BMW is set to supplement next year's arrival of the i4 electric four-door coupe with an EV version of the venerable 3 Series - and prototypes are again out testing in Germany.
A camouflaged prototype caught by our spy snappers appears almost identical to the current G20-generation 3 Series, although the addition of mandatory ‘electric test vehicle’ stickers and subtly reshaped front and rear ends hint that it's an early test version for a zero-emissions model.
Plug-in hybrid prototypes are also required to wear stickers, but the lack of exhausts at the rear is the biggest indication this is an EV. BMW is also covering up the front grille, reflecting the view that a production EV model would see the grille blanked to improve aeroydnamics, because less front cooling is required.
The forthcoming i4 will be BMW's first electric saloon, and the firm is yet to officially confirm plans for an electric 3 Series. A BMW spokesperson declined to comment on the test pictures but in a statement said: "By 2023, the BMW Group portfolio will include 25 electrified models, and half of those will be fully electric.”
Munich will officially launch its new iX3 electric SUV later this year, with the 4 Series Gran Coupé-based i4 arriving in dealerships in mid-2021.
BMW design chief Domagoj Dukec recently told Autocar that the decision to launch an i4 rather than an electric 3 Series was because "electrification is still at the point where some people doubt if they should go for it or not, and it’s still a little more expensive. So electric cars need more emotion, and we believe an electrified i4 makes more sense than an electric 3 Series."
But with sales of electric cars rising rapidly – and costs likely to drop as manufacturers achieve greater economies of scale – it's likely there could be suffient demand for an electric 3 Series by 2023.
It’s not yet known what powertrain an electric 3 Series would use, but it’s unlikely to share the performance-oriented i4’s flagship 523bhp, four-wheel drive set-up, given the 3 Series’ practical, executive billing.
More likely is a variation of the as-yet unrevealed powertrain used by the iX3. Although BMW has yet to offer performance and range data for the production variant, the 2018 iX3 concept was said to offer a battery capacity of more than 70kWh, a range of around 250 miles and an electric motor rated at 270bhp.
As with the i4, however, the electric 3 Series would be a likely candidate for a dual-motor, four-wheel-drive range-topper in the vein of the Tesla Model 3 Performance.
The i4 sits atop a modified version of Munich’s CLAR architecture, which underpins the standard 3 Series and new 4 Series and is designed for both combustion engine and electric powertrains, so an electric 3 Series would be much cheaper to develop than an all-new, bespoke EV saloon.
There’s no indication, either, as to what the new model could be called. An obvious choice would be i3, which has been hinted at in interviews, meaning BMW would link its mainstream flagship saloon with the radically styled hatchback EV that has been on sale since 2013.
The 3 Series has been available in petrol-electric plug-in hybrid guise since 2016. The current 330e packs a combined 249bhp, offers an electric-only range of 37 miles and can now be specified with four-wheel drive.