At BMW’s New Electric Subbrand, a Young Designer Makes His Mark

By PHIL PATTON

BMW scheduled a layover in Manhattan Wednesday for its i3 and i8, the first cars designed for BMW i, the Munich-based automaker’s new, electric-oriented subbrand. The concepts will make their formal North American debut at the Los Angeles auto show next Wednesday.

Accompanying the cars was the BMW designer Richard Kim.

Mr. Kim, with the BMW i3 concept on Wednesday in Manhattan.Phil PattonMr. Kim, with the BMW i3 concept on Wednesday in Manhattan.

Mr. Kim, 30, grew up near Cupertino, Calif., the home of Apple. Wearing precise, technical-looking glasses, Mr. Kim dressed on Wednesday in the blacks and grays that constitute the standard industrial-designer fashion palette. But when he sat down, his bright red and white diamond-patterned socks peeked out from under his pant cuff. So, too, did flashes of wit from beneath his sober mien.

Mr. Kim said that the design team was installed in a building away from BMW’s main studios to keep its thinking fresh, he said. “We had a sketch-off as we do with any new project,” he said.

“It is exciting and stressful. It’s like the show ‘Top Chef’ except the season never ends.”

Mr. Kim’s concept for the i3, a brightly colored sketch of which appeared on a projection screen on Wednesday, won.

The i3 began life as the Megacity electric project car, but the concept evolved into a purely electric runabout that would be configurable, when it went on sale in 2013, with a gasoline-burning, 3-cylinder range extender.

Without an engine up front — the range extender is in the rear — the hood area could become smaller and the vehicle higher as a wide battery pack on the floor became the key element determining the vehicle’s shape. Computer-generated sketches of the innards of the i3 shown on Wednesday, depicting the passenger module sitting atop the drive module, suggested a stagecoach without horses.

Mr. Kim and his colleagues were charged with making this tall and somewhat gawky form into something that communicated driving excitement and agility.

“The wheels at the corner and the stance communicate stability,” he said. The centrally meeting “coach doors” replace a B-pillar — the stabilizing line traditionally behind the front doors of a car — and suggest the amount of space inside. “They invite you in, make you welcome,” he said of the doors.

The lines of the vehicle suggest a traditional BMW wedge and imply agility. “You feel it more than you see it,” he said.

The most characteristic cue of traditional BMW design is the angle of the i3’s rear roof pillar, the so-called Hofmeister kink, named after a former design chief of the brand. Mr. Kim said that the i brand would have its own equivalent, which he called stream flow.

The cue consists of two sine waves that travel along the sides of the vehicle and converge toward the rear like air in a wind tunnel. In the process, they help disguise the belt line and make the car appear less tall.

In back, the rear bumper and diffuser form a single structure.

“On the i3 we have integrated as many things as possible,” said Mr. Kim.

He also outlined some of the major ideas behind the i8, a premium plug-in-hybrid grand tourer that evolved from the Vision Efficient Dynamics concept, which will be in the film “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.” The film is being released next month, and BMW of North America will start a marketing campaign around the car’s appearance, called Mission to Drive.

“It seems to be in motion even if it is just standing still,” Mr. Kim said of the i8. “The blue ribbons and exposed black carbon-fiber pieces of the vehicle express literal aerodynamics and structure.” Mr. Kim also indicated how air from the front-wheel air curtains swept along the side of the i8 and through a rear-spoiler element.

According to Mr. Kim, the key to both designs was layering, expressed in colors and materials. Those layers serve to join the exterior with the interior, he said, making what rode atop the cars’ underpinnings appear as advanced as the underpinnings themselves.

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