Brave new world: inside the BMW i3

Newly developed materials and a contemporary take on premium give the BMW i3 an interior that oozes innovation from every fiber.

Michael Seitz
Studio Mierswa-Kluska

What does the BMW i3 have in common with the rest of the car world? Principally, a wheel at each corner and one inside for steering. Otherwise, the BMW i3 is largely a product of fresh thinking – especially as far as its carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger cell, overall architecture and electric-drive system are concerned. Within a relatively short space of time, the BMW i engineers and designers at BMW succeeded in creating a new car from the ground up.

Kerstin Schmeding was there from the beginning, tasked with selecting the materials and colors for the car’s interior: “It was clear from the first time I set eyes on the BMW i3 concept that something extraordinary was coming together,” she recalls. “We were all sent away to find innovative solutions for the car.” From the outset, the concept behind the BMW i3 has revolved around key ideas such as “naturalness,” “sustainability” and “authenticity.” And the vital task of making these ideas visible and tangible for the driver fell to the materials selected for the interior. For Schmeding and her team, this was a fascinating process: rarely does a designer get to break so much new ground in the development of a car’s interior.

Long before the BMW i3 went into series production, the BMW i designers examined and researched a plethora of potential materials. Many had little or no track record in automotive construction up to that point. As well as the question of naturalness, there was also a focus on eco-friendly treatment and the energy performance of all the production and recycling processes involved. Finally, each material had to prove it had what it takes to withstand the long and taxing life that awaits a car’s interior.

Many of the materials used in the BMW i3 have never been seen in a car before.

Clever combination: The material used for the side panel trim and instrument panel is the natural fiber kenaf. The designers combined the new material with wool and naturally tanned leather in the door-trim panels.

Plant-based raw materials

The most striking new development in the interior of the i3 is without doubt the use of kenaf. This natural fiber is employed for large sections of the instrument panel and door trim panels. Kenaf possesses a look and feel previously alien to the auto world. Spread across large surfaces within the BMW i3, the material has a coziness to it that is similar to felt and – like felt – it consists of densely interwoven natural fibers. Kenaf is a plant from the mallow family that stores an above-average quantity of CO2 during growth, a virtue that strengthened its case for use in the BMW i3. “Kenaf is a symbol of sustainability – like the BMW i3 as a whole,” notes Schmeding. A complex process saw the BMW i designers hone this inherently ultra-lightweight material to offer the longevity and robustness required of it. BMW is not alone in discovering the advantages and versatility of renewable raw materials; furniture designers have also seen the light. Berlin-based designer Werner Aisslinger, for example, used the material to create a chair concept for furniture company Moroso. Its structure, appearance and surface bring to mind those of BMW i’s kenaf features.

As with the instrument panel for the BMW i3, the material also provides an intriguing contrast with high-quality leather or wool in the door-trim panels. Daniel Starke, Head of Interior Design BMW i3, offers an insight into the decision-making process here: “Only in the areas the driver really feels and uses do we add additional materials to enhance comfort.” The distinctively swooping band of leather and fabric around the armrest and door pull is a prime example. In other areas, the kenaf remains deliberately unadorned. “Less is more in the BMW i3,” adds Starke. “After all, when you’re dealing with electric cars, every ounce counts.”

Smoothly does it: The instrument panel of the BMW i3 features a wood element made from fast-growing eucalyptus.

An open and shut case: For a car measuring just over 13 feet from nose to tail, the BMW i3 boasts an amazingly airy feeling of spaciousness. The interior exudes calmness and a proud belief in minimalism.

An open and shut case: For a car measuring just over 13 feet from nose to tail, the BMW i3 boasts an amazingly airy feeling of spaciousness. The interior exudes calmness and a proud belief in minimalism.

Natural treatment

BMW i’s interior designers can also cite some interesting details when it comes to the other materials selected. The sweeping wood element on the instrument panel in the Giga World and Tera World interior is fast-growing eucalyptus. The suppliers plant, fell and process the trees in certified, sustainable plantations. This ensures the eucalyptus used in the BMW i3 retains its natural surface and is not bleached, dyed or painted. Moreover, the wood does not serve purely as decoration – as in conventional vehicles – but also provides a lid for the glove compartment, for example. Even the leather selected for the BMW i3 has outstanding green credentials. In contrast to conventional leather, no chemicals are used in the tanning process; instead, a natural tanning agent created from olive leaves is preferred. Like the wood in the interior, the leather retains its original feel thanks to minimal surface treatment. It is soft to the touch and maintains its natural beauty.

In their endeavors to maximize environmental compatibility and hit upon a contemporary form of luxury, Schmeding’s team explored an even broader range of materials. “For the Giga interior, we decided to complement the plant-based materials with the natural heat-management properties of wool,” she says. As well as its attractive looks, wool also offers a high degree of comfort, making it a favorite go-to material for luxury clothing designers over the years. Wool cools in the summer and warms during winter, and the fibers can absorb and retain many times their own weight in moisture. This is not only a natural and comfortable material, but also helps to enhance efficiency. After all, the more pleasant the temperature of the seat, the less likely the driver is to reach for the air conditioning or seat heating – and that saves energy and increases the BMW i3’s range.

Commitment to sustainability

The BMW i designers are justifiably proud when they talk about the array of innovations and commitment to sustainability visible aboard the BMW i3. “We don’t see it as a disadvantage that our new materials and approaches have provoked a little controversy,” concludes Starke. “Quite the opposite, in fact: it shows us that things are changing – and the BMW i3 is a symbol for change.”

Steering into the future: The revolutionary vehicle concept opened up a wealth of exciting possibilities for the designers.