The year is 2023. Inventories are fluctuating. Prices are high. Wyoming wants to ban electric vehicles at the same time that California wants to ban internal combustion engines. The future is as muddled as that statement implies, but any BMW iX dealer might tell you otherwise. They’re selling the car of the future and that future is fine!
BMW iX was introduced in 2022. This year brings the M60 performance variant, trading a bit of range for more power. The iX has earned numerous accolades for innovation and design as it claims a position on the leading edge of the electric revolution. At its core is a long legacy of development, from its eighth-generation iDrive user interface, to its fifth-generation electric architecture, to decades of BMW’s dynamic mastery producing the ultimate driving machines.
The Car of the Future
The automotive industry is at an inflection point between two massive upheavals: the nearly total market takeover by crossovers, and the pervasive electrification of powertrains. On paper the iX looks like another brick in the wall, but if you look closer you’ll find that BMW is showing us what to expect tomorrow with a production vehicle available today.
BMW calls their crossovers “Sport Activity Vehicles,” an unofficial class designation that is more focused on power, space and towing than off-roading than the traditional SUV designation. The iX was designed around the passengers with the idea of creating an uncluttered, functional, comfortable space. This is an idea they call “Loft,” giving the car a transcendent atmosphere compared against anything else. It’s a showcase of new technology and new ideas, much of which has hit with reviewers today, and should continue to hit as the features trickle down to the rest of BMW’s lineup.
Focal Point: The Interior
The electric self-driving future has presented an interesting opportunity for designers. The vehicle’s interior is becoming increasingly less limited by the demands of gas-powered locomotion. BMW finally asked the question, “When designing a vehicle that should be as quiet as a lounge, why make it look and feel like one as well?”
BMW employed style and space to create that atmosphere. It welcomes a tremendous amount of natural light thanks to narrow pillars, low sills, and a gigantic panoramic sunroof with a controllable tint for shading. Ambient lighting and customizable drive modes are scattered throughout.
Then comes the question of controls. In BMW’s own words, the uncluttered cockpit arose from asking, “Does this need to be here?” of every physical control. Although iDrive 8 has absorbed most of the features, including climate comtrol, there are still a handful of separate controls carefully located on the center console and door panels. Most of these are capacitive touch-sensitive controls, even through what appears to be wood trim. Others appear as striking glass crystals. The end result is a delightful balance, a well-equipped high-tech space that avoids overwhelming its occupants with too many, or too few, physical controls.
The icing on the cake is the material selection. From “econyl,” which is a recycled plastic used for the carpets and headliner, to leather tanned with olive leaf extract, BMW has followed through on the promise of sustainability that an EV intends to make. The commitment carries through the powertrain, with no rare earth metals in the motors, and other materials traced to ensure their origins are known. BMW even uses a manufacturing facility powered fully by renewable energy! It’s the final piece of the intricate puzzle that is the iX interior, good enough for a Wards 10-Best Interior and UX award for 2022.
The Sound of a New Dawn
Advances in aerodynamics and NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) mitigation, and finally the elimination of the internal combustion engine, have created an interesting situation that hybrid manufacturers have been grappling with for decades. The cars are too quiet.
This not only detracts from the driving experience, but is also a hazard for pedestrians who don’t here the iX coming. This is why electric race cars at Pikes Peak and Mount Washington are required to run sirens during their climbs. BMW has mitigated this problem with soft but distinctive tones projected while traveling at low speeds.
Then there’s the problem of the interior. With rising ownership comes a rising demand for sound associated with speed, or at least with acceleration, which drivers are accustomed to. With such quiet interiors, every flaw in the sound system is fully exposed. The iX design team saw this as an opportunity to completely redefine the automotive aural experience.
First, they got a hold of Bowers & Wilkins to produce the Diamond Surround Sound System. By collaborating with the sound experts in the interior design, they created a near studio-quality masterpiece. The system delivers a “4D” level of audio control with over 1,600 watts of power from a whopping 30 speakers. These include special dome tweeters, under-floor subs, in-seat bass shakers, and headrest speakers in all four seats. YouTube channel SavageGeese, known for performing objective audio analysis, attempted to demonstrate the quality of this system through their microphone, and called it the best they’ve ever tested.
Of course, creating an excellent sound system worthy of the vehicle’s price was only the beginning. The iX needed a sound of its own, something to go along with the incredible acceleration that an EV can deliver and help drivers gauge their speed by the sounds they hear. So they called up Hans Zimmer.
BMW IconicSounds Electric is an ongoing collaboration with the world-famous composer to reintroduce some of the emotion that is lost to the silence of EV driving. Based on the drive mode and driver behavior, the system will adjust which sounds are played and the settings used to produce them. The resulting soundscape transports the passengers into a science fiction movie environment. At no time is this better demonstrated than under full acceleration in sport mode, racing to the sound of a “Shepard’s Tone.” This is a sound featuring an auditory illusion which is difficult to describe but easy to recognize, and which makes one feel as though they’re launching into a wormhole in outer space.
Altogether, the BMW iX is a desirable vehicle for the audio experience alone. Coupled with its interior design it ought to be easily worth its hefty price tag. But is it?
Those Kids and Their Newfangled BMWs
Anything worth six figures ought to have few, if any, genuine downsides or flaws. Trade-offs are inevitable, such as efficiency for size and power, or comfort for track performance, but there’s no need for a vehicle to be unattractive.
Unfortunately, that’s one of the iX’s downsides. The exterior styling is polarizing, at best. From the side and rear it strikes a subtle enough image, but the ridiculous kidney grille signature of current BMW design language makes yet another buck-toothed appearance here, and effectively spoils it for many. The disproportionately sized grille does look a bit more at home on the iX than on a smaller sedan, but few reviewers are so generous with this attention-grabbing feature. Most prefer to just ignore it and climb in.
Another downside is the implementation of the eighth-generation iDrive system. It’s better here than in other more traditional models, the absence of iDrive 7’s shortcuts and a crowded main menu are make it less intuitive to use. The entire climate control system and most of the seat adjustment controls are buried in the infotainment menus. It’’s beautiful to look at, but if you’re not already comfortable with tablet technology, the learning curve is going to be quite steep.
Then again, the flipside of this is an interior that isn’t quite devoid of controls, but doesn’t overwhelm you either. As part of a philosophy called “ShyTech,” where high-tech features are tucked away to operate in the background until interaction is requested or needed, some controls and features got moved to the infotainment screens. It seems to be the way of the future, and it isn’t all bad. That same philosophy delivered the iX with radiant heating panels, hidden speakers behind acoustic fiber, touch-sensitive wood and glass control surfaces, and a wiper fluid refill port under the hood BMW emblem. That massive grille feature conceals loads of cameras, sensors and radar equipment in keeping with that philosophy, too. Call it a draw?
Don’t be Shy(Tech), Come on In
Despite its modest drawbacks, the iX is a top-notch vehicle. It isn’t Car and Driver’s or US News and World Report’s number one luxury electric SUV by accident. It delivers a remarkable balance of comfort with performance, and flash with efficiency, while providing an incredibly distinctive interior space. BMW’s design philosophy stopped engineers from going full Tesla, which would involve stripping all of the physical controls and indicators away, and led them to instead craft the space as a room to relax in. With delightful, sustainably-dressed form, satisfactory function, and the best four-wheel audio system this side of Fury Road, the BMW iX makes an excellent case for itself as the benchmark for the car of the future.