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BMW on Journey to Transform Signature 'Ultimate Driving Machine'

BMW has embarked on a radical and risky journey to transform its signature twin-turbo V-6 powered M3 to a hybrid vehicle.

Few cars have a more loyal following than the BMW M3. The high-performance version of the 3-Series sedan gives definition to the Bavarian maker’s slogan, “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” But what happens if BMW decides to redefine the M3?

We’ll find out later this decade when BMW will take the radical and risky step of switching from a conventional, twin-turbo V-6 to a new plug-in hybrid powertrain, a plan that senior company officials have confirmed. It will join an expanding array of battery-based products, including a plug-in version of BMW’s new flagship, the 740e, set to launch next year.

“We have to go that way,” said Ludwig Willisch, the CEO of BMW of North America.

The BMW M4 coupe, right, and the M3 sedan are presented at a press preview at the North American International Auto Show on Jan. 13, 2014 in Detroit.STAN HONDA / AFP - Getty Images

BMW is by no means alone. Mercedes-Benz has announced plans to have 10 plug-in hybrids, or PHEVs, in its line-up by 2017, along with pure battery-electric vehicles, standard hybrids and even a hydrogen car or two. Audi, Cadillac, even Bentley, also will be adding “electrified” models.

There are several reasons why, explained Ian Robertson, a senior member of the BMW management board. Among them, tough new federal fuel economy and emissions standards that will be difficult to meet with even the most advanced conventional, gas-powered technology.

Meanwhile, California, one of the world’s largest markets for luxury vehicles, has set strict new standards that will require all makers to include so-called Zero-Emissions Vehicles, or ZEVs, to their fleets.

China, in a number of cities including Beijing and Shanghai, has begun restricting new vehicle registrations, while giving qualifying battery vehicles an exemption.

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And in Europe, a growing number of cities are considering outright bans on the gas engine or, like London, exempting zero-emissions vehicles from hefty tolls meant to discourage central city traffic congestion.

Even a couple years ago, the idea of opting for battery power might have seemed absurd, Robertson said recently in an interview in New York where the latest 7-Series line was being introduced. Now, however, “We believe hybrid technology is now advanced enough to be an attractive proposition,” he said.

Plug-in technology has evolved rapidly since General Motors put the first mainstream model, the Chevrolet Volt, into production six years ago. Sibling brand Cadillac, for example, will launch a PHEV version of its new CT6 flagship next year and Caddy officials promise it will match the performance of the twin turbo V-6 that will otherwise power the brand’s new flagship sedan, the CT6.

But a big sedan is not a compact performance car known for tearing up both street and track. Can a plug-in hybrid really meet the demands of an M3 buyer?

For more than a century, said Robertson, “the definition of performance was how big an engine and how many cylinders your car had.” No longer. BMW has already begun migrating to smaller, high-tech engines, such as the 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 in the 750i. And with “the next generation, with hybrid technology, the power-to-engine-size formula will not be relevant anymore.”

In fact, proponents suggest that performance fans will be shocked by what a plug-in M3 can deliver. While the next model is still a work in progress, a senior member of the development team revealed that the target is to deliver about 75 extra pound-feet of tire-spinning torque out of the battery side of the new powertrain. And unlike a gas engine that needs to rev up, electric motors create maximum torque the moment they start to spin.

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Tesla provides a case in point. The P85d version of its Model S battery-electric sedan can launch from 0 to 60 in as little as 2.8 seconds.

BMW promises the next M3 will not only be fast but will allow a driver to switch to electric mode and get an estimated 20 miles in battery mode alone. And unlike a pure electric vehicle like the Tesla, it will be able to switch back to gas power when the battery runs down.

There remain technical challenges. For one thing, batteries are bulky, heavy and costly. But BMW’s Robertson notes they’re getting lighter, smaller – and less expensive. In 2010, a kilowatt-hour of lithium-ion batteries cost about $1,000, but by the launch of the next M3, BMW expects that will fall to somewhere between $200 and $300, said Robertson.

Meanwhile, to offset the added mass, BMW is increasing the use of alternative materials, including high-strength steels and aluminum. The maker turned to carbon-fiber reinforced plastics, or CFRP, for the two battery-based vehicles sold by its new sub-brand, BMW i, and it is in a partnership setting up the world’s largest carbon fiber production plant in Washington state.

Will traditional buyers accept the new definition of the Ultimate Driving Machine? For BMW, the good news is that both the i3 and i8 battery models are generating positive reviews and solid sales even at a time when gasoline is cheap.

The redefinition of BMW doesn’t end with battery power. The carmaker also has been pushing to take a lead in the introduction of autonomous driving systems. The new 7-Series has an emergency crash avoidance system that will not only brake but steer around a potential collision if the driver doesn’t act quickly enough. It will allow a motorist to take hands off the steering wheel for up to 15 seconds at a time on a well-marked freeway. And, in Europe, drivers will be able to exit the big sedan, tap a button on the new touchscreen key fob and the 7-Series will park itself in the garage.

The Bavarian maker’s increasing dependence upon technology is certain to shock some traditionalists, company officials concede, but they are betting that BMW can retain what Robertson calls its unique performance DNA no matter how high-tech its products become.

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