Now in its eighth generation, the BMW 5 Series is available with an electric powertrain for the first time. While the EV wears the i5 nameplate to stand out from the gasoline-powered model, the two sedans look almost exactly alike. BMW explained the thinking behind this decision.
“Why do customers ask for an electric car? It’s often because the government is somehow making it more attractive for people to drive [an electric car] in the cities,” BMW design boss Domagoj Dukec told me on the sidelines of the 2023 Villa d’Este Concours d’Elegance.
These buyers aren’t necessarily wooed by futuristic designs. They simply want (or need) to go about their lives without burning gasoline.
“Some customers tell us, ‘yeah, I would buy an electric car, but why can’t you just make an X3 that is electric? Why does an electric car have to look different? I’m the same person, I want the same experience, I have the same life, and I don’t want everything to become completely different.’ If it becomes different, then it’s different because it makes sense for everyone. For us, this is our choice,” he added.
This explains the design department’s approach to electrification, and it’s why the i5 looks pretty much like the 5 Series with the exception of a handful of powertrain-specific emblems, trim pieces, and displays in the infotainment system. This thinking also shaped the i7, which is an electric version of the 7 Series, and the i4, which is the 4 Series Gran Coupe’s electric sidekick. As of writing, the only exception to this rule is the iX, which doesn’t have a gasoline- or diesel-burning counterpart and arguably looks less outdoorsy than other BMW SUVs, like the X5.
Dukec pointed out that this point of view isn’t new within BMW’s design department.
“We didn’t give our diesel-powered models a different design than our gasoline-powered cars. And yet, [a diesel engine is louder], so you could say that you need a more rugged look or something.” BMW’s first series-produced diesel-powered car was the 524td released in 1983. It was part of the E28-generation 5 Series range, and only an emblem on the trunk lid set it apart from its gasoline-powered siblings.
Not everyone agrees with BMW’s strategy. Arch rival Mercedes-Benz also competes in the midsize luxury sedan segment with gasoline- and battery-powered models, but they’re two distinctly different cars. On one hand, you’ve got the E-Class, which is new for the 2024 model year and keeps proportions that we could describe as “normal.” On the other hand, you’ve got the EQE, which looks, well … electric. If you want an electric E-Class, you’re out of luck. If you want a twin-turbo V8-powered EQE, you’ll need to build it yourself (send me a photo if you do).
Dukec also argued that claims along the lines of “electrification is revolutionizing car design” aren’t accurate.
“People ask me how much impact electrification has on freedom of design, and I say ‘actually, none.’ Everything stays how it is. The people inside still have the same space. You could say that there is no engine in the front, but we still have an engine. Then we have the battery, and we have to put the components that would be where we have the battery somewhere else, and therefore our cars don’t have a frunk. You still need cooling, too. It’s not changing so much,” he concluded.