Among a flurry of new all-electric vehicles coming to market in the coming months, BMW will introduce its first long-range model, the iX3, in Europe and China next year -- and it marks a shift in strategy for the German automaker.
BMW was an early proponent of battery propulsion, with models like the short-range i3 city car. But where the automaker's original approach called for the development of unique, skateboard-like platforms specifically designed for electric operation, the "architecture" used for the new iX3 will be far more flexible. That will allow BMW to offer the SUV in a variety of different configurations, including gas- and diesel-powered versions, as well as conventional and plug-in hybrids and an all-electric model.
What the carmaker refers to as its "fifth-generation" electric drive system, meanwhile, will also be flexible enough to use in everything from compact city cars, like a future version of the i3, all the way up to big SUVs, as well as high-performance models that eventually may share the vaunted "M" badge reserved for its sportiest product lines, such as the legendary M3 sedan.
"The first purely electric Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV) is the trailblazer for BMW eDrive technology of the fifth generation, which, starting 2021, will also be deployed in the BMW i4 and the BMW iNEXT," the carmaker said in a statement.
BMW's first all-electric SUV hews closely in design to the Concept iX3 that was unveiled in April 2018. The heart of the new vehicle is a drivetrain drawing from a 74 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. The company estimates that will power the SUV for about 440 kilometers, or 273 miles, per charge. That's using the European WLTP test cycle, however, which means we'll likely see less range when the new offering reaches U.S. showrooms.
The size of the battery pack for the iX3 is relatively modest, at just 74 kWh. By comparison, the 90 kWh pack in the Jaguar I-Pace yields 234 miles, according to the EPA, while the Audi e-tron's 95 kWh only gets an EPA rating of slightly over 200 miles per charge.
Range can be a difficult figure to predict as a variety of factors determines the final number. Among other things, that can depend upon how much of the charge an automaker actually taps. Some use less than 80% of the total capacity in order to extend battery life while others, notably Tesla, use almost every electron a pack can store. The efficiency of the drivetrain, vehicle aerodynamics and other factors also come into play.
The details revealed by BMW offer up a few surprises. For one thing, the iX3 will only use a single, rear-mounted motor punching out a maximum 210 kilowatts, or 286 horsepower, and 295 pound-feet of torque. Because that torque will come on almost instantaneously, the automaker promises, "high initial acceleration."
BMW officials told reporters in Palm Springs, California, in February that the underlying platform the iX3 and other electrified models will use will have the capability of mounting motors on either the front or rear axles – or both.
BMW officials said at that time that the carmaker may offer multiple powertrain sizes, much as it does with today's gas-powered models. And it also could introduce multiple battery-pack options, much as Tesla currently does – a strategy other automakers, including Ford, with its new Mustang Mach-E SUV, are also adopting.
BMW, which announced the iX3's specifications Wednesday, said it was not yet revealing details of the U.S. model. It's unclear when it will be available for sale in America.
Pricing is another uncertainty. The U.S. version of the Audi e-tron, with its larger battery pack, starts at $74,800. BMW might offer a surprise when the iX3 comes to the States. In its statement, the automaker noted it has been able to reduce by two-thirds the amount of cobalt in its lithium-ion batteries and has largely eliminated the costly rare earth metals traditionally used in automotive motors.
Though BMW was an early entrant into electrification with i3 and the i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, it has been slipping behind rivals like Jaguar and Audi and will see a broad range of other competitors enter the electric SUV segment by next year, including Cadillac and Tesla, the latter with its Model Y, as well as Ford's more mainstream Mach-E.
Significantly, the new iX3 will be built at the BMW Brilliance Automotive plant in Shenyang, China, operated as part of a joint venture with local partner Brilliance Automotive. It's unclear if production will be added at any of the automaker's North American or European plants later. The first BMW iX3 is expected to roll off the line sometime in 2020.
Disclosure: Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. BMW paid for his travel and accommodations to a press briefing in Palm Springs, California, in February where it disclosed some of the material included in this article.