We ride shotgun in the flagship electric SUV ahead of its public release later this year. Should premium rivals be worried?
The first electric-powered BMW production model, the i3, was launched in 2013. So far, it has racked up more than 200,000 sales globally, making the compact, rear-wheel-drive hatchback one of the 10 best-selling electric cars to date.
Yet despite the relative early entry into the electric car ranks, BMW has taken a good seven years to build on the foundations set by the i3.
Last year’s iX3 kick-started the second wave of electric-powered models from the German car maker, building off the third-generation X3.
Now, in quick-fire fashion, BMW has launched the i4 saloon and iX SUV. We’ve driven the former, in prototype guise, and here we ride along in the latter as part of a final validation test in a route across Germany.
Regular readers will know the background to this Audi E-tron quattro and Tesla Model X rival. First revealed in concept car form as the Vision iNEXT at the 2018 Paris motor show, the iX is described as the most advanced of BMW’s electric models yet. It features a much more heavily modified version of the CLAR platform than the iX3, with part-carbonfibre construction, and the same fifth-generation drive system as the i4, including a large, 105.2kWh lithium ion battery that is claimed to boast a 30% increase in energy density over that used by the i3, providing it with a range that BMW puts at around 600km on the WLTP test procedure.
The new five-seat SUV is produced alongside the 5, 6, 7 and 8 Series at BMW’s Dingolfing factory in Germany and, as a series of updates from BMW over the past two years has chronicled, the new five-seater has undergone the same development regime as other, more traditional, combustion-engined BMW models.
The iX we ride in is among a series of pre-production prototypes currently being run by BMW engineers as part of a final phase of durability testing. There’s no disguise of any kind. In fact, it looks showroom ready. But that’s no great surprise. We’ve known what the production version of the new BMW looks like since its unveiling late last year.
It’s certainly distinctive, with proportions and details quite unlike any other BMW model.
Up front is possibly the largest kidney grille yet seen on a BMW. Extending well down into the lower section of the large front bumper, it is bookmarked by thin-line headlights with LED graphics and is blanked off as part of a wide range of aerodynamic measures that net the iX a drag co-efficient of 0.25.
The bonnet is relatively short – certainly a good deal shorter than that of the similarly sized X5 – and it sweeps back to meet a glasshouse featuring a heavily raked windscreen, sloping roof and angled rear window. There’s also a wrap-around look to the rear end similar to that seen on various Audi models, with the rear lights integrated within the tailgate.
Interestingly, the iX is the first BMW to feature a fixed bonnet. Without provision for a front luggage compartment, a decision was made to engineer it without hinges for the clamshell structure, so it remains closed except for servicing purposes, when it can be opened with special tooling. The filler for the windscreen washer is integrated into the BMW badge: push it and it hinges back, allowing you to fill the bottle with fluid.
With its moderate ride height, it looks more like a crossover than an SUV. The large wheelhouses, which are framed by prominent chamfered arches, do contain some rather serious-looking wheels and tyres: 20in rims are standard, with 21in and 22in available as an option.
BMW says the iX name was chosen as a way of positioning its latest electric model at the pinnacle of the line-up. Think of it as an iX5, though. At 4953mm in length, 1967mm in width and 1695mm in height, it is just 31mm longer, 37mm narrower and 50mm lower than the fourth-generation X5, launched in 2019. It also rides on a wheelbase that is a scant 8mm longer than that of its combustion-engined sibling, at 3000mm.
The door handles do without any physical mechanism to operate. A simple touch is all it takes to trigger the electronics. When you do, you’re quickly made aware that this is not merely a dressed up X5. The sills are narrower and the floor is set higher. Look carefully and you also notice sections of the inner body structure are fashioned from carbonfibre. They’re unpainted on the prototype, as they will be on the production version.
There will be two iX models from the outset of UK deliveries in November, both running dual electric motors and four-wheel drive as standard: the iX 40xDrive and the iX 50xDrive we’re in here. Also planned is a BMW M-developed iX M60, although it isn’t set to join the range until next year.
Interestingly, BMW relies on in-house engineering competence by sourcing the electric motors produced from its own Munich-based manufacturing facility instead of going to suppliers such as Nidec, Bosch or ZF.
We won’t be able to tell you how the iX drives for another few weeks, but the opportunity to ride in the iX50xDrive prototype with the project director for the new SUV, Johann Kistler, confirms it delivers genuinely strong acceleration along with the sort of handling poise you wouldn’t credit from a 2500kg-plus SUV and outstanding levels of refinement.
But in other areas, it also represents a radical departure from just about every other BMW model. This is clear the moment you climb up into the cabin.
Indeed, there is an intriguing new feel to the interior. With its low-set dashboard and high-mounted seats that have greater cushioning than those of other BMW models, you get the feeling you’re sitting on instead of in the new BMW. The standard seats also lack the traditional side support available in traditional BMW models, giving them a distinctive lounge-chair-style feel.
Even with the passenger seat wound down to its lowest setting, via Mercedes-Benz-like controls mounted high on the door trim rather than within the outer base of the seat like on other BMW models, you’re perched quite high.
This is further emphasised by the new model’s rather tall glasshouse, which provides occupants with outstanding visibility. There’s also a flat floor without defined footwells, placing your feet much higher than in conventional combustion-engined SUVs, the X5 included. A panoramic glass roof adds to the contemporary look of the cabin, flooding it with light when the automatic electrochromatic shading allows.
The interior’s clean and uncluttered look is forged by a single curved display panel housing the digital instruments and infotainment functions as well as a lack of physical switchgear. The steering wheel is hexagonal in shape and, as with other elements within the roomy cabin, quite futuristic in look. Kistler, who also oversaw the development of the current X5, says he was initially sceptical. “It looks odd. I wasn’t really a fan at first, but it’s actually quite straightforward to use and it fits with the new age design,” he says.
Apart from the cheap-looking plastic mounts holding the digital display to the dashboard, it’s all quite sophisticated. Buyers will be able to heighten the look with optional crystal glass for the gear selector and iDrive controller – both mounted at the front of the centre console, which sits separate from the dashboard, leaving a rather unusual section of flat floor between the driver and passenger.
The iX 50xDrive shares its dual electric motor driveline with the i4 M50 xDrive. The front-mounted motor delivers 190kW, with the rear developing 230kW, giving it an overall system output of 385kW. It combines with an overall 765Nm of torque to give BMW’s fourth all-electric model smooth and highly refined qualities around town along with urgent and very creditable performance out on the open road.
As in the iX3, there are two main drive modes: D and B. The former allows optimal coasting qualities on the overrun, with the latter introducing brake-led energy recuperation that makes the iX pull up quite smartly when left to its own devices.
With an advanced four-wheel drive system apportioning the reserves to each wheel, the initial top-of-the-line iX feels every bit as strong at the X5 M50i at step-off, with the sort of urgent qualities that will appeal to enthusiast drivers. It’s silent and quick off the mark.
There’s also brisk roll-on acceleration. A determined stab of the throttle at lower speeds pins you back in the seat as the generous reserves are unleashed in full. BMW claims a 0-100kmh time of 4.6sec, which is just 0.3sec shy of the X5 M50i. Top speed, like that of the less powerful iX 40xDrive, is limited to 200kmh.
By comparison, the four-wheel-drive Audi 55 E-tron quattro, which has a dual-motor drivetrain with 300kW and 561Nm of torque, claims respective figures of 5.7sec and the same 200kmh.
A brief run on the autobahn reveals impressively hushed qualities to the iX’s cruising ability. There’s a very faint whine from the electric motors under full load, but they’re silent on part throttle. What you do notice at speed is a constant lick of wind at the top of the windscreen and around the door mirrors, which are mounted on arms attached the base of front quarter side windows.
Quick and relatively silent, then. Even so, it’s the handling that really grabs our attention first time out in the iX. With its large battery mounted low within its platform to allow a similarly low centre of gravity, it corners in a very controlled manner, changing direction smartly and gripping strongly when hustled down a winding road in Sport mode. It comes across as being well balanced, responsive and very sure-footed.
Along with variable-ratio front steering, the new model also comes with BMW’s optional Integral Active Steering, giving it rear-wheel steering. Capable of generating up to 3.5deg of parallel and opposite lock, it contributes to impressive manoeuvrability around town together with a feel of heightened agility out on the open roads.
The apportioning of drive is programmed to favour the rear in all but wet conditions. We didn’t get to test the limits on public roads but Kistler rates the dynamic qualities of the new BMW very highly.
“When you drive it, you think how could it possibly weigh as much as it does. It is responsive and precise. We have spent a lot of time refining the handling, giving it typical BMW character. The cornering forces, lateral acceleration and the like are quite different to combustion-engine models. But I’m very happy with the outcome,” he says.
The underpinnings are heavily related to those used by the X3, X5, X6 and X7, with a double-wishbone set-up at the front and a multi-link arrangement at the rear. Our iX 50xDrive prototype features air suspension, although lesser models will receive a standard steel suspension with BMW’s excellent adaptive damping.
The damping is quite firm to suppress body roll, even in Comfort mode. Even so, the overall compliance is quite good, providing decent control over higher frequency bumps and keeping vertical movements nicely under control when the iX is faced with sharp undulations.
We’ll need more time to confirm BMW range claims. However, we did see the equivalent of 630km on the digital display of the prototype when running in Eco mode. If this can be replicated in real-world driving, it’s going to be among the best in class in this particular discipline. Crucially, the new model’s power electronics system supports pre-conditioning of the battery. This allows the lithium ion battery to be cooled or heated prior to charging, which can be achieved at up to 200kW, for optimal charging times.
Its styling is unconventional – bewildering even, from certain angles, to these eyes. But if the iX can convince us as much from behind the steering wheel as it does from the passenger seat when we finally get to drive it, the incumbent electric SUV protagonists are set to be in for some extra-stiff competition when it reaches the UK later this year. It is clearly a different kind of BMW in many aspects – not least its concept-car-like interior, but for now the key attributes of performance, dynamic finesse and overall refinement appear to be high among its appeal.