BMW: weaving its way into the future?

The i8's carbon fibre weave says more about the brand than any advertising could ever do

Much has been made of the so-called ‘lifecycle’ architecture BMW’s using as the basis for its new i cars. The structural approach – which features an aluminium lower chassis (onto which engine, batteries, suspension are bolted) with a carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) upper structure – is cutting edge in technology and material terms.

BMW i8 in Scotland

In fact, the i8 the I drove last week while moonlighting in my occasional role as an automotive columnist for a technology magazine, stands for something altogether more futuristic and technology-led in image than any supercar that’s gone before it. It’s a very interesting way of moving the typology forward, one that largely abandons the pretence of motor-racing heritage as the basis for prowess and image.

Yet given this very tech-led, almost digital image, it was a surprise to swing up the i8’s lightweight, dihedral door to find evidence of something that almost looks homemade – the carbon weave of the upper structure. We expected to find the carbon of course – other supercar manufacturers such as McLaren and Pagani expose their carbon tubs at the point of entry to showcase their advanced underpinning. It also creates a subconscious connection to motor-racing, because of the material’s use in Formula 1. But it’s usually laid up in fastidiously neat lines – the ‘weave’ of the carbon all laid so it’s running in the same direction. Often, it then gains a layer or two of lacquer to give it a glossy, luxurious appearance.

BMW i8 door weave

Not so on the i8. The carbon doesn’t end on the sill, as BMW have used it right up into the roof structure – so you can’t really miss it as you enter the car – and it’s finished in a matte, almost raw form. Most interestingly, even on a car that was a scant 2000 km old, there were signs of nicks and wear – of the carbon fibre starting to acquire a kind of patina of use. And in some places, such as around the door catch, the lay-up of the weave produces a non-uniform pattern, being crunched together or turned this way and that by the structural form. It’s far from unappealing – and, in fact, the more you think about it, this approach is in-keeping with the i8’s ethos. 

The i brand isn’t trying to use materials in a traditional, slickly perfect, polished luxury way. Instead it’s creating a new aesthetic of sustainability – one that at times surprises. The Kenaf used on the door cards of the i3 is hardly what you’d call traditionally premium-looking. But it is 60% recycled, and entirely different to what we’ve seen in a car before. It suits the i3 perfectly. 

And you reach a similar conclusion with the i8. Fastidious, gloss-finished, perfectly laid-up carbon fibre weave as you open the door might have created a superficially high-end, motorsport appearance at first. But that would have ultimately jarred with the car’s character – the i8 is a new kind of supercar. It has its eyes on the future, a very different place to the slick, motorsport-led image of the last century’s sport and supercars. 

In fact, both i8 (and i3) feel like part of a new automotive chapter (Citroen’s Cactus, and Peugeot’s recent concept cars such as the Exalt spring to mind as being similar) which start to really step away from uniform perfect materiality, mass-produced perfection and motorsport-led image which have so dominated the industry for the past 50-odd years. 

Instead, what all of these cars do is begin to pragmatically question what we want our cars to say about us in the future, how we actually use them and how they might be (positively) affected by us and our lives while we own (or use) them rather simply degrading with age. The tangible translation of some of these notions into – at times – surprising design approaches is perhaps the most exciting thing happening in automotive design right now. 

Joe Simpson

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