We got our first good look at BMW’s new electric iNext, on sale in 2021

  • The light show was rather good.
    BMW
  • The Vision iNext concept is a small crossover, which should have more mass appeal than the i3 and i8.
    BMW
  • It’s an attractive thing, but some of the more dramatic design details are likely to get watered down to survive into production.
    BMW
  • The huge kidney grill now conceals the forward-looking sensors needed for self-driving.
    BMW
  • A design sketch of the iNext.
    BMW
  • BMW flew the concept to Frankfurt, New York, San Francisco, and Beijing, then back to Munich.
    BMW
  • The Vision iNext being loaded onto the cargo plane.
    BMW

NEW YORK—You have to hand it to BMW. Our first look at its new Vision iNext concept car—a production version of which arrives in 2021—was certainly memorable. I’ve seen concepts unveiled at auto shows and at design studios, but this was definitely the first time I’ve seen one introduced in the belly of a Boeing 777F parked under a cover at Kennedy Airport in New York. Ars was invited to get up close and personal with the iNext, which is an important vehicle for BMW. When the production version goes on sale in 2021, it will be the first use the company’s new vehicle architecture and its first long-range battery electric vehicle.

BMW says we can think of the iNext as “Project i 2.0,” Project i being the sub-brand that has given us the rather good i3 and the sublime i8. But let’s be honest: both of those EVs served rather limited niches; a crossover is always going to have mass appeal. And so a crossover is what we have; one with bold styling and some thoughtful ideas for the future of UI, UX, and interior cabin design that BMW will hopefully iterate into production.

But let’s be clear: the Vision iNext is still a concept car, and all it takes is a walk through BMW’s museum to see that a lot of cute concept details end up on the cutting-room floor between the design studio and the showroom.

It looks dramatic

The front of the Vision is dominated by a massive “butterfly”-covered kidney grill. EVs don’t need big front air intakes, but these corporate styling cues are now proving an ideal place to conceal the sensors necessary for autonomous driving, and BMW is running with it. The headlights are an extremely stylized version of the marque’s traditional four-eye look and are embedded into a strip of belt line that separates the hood from the wings.

The Vision is most handsome in profile, with a two-box outline that’s reminiscent of the new Volvo XC40. The touch-sensitive suicide doors make access to the interior a charm; the fact we all still call them suicide doors may be a marketing challenge, but it’s one BMW has already tackled with the i3. As the doors open—and in common with the previous i cars—you can see parts of the iNext’s naked carbon-fiber passenger cell.

Some of the more dramatic elements of the exterior design seem likely to change before 2021, though. Cameras instead of wing mirrors are a good idea as it significantly cuts wind noise—most noticeable in a battery EV with near-silent propulsion—but require some regulation changes in the US and abroad. And the prominent rear diffuser—complete with electroluminescent blue highlights on the trailing edge—looks great in a mood-lit cargo hold, but it also looks like the first point of contact for a rear-ender.

The interior makes a statement

  • The interior had some wonderful design details. I loved the way the pedals retract into the floor.
    BMW
  • The display screens stand on elegant legs like expensive TVs.
    BMW
  • The steering wheel retracts towards the dash when self-driving is engaged.
    BMW
  • The “shy tech” UI is embedded underneath the fabric of the rear bench.
    BMW
  • Center console or coffee table?
    BMW
  • BMW says it was inspired by modern living rooms and boutique hotels. We don’t doubt that.
    BMW
  • BMW
  • Suicide doors make for easy entry and exit.
    BMW

If you look at the interior and think “boutique hotel,” congratulations: that was the look BMW’s interior-design team was going for. The two displays stand proud of the dash like expensive flatscreen TVs. The center console takes this idea even further; its surface is a mix of wood and a turquoise jacquard carpet that’s also used to upholster the rear bench seat. On the underside, a crystal bowl plays storage cubby.

User interfaces are concealed underneath fabrics or surface treatments in what BMW calls “shy tech.” Touch sensors just underneath the rear seat fabric detect your finger’s input and leave light trails; BMW imagines using user-defined gesture controls like touches, swipes, and drawing shapes or glyphs to interact with the infotainment system, and instead of display screens for rear passengers, there’s an intelligent beam projector that can display an interface onto physical objects. (BMW demonstrated this with a book.) As well as that touch-based interaction, the iNext features an onboard personal AI assistant, which BMW says should ideally be able anticipate most of what you want to do even before you ask it.

We first heard about a new BMW called the iNext in 2016. That’s when the company announced it was partnering with Intel and Mobileye to work on such a vehicle, which would be autonomous and go on sale in 2021. That still appears to be the plan; if the hidden sensors weren’t a clue, the retracting steering wheel and pedals should be. BMW told me that it is planning to launch the iNext with level 3 autonomy. Interestingly, this bucks the industry trend of skipping this kind of conditional self-driving because it runs the greatest risk of mode confusion. And even when level 4 systems become practical, the idea is still to sell them as options on customer cars, not run a fleet of robo-taxis.

As with the Volvo 360c we looked at earlier this week, it’s hard to judge much of what I saw. The UX demos were definitely thought-provoking, but none seemed mature enough to be on sale within the next three years. Likewise, the self-driving stuff still has a way to go before it’s ready for deployment. And we’re still too far from production for BMW to comment on the stuff I do want to know about, like the batteries, motor output, and range.

Listing image by BMW