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An artist’s rendering of BMW’s i series cars. Credit: BMW North America

BMW is diving headfirst into electric vehicles.

Last month, it offered a glimpse of its concept electric scooters. And a few days ago, in Frankfurt, it debuted its “i series,” a sub-brand dedicated to electric or plug-in hybrid models.

Specifically, it showed off prototypes of two models, the i3 (a compact) and the i8 (a sports car). The i3 is a full-electric vehicle, intended for the urban commuter (with considerable income to spare, of course). It’s expected in 2013. The i8, meanwhile, will be a gasoline-electric parallel hybrid, available in 2014. Its developer, a man named Klaus Draeger, described it this way: “the sports car for a new generation—pure, emotional, and sustainable.”

One thing that’s getting people particularly emotional about these cars is their novel frames, which are made of carbon-fiber with an aluminum underbody. These materials make the cars considerably lighter, which is essential in an EV, since the electric drive system (made up of the battery, motors, and electronics) is considerably heavier than the drivetrain of a typical gasoline-fueled car.

According to Automobile Magazine, the electric-drive system can be as much as 440 pounds heavier. But by using the carbon-fiber frame, the BMW team trimmed over 550 pounds, more than compensating for the increased battery weight. Draeger called this a “revolution in automotive design,” which I suppose he would, but he also had a point, seeing as this was, as he said, “the first volume-produced car featuring bodywork largely made of carbon.”

The i3 goes from 0 to 60 mph in about eight seconds; the i8 does the same sprint in about five. The sports car can hit a top speed of about 135 mph, and surely would be capable of going faster, but an electronic governing system prevents it from doing so. For the i3 buyer, a specification other than top speed is more important: the battery achieves an 80 percent charge in only one hour. To further clean up the sub-brand and its supply chain, BMW announced that its plants would rely on renewable resources: hydroelectric power at the Moses Lake, Washington, plant that prepares the carbon fiber, and a windmill at the Leipzig, Germany, plant where assembly will take place.

What’s in a name? The i sub-brand in general appears to be an effort to circumscribe BMW’s electric offerings, though the exact reasoning of that strategy (not pursued by rivals like Audi and Mercedez-Benz) was lost on some analysts. As one of them, Christoph Stuermer, told Bloomberg: “With a sub-brand, BMW risks creating a floating island around the mainstream products, but they’re not going to make money on that technology unless they bring it into the mainstream products …The challenge will be to spread that technology while maintaining the integrity of the core brand.” And as for the numbering system, BMW hinted that intermediate i series models could be in the offing. “Between 3 and 8, there’s a lot of space,” executives reportedly kept saying at the Project i event.

For a 360-degree view of the futuristic vehicles (the curvy gull-winged door of the i8 makes it reminiscent of the light cycles of Tron) check out this YouTube video from BMW.

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