Why BMW Will Be an Electric Vehicle Winner

Automobile manufacturers are looking hard at electric vehicles, but success may have more to do with their brand than what products they offer.

Travis Hoium
Travis Hoium
Jul 19, 2014 at 4:05PM

Electric vehicles are starting to gain steam in the marketplace, highlighted by Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) Model S and 2013's best-selling EV in the U.S., General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Chevy Volt. But the strategies manufacturers follow often differ depending on who they are and where their target market lies.

General Motors has attempted to make electric vehicles for the masses, but has included a gas motor to ease the range anxiety that keeps many consumers from going electric. Tesla Motors, on the other hand, was able to rethink the vehicle from the ground up in designing the Model S as a sports car that can fit a family. As a result, it can command a price that can reach over $100,000 and sell out all the production it can make.

Tesla Motors was able to incorporate the battery low in the chassis, lowering the car's center of gravity. Photo: The Motley Fool

When you look at what EVs can offer the marketplace and where existing manufacturers are positioned, it isn't General Motors who is going to be a dominant player. The company that's set up for success more than GM and even Tesla looks to be BMW (NASDAQOTH:BAMXF). Just by the nature of its brand and vehicle lineup, BMW is ready to push the performance of electric vehicles to the next level. It brings a long history of innovation to the road, and its early success with two electric models provides a game plan for the future. 

Performance is BMW's game
Everything about the electric vehicle industry screams BMW. Electric motors have higher torque than gasoline engines (i.e. they're quicker off the block), and the center of gravity of a vehicle can be lowered by strategically placing batteries (making it faster in turns). BMW has always pushed the edge of technology innovation in automobiles, so developing EVs is a natural extension for BMW and will fit well with its current customer base.

The BMW i8 is the company's first big EV test, combining BMW's traditional power with an electric motor. Source: BMW. 

The plug-in hybrid BMW i8 is the first big step toward the future EVs for BMW, and in some ways can hold its own against Tesla's Model S today. The i8's 0-60 mph time of 4.4 seconds beats the standard Model S (5.4 seconds) and comes close to the Model S Performance (4.2 seconds). Top speed is 30 mph better than the Model S at 155 mph, but that's due to the gas engine that assists with top-end power. Give BMW another generation and further development of EV technology and it could build a rival to Tesla that's focused more on the sporty aspects of EVs than appealing to a wider market, as Tesla appears to be doing with the Model S and eventual Model X SUV.

BMW isn't yet competitive with Tesla on range, because the i8's 22-mile electric range, and even the i3's 100-mile range, can't stack up to the Model S's 265-mile range. But again, the next generation should bring advancements in that regard.

The i3's carbon fiber frame will lower weight and center of gravity, improving performance. Image source: Mariordo via Wikimedia.

BMW has a chance to challenge Tesla in the high-performance EV market and it's a natural fit for the business. Whereas the performance that BMW can generate from EVs fits naturally with its brand and customer base, a company like GM is making more of a stretch. It's not the performance company that BMW is. Being a performance leader with customers that can afford to pay for a well-designed EV gives BMW a huge advantage. 

Don't forget that this is BMW's first foray into EVs, and based on the response of customers it'll be a market the company can do well in. The i8 is sold out for its first-year production run (no word on how many are being produced) and the i3 reportedly sold 10,000 units before officially going on sale.  

For BMW, the "i" line of products is also a proving ground for new technology. The i3 frame was built out of carbon fiber; it's expected to lead to the use of more carbon fiber in BMW's line of vehicles -- for example, the M-Series is offered with a carbon fiber roof. 

BMW may not be betting its future on EVs but if the i3 and i8 perform as expected, EVS likely will become a growing piece of the company's sales pie. For investors, that opens up a whole new market and a new generation of customers to BMW's driving machine.