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BMW shows off the iNext stage of driving. Image by BMW.

BMW shows off the iNext stage of driving
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What on Earth am I looking at here?

It’s from BMW. Bold, isn't it?

What manner of BMW is it?!

It's the next generation of BMW i. Yes, the sub-brand that gave us the superb i3 battery-electric vehicle (BEV) and the mesmerising i8 plug-in hybrid (PHEV). This is like the i-brand, version 2.0, and it's called the BMW Vision iNext. It's a full BEV, like the non-Rex-equipped i3. And it's also a self-driving, autonomous car. Unlike the i3, whether it has Rex or not.

Are my eyes deceiving me, or is it an SUV?

It's an SUV. Long wheelbase, short overhangs, two-box profile, tall stance. Oh, and 24-inch, aerodynamically optimised alloys, just for good measure. At the back is a large diffuser arrangement and a roof spoiler, with slim light clusters giving the BMW a mean and moody air. The paintwork segues gently from copper to rosé as you move the five metres or so from front to rear of the iNext, with its flanks smooth and gentle and largely bereft of multiple design lines. The doors open in opposing directions and have no B-pillar betwixt them, while the window line is redolent of the hourglass-on-its-side shape traced out by the glasshouse of the i3. Yep, it has presence and glamour, the iNext, no doubt about it.

You've neatly avoided talking about the front end of the iNext...

Oh! Look! Over there! What's that? Is it a pretty bird? Yes; yes, it is. Oh, how nice! *whistles cheerfully*

Stop stalling.

Sigh. Look, you only have to check out some of the latest models from the more traditional BMW canon to see that kidney grilles are getting larger these days. We present the 7 Series and forthcoming X7 SUV as evidence. But the Vision iNext... well, it takes this trend to a whole new level. And it's not a level we like much, to be honest. As this pure EV has no engine cooling requirements, the kidney grilles don't actually need to be grilles any longer, so the appendage fitted to the SUV is a solid, one-piece item that houses cameras and sensors for the self-driving part of its make-up. The conjoined kidney-thing is vertically mounted and utterly dominant in a front end that is framed by a quartet of small LED lights and diminished features. Pretty, the iNext's face is not.

What about the cabin?

Although the iNext's SUV build is partly informed by current, insatiable market demand for such things, the other reason this exterior shape was chosen is that it's the body type of modern car that offers the most interior space of all. This allows for a lounge-like interior that is replete with Shy Tech.

I beg your pardon?!

Sorry, we weren't swearing. It's what BMW calls the hidden gizmos in the iNext's passenger compartment. Have a goosey around the EV's futuristic cabin and you'll notice a distinct dearth of switchgear. Aside from the two main screens, there's apparently nothing on show with which to control the BMW's wealth of onboard functionality (it's a hyper-connected, 5G vehicle, natch). But that's because - voice and gesture controls aside - the physical interfaces are hidden underneath wood and fabric panels. Indeed, the rear bench's Jacquard cloth conceals pads for the infotainment. Draw a musical note and LEDs beneath the cloth trace a ghost-like path behind your finger movements, which is deeply cool and so sci-fi that it's a wonder Ridley Scott wasn't involved somewhere along the line. Anyway, the music will now have come on in the rear of the iNext, so you can draw circles and 'pinch' them open or closed to change the volume, you can swipe left or right to change tracks, or you can press three fingers down on the seat and the song playing will pause. All of this on fabric, remember. It's otherworldly stuff.

That's a steering wheel, isn't it? So how self-driving is the iNext?

This is where things get interesting. BMW assures us that the iNext will be in production by 2021, the electric SUV being put together at the Dingolfing plant about 60 miles north-east of Munich. But can it truly be Level 5 autonomous within three years? Klaus Fröhlich, member of the board of management of BMW AG responsible for Development, is fairly robust in his assessment of that premise: "Automated driving is a huge challenge and it will not happen in all areas of the world at the same time. There are a lot of legal and regulatory hurdles to clear before autonomous driving happens all over the world, so we are predicting more like Level 3 autonomy being widely available in 2021." But the iNext will, of course, be capable of more, simply waiting for worldwide legislation to change to suit its needs, or just able to take advantage of the forward-thinking cities and urban areas that ratify autonomous cars for public use sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, this doesn't sound the death knell for BMWs that you can drive yourself, as Fröhlich continues: "The joy of driving remains core to BMW - we will not be replacing the human driver with autonomous driving; rather, our AI technology will only add to the experience for end users."

So you can either choose to drive the iNext, or let it drive you?

Correct. In Boost mode, the steering wheel slides towards the driver and two little pedals fold out of the wooden floor (little chance of this making production, unless crash-safety regulation changes dramatically in the next three years), meaning you can take the dynamic route home - the satnav will even choose a nice, twisting road for you, if there's one that can be reasonably integrated into your daily commute. But switch to Ease and you can spend your time on board watching films, holding conference calls or just kicking back and relaxing, while the iNext whisks you along in zero-emissions silence.

Talking of which, what's the powertrain like?

This is shrouded in some secrecy for now, but a chat with Fröhlich reveals a few nuggets of goodness. According to the German, buyers of the iNext will have a choice of "two different battery sizes and two different performance specifications", and the more powerful version with the bigger battery should be capable of "comfortably more than 373 miles of electric range, WLTP." The BMW should also turn in a searing 0-62mph time: "I want it to be three-point-something seconds, not a number starting with a four." While the iNext will use learnings from the i3 and i8 production processes - specifically relating to the extensive use of carbon-fibre, aluminium and high-strength steel in the body - in order to keep the pounds off its frame, you have to reckon that a battery-stuffed SUV of its physical grandeur will still be fairly weighty, and will thus need at least 370kW (500hp), probably more, in order to deliver such brutal acceleration. Also, we're guessing whatever electric motors it uses will be spread front and rear, driving both axles for an advanced version of xDrive all-corners traction. Well, it is an SUV, when all's said and done.

So, this is where BMW i is heading next?

Yup. The electric revolution, to be fair (and forgive the impending pun), is already on a charge (sorry...). BMW alone sold 100,000 electrified vehicles in 2017; this year, it's on target to elevate that number to 140,000 units. It thinks that half a million part-electric or electric vehicles from the BMW Group will be tooling the roads of the world by 2020, and by 2025 it will have 25 models with electrified drive systems, 12 of which will be pure EVs. The iNext will clearly be among that electric-only dozen - and will probably sold under some badge like i5 or i7, at a guess. It looks extremely promising, then, on this first investigation of its merits; we just hope the kidney panel can be, um... toned down by 2021.

Matt Robinson - 15 Sep 2018

2018 BMW Vision iNext. Image by BMW.2018 BMW Vision iNext. Image by BMW.2018 BMW Vision iNext. Image by BMW.2018 BMW Vision iNext. Image by BMW.2018 BMW Vision iNext. Image by BMW.

2018 BMW Vision iNext. Image by BMW.2018 BMW Vision iNext. Image by BMW.2018 BMW Vision iNext. Image by BMW.2018 BMW Vision iNext. Image by BMW.2018 BMW Vision iNext. Image by BMW.    - BMW road tests
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