The X3 crossover and 3-series sedan are among the first vehicles likely to offer all available powertrain types. BMW has confirmed it will introduce an electric X3 in 2020, and an electric 3 series is expected in 2019 or 2020, after the compact sedan is redesigned. Both the X3 and 3 series will move to BMW's CLAR cluster architecture, a highly flexible vehicle platform that allows for any of the planned powertrains.
"The strategy for the future is to integrate all drivetrains, whether it's purely battery-electric, whether it's a hybrid or a purely combustion engine," said Oliver Zipse, BMW AG board member in charge of production. "You will see battery-electric right after diesel right after hybrid on the assembly line. That's the only way we think to respond to the necessary flexibility because we don't know the demand."
The approach is a major departure from the philosophy employed today. When BMW launched its i3 electric compact and i8 plug-in hybrid sports car in 2013 and 2014, it created dedicated production systems in its Leipzig, Germany, assembly plant.
"It was a plant inside a plant, so to say," Zipse recalled. "Completely separated. That is not our strategy for the future."
Moving to the new integration concept will require investment in BMW's assembly plants, Zipse said. For instance, body shops need to make changes to fit big, flat battery packs into the floor of the vehicle. The company would set up a side line inside the body shop to assemble the differently shaped floors, and everything would then come together in the main framing station, he said.
Because EV batteries are so heavy — around 900 to 2,000 pounds — having battery assembly on-site or very close to the assembly plant also is important, Zipse said. That will avoid the cost and complexity of having to ship such a heavy component.
BMW's plant in Spartanburg, S.C., is starting down the path toward a more flexible production system. The plant assembles the X5 crossover, with a plug-in hybrid variant already integrated into the production line, Zipse said. "You can do the same thing with a purely battery-electric," he said.
The plant has produced about 25,000 plug-in hybrid X5s since production started in 2015, said Knudt Flor, CEO of BMW Manufacturing Co. in Spartanburg. Battery production already is done on-site for that vehicle.
Going forward, Spartanburg will be configured to assemble EV versions of its vehicles. BMW assembles the X3 through X6 crossovers in Spartanburg and will add the X7 large crossover in late 2018.
Spartanburg will be able to produce the full range of combustion, plug-in hybrid and electric powertrains with coming models, Flor said. The X3 would be a "good option" for the approach if there's demand for that powertrain range, he added.
"Everything depends on what the customer demands, but then we need to be able to integrate very fast," Flor said. "We need to have this production-ready."
Even with the plan for electric versions of its core models, BMW will continue its i electric car subbrand. The next new i nameplate will be the iNEXT, with advanced autonomous driving features, in 2021.
But BMW doesn't want to split all EVs into a separate line, Krueger says.
"What might happen is, you can destroy the brand," Krueger said. "You have your old-fashioned business and a modern business, and in between, you've killed the brand."