer to one year later, in late 2016.
The names do not matter: Instead of i5 and i9, they could be i4 and i6 or i7, for example. As the villain Kananga said in Live And Let Die (1972), "Names is for tombstones, baby."
Ok, so we have two plausible car bodies and the timing of them to arrive in U.S. dealerships. What about the drivetrains? My source had no clue, or didn't want to say.
Obviously both of them will be plug-in electrics to some degree. But that still leaves huge questions on the table:
- Battery capacity?
- Gasoline back-up or not?
- How powerful an engine?
- Strength of electric motor?
- Size of gasoline tank?
Let's start out with the fact that the current three i models are as follows:
- Pure battery-electric vehicle (BEV) with 81-mile range.
- Same as (1) except it adds a gasoline range-extender and two-gallon gasoline tank.
- Four-wheel drive with 12-22 mile mild-powered electric range plus powerful gasoline engine.
In other words, the i portfolio to date covers almost all extremes of the equation except a truly long-range BEV, aka something that's a lot closer to 200-300 miles of EV range than sub-100 miles. What does this mean for intelligent speculation of what we may expect for a conceptual BMW i5 and i9?
For a pure BEV model, one has to assume a lot longer range than the i3's 81 miles. The field of sub-100 mile BEVs is already crowded and is therefore rapidly becoming uninteresting. It is reasonable to expect a solid bump, perhaps closer to 150 miles, in this late 2015 timeframe.
This model could follow the i3 recipe and offer a two versions: one pure BEV, and one with a tiny range-extender. One might surmise that this one would also be two-wheel drive, given the impact on range on a BEV-centric car.
The other model might take advantage of the U.S. tax laws maximizing the plug-in benefit at 16 kWh for the battery. This may yield an electric range of 30-40 miles if utilizing very low weight coming from carbon fiber, plastics and aluminum onto an SUV/crossover body. However, in this configuration the range-extender would need to be a lot beefier than in the other car.
Basically, this second car -- let's call it the i9 -- would have much of the BMW i8's drivetrain architecture, but with a much bigger battery -- 16 kWh -- and a slightly less powerful gasoline engine. It would basically be a slightly more powerful Chevrolet Volt overall, with the addition of four wheel drive, a fifth seat, more luggage space and tall like an SUV. Unlike the BMW i8, the layout could also be switched around so as to put the electric motor in the back and the gasoline engine in the front.
Just to be clear: These drivetrain possibilities are pure speculation. Only the people a lot closer to BMW i's chief architect Ulrich Kranz really know. My source could simply have been wrong about the timing and the other parameters.
What is the moral of this story, assuming that it's true?
While we do not know exactly when the competition will deliver their next batch of $50,000-$70,000 electric cars, BMW may be staking out a leadership position here by delivering its SUV/crossover cars perhaps a year earlier than I had expected until now.
BMW's innovative designs, use of carbon fiber, plastics and ability to scale production on all major continents, should make for leadership in the premium plug-in electric car market. Nissan (NSANY) and GM have been the EV unit volume leaders to date, but their cars have been mostly in the $29,000 to $41,000 range.
Now, BMW looks like it would dominate the $42,000-$70,000 space with the i3 and these two future models.
At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.