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car review

2022 BMW iX.Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

It’s been ten years since BMW last swung for the fences with a truly ambitious new electric car. In 2011, the German company’s electric hopes were pinned on the i3 concept, a brilliantly-weird little box on wheels designed as the perfect solution for mega cities. It wasn’t, at least not here in Canada and the United States where we have perfected the art of suburban sprawl. The mega city vehicle didn’t live up to sales expectation and prompted, “some head-scratching and hesitation to reinvest,” as one BMW product planner said in 2017.

Once bitten, twice shy. But BMW is finally back up to bat and looking for a home run with the ambitious new iX.

This all-electric SUV is built on a one-off EV architecture not shared with other models. It was designed from scratch as a rolling showcase for BMW’s next-generation tech, including a new battery pack and electric motors, both made in-house, as well as a fresh iDrive infotainment screen and operating system. Every new BMW, electric or not, arriving over the next few years will use bits and pieces seen first on the iX. So, it had better be good.

At first glance, it appears BMW has learned its lessons from the i3, sort of. Like its predecessor, the iX is an odd-looking thing, blessed (or cursed) with BMW’s beaver-tooth vertical grille. Unlike the i3, however, the iX is both large and an SUV, two traits most car buyers can’t seem to do without. (It’s roughly the same size as BMW’s X5 SUV.) The iX uses more conventional construction, rather than the i3′s full carbon passenger cell, so it can roll off the same production line as the 7 Series sedan at BMW’s sprawling plant in Dingolfing, Germany.

Only once you’re settled into the cabin of the iX do you begin to appreciate just how different from any other BMW – or any other vehicle – this machine is. It has an ambience like a Soho House lounge. The $1,500 Stone Grey colourway option wraps the seats, doors and entire dashboard in suedelike blue fabric. Asymmetrical stitching and light bronze trim are more like the work of an interior decorator than a car designer. It’s a very calming “millennial aesthetic.”

Compared to a Tesla Model Y, the BMW’s cabin is warmer, less militantly minimal; it’s far less cluttered than your typical luxury car too because the designers tried to hide much of the flashy technology, which is a refreshing change.

Thankfully, they did keep some physical controls for the all-new iDrive system, so you don’t have to get fingerprints on the beautiful new curved high-res display if you’d prefer not to. (Audi, Tesla, Mercedes, we’re looking at you.) The usual iDrive buttons for Nav and Media are embossed on a single wood slab just ahead of the central arm rest. It looks great, but the labels can be hard to see in bright sun unless you dim the glass roof.

If the cabin seems like a living room, the iX drives a bit like one too. The steering isn’t as sharp or weighty as we’re used to from BMW, but the iX was never meant as a sporty machine. The company has other EVs for that, like the upcoming i4 sedan.

The trunk looks huge, but the opening to the 500-litre cargo hold is surprisingly small, and there’s no front trunk.Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

There are two driving modes, “D” tries to maximize range but can be unpredictable, sometimes slowing and sometimes coasting when you let off the accelerator. Alternatively, “B” mode offers smooth one-pedal driving that brings the car to a complete stop without the driver having to touch the brake. Giving customers a choice of one- or two-pedal driving is wise move since it’s very much a matter of personal preference.

So the iX isn’t exactly sporty, but it’s not slow either. The xDrive50 model takes off immediately from any legal speed, delivering acceleration that hits like a punch in the gut. It’s not quite Tesla-quick, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker in a family SUV. On the Autobahn the iX doesn’t run out of juice until an indicated 205 km/h. Even at that speed it’s as steady and calm as a bullet train.

The SUV is propelled by two of BMW’s new fifth-generation electric motors, one at each axle, putting down a total of 516 horsepower and 564 lb-ft of torque. The motors themselves are built in-house by BMW in Germany, along with the 105.2 kWh (net capacity) battery pack. The individual battery cells come from suppliers, including China’s CATL.

Using a 200 kW DC fast charger, BMW claims you can add 150 km of range in just 10 minutes to a nearly empty battery, although we didn’t get a chance to test that claim during our test drive.

There’s no official EPA range yet, but it’ll be more than 483 km according to BMW’s best guess. Our test car was on track to do just over 500 km, even after some prolonged 200 km/h Autobahn runs, but this is by no means a scientific test.

Even a short drive in the iX is a bracing reminder of just how much the EV game has evolved over the 10 years since BMW first unveiled the i3 concept. In that time, the German company has become much more competitive against upstart rivals like Tesla.

That the iX is coming to the market now, “is not a coincidence,” said Peter Nota, member of BMW AG’s board of management. The time is right, he explained, because demand for EVs is really rising now and charging infrastructure is progressing. While rivals like Mercedes and Porsche enter the Canadian EV market with $140,000 and $120,000 flagship sedans, BMW is offering a family friendly mid-size SUV, which Nota described as a “high-volume” vehicle.

Starting at $89,990, the price of the iX xDrive50 is roughly on par with European rivals like the Jaguar I-Pace and Audi e-tron, but the BMW offers significantly better range and performance than either. For now, its closest rivals are the Tesla Model Y Performance or perhaps the upcoming Rivian R1S.

By the time you load the iX up with options the price climbs well above six-figures to a level that may make shoppers wince. It costs twice as much as the i3, but the iX blows its predecessor out of the water in terms of practicality, comfort, charging speed and range. It’s a shame to see BMW abandon the radical construction and entry-level luxury price that made the i3 so interesting, but, this is a business. Even with its odd-looking face, the iX is an impressive machine that will surely have more appeal than the i3 ever did. The iX should even tempt some Tesla customers.

You’ll see the iX xDrive50 in Canada early next year, followed by the i4 sedan. A less expensive iX xDrive40 and a faster iX M60 are on the cards too. An i7 full-size electric sedan is due in 2022, with the mid-size i5 following in 2023, Peter Nota confirmed. All told, Nota said there will be a fully-electric vehicle in nearly all of BMW Group’s many model ranges by 2023.

By the time you load the iX up with options the price climbs well above six-figures to a level that may make shoppers wince.Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

Tech specs

2022 BMW iX xDrive50

Base price/as tested: $89,990/$111,000 (estimate)

Engine: dual-motor electric

Transmission/drive: single-speed/all-wheel drive

Fuel economy (litre-equivalent/100 kilometres): TBD

Alternatives: Tesla Model Y Performance, Audi e-tron, Jaguar I-Pace, Rivian R1S

Ratings

Looks

The design is less fussy than other recent BMWs, except of course for that grille.

Interior

Black plastic has been almost completely banished and many of the buttons and dials look like they were cut from glass. Saying, “hey BMW, take a selfie,” snaps a photo using an interior camera, which is a fun gimmick.

Performance

On paper, the Tesla Model Y Performance just barely has the iX beat in terms of rated range and 0-100 km/h acceleration, but it’s close. Cushy air suspension and all-wheel steering are useful luxuries included as standard on the xDrive50.

Technology

The new 5G-capable iDrive system running BMW Operation System 8 is among the best infotainment tech you’ll find in any car. The iPhone-as-key function is slick; you walk up, get in, and drive without even taking the phone out of your pocket. (On one of the pre-production test cars though the feature didn’t work and BMW people quickly had to track down the key.) The company expects over-the-air updates and subscription features will enable new revenue streams.

Cargo

The trunk looks huge, but the opening to the 500-litre cargo hold is surprisingly small, and there’s no front trunk. The lack of central tunnel means all three rear seats have good legroom.

Verdict

The iX shows BMW is going in a more mainstream direction with its electric vehicles. More importantly, with its spectacular cabin and competitive specs, it also shows BMW is closing the gap to early EV leaders like Tesla.

Black plastic has been almost completely banished from the interior and many of the buttons and dials look like they were cut from glass.Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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