The latest all-electric Beamer has divided opinion thanks to its controversial styling, but the interiors team will have no such concerns with a striking, unconventional layout that allies boutique hotel design with hidden tech
Given the controversy behind BMW’s current exterior design strategy – notably its increasingly large and flary-nostrilled grilles – it was interesting that head of BMW Group design Adrian van Hooydonk chose to start his online presentation for the new iX mid-size SUV from the driver’s seat. To these eyes at least, the interior of the iX appears far less divisive than the exterior and will be a crucial element to the success or failure of the long-awaited second all-electric BMW. Unveiled seven years after the critically-acclaimed, but commercially weak-selling i3 launched in 2013, the iX will go on sale in 2021. Now more than ever, a truly convincing user experience, better connectivity and overall comfort are becoming relevant selling points for many potential EV customers – even historic BMW ones previously attracted first to the long-established fantastic handling of the German marque’s cars. The iX will no doubt drive well too, just like the i3, but to find out more about the inside, Interior Motives got on the phone to Matthias Junghanns, BMW i’s head of interior design, and also incidentally, a veteran of the i3 interior design project.
“From the beginning this car was developed from the inside to the outside to give the experience of a spacious room,” Junghanns begins. “It’s very modern, highly intelligent, packed with the latest technology but at the same time it’s a space that makes you feel at home. ‘A loft of wheels’ is one of the metaphors we use often – something that feels cool, casual, familiar, reduced and reflective of the paradigm shift going on in the automotive world.”
Junghanns explains the iX’s exterior and interior design process started at the same time back in the autumn of 2016 with designers from all of the group’s key global studios in Shanghai, Munich and Los Angeles putting forward sketches to interpret the design brief simply called ‘the futurist’. He goes on to explain that ideas were taken from various sources, but the mothership studio in Munich took the design into production.
In terms of size, no one at BMW will reveal exact dimensions but Junghanns puts the car into context via references to existing models. “The exterior ingredients of the iX are really powerful: the length of an X5, the wheel size of an X7 and more or less the roofline of an X6. On the interior you have the flat floor concept, purpose-built components and a free-standing middle table console, so we could create more of an interior experience within a smaller footprint.”
"We are not so keen on establishing an aesthetic code we reproduce over and over"
As the iX follows the i3 and Junghanns worked on both, was there a desire or temptation to follow the original BMW EV’s interior design theme, featuring the revolutionary (for a car) bent wood dashboard? “We are not so keen on establishing an aesthetic code we reproduce over and over,” Junghanns says. “The BMW i design department has a special role within the group to push the limits with new processes, technologies and aesthetics, which could be highly relevant to the BMW Group overall. It was not a conscious decision to avoid bent wood as on the i3. We still all love it. But sustainability influences our interior design quite heavily. Re-using and up-cycling materials tells us there are new and intelligent ways to use materials on the inside of the car. We didn’t totally get rid of wood – there’s the coffee table-like centre console with an open-pore option – but it also has integrated interface functions without [obvious] shutlines. So you have an interesting feel at your fingertips as well as a highly technical surface. It’s the only instance of wood in the iX.”
Junghanns says one of the other key decisions during the interior’s design development was how to present digital content – how big the screens should be, where they should be positioned and more. As is often the case with new digital tech, BMW is waiting to reveal the screen’s full functionality nearer to launch, but Junghanns says several conceptual ways of accessing that content were considered. “Then we clearly decided to take a multi-modal approach, to give customers the chance to interact with our car via direct touch, speech, gesture or our central controller.” The result is a ‘floating’ large curved screen, or actually two screens, one 12.3” plus another 14.9”, set under one glass surface, mounted on struts attached to the front of the IP. So positioned, the screen is slightly driver-oriented but says Junghanns, “without excluding the passenger and at the same time giving ergonomic advantages because he or she can more easily reach the farthest upper edge of the display, because it’s closer. The new steering wheel shape also offers a wider view of the driver display too.”
Beyond the pared back and pushed away main dashboard layout, the iX offers superb details too, from the faceted real glass (but crash-proof) iDrive controller, volume switch and gear selector, furniture-inspired seating with integrated headrest and holes (to allow more light through from front to back), plus an unusual denim-style and microfibre material colour and trim selection unlike anything BMW has offered previously.
Junghanns says the team drew inspiration from boutique hotels to create a feeling of warmth, well-being and security. And even on the more conventional red leather Sport trim version, new olive-leaf tanning processes that are more eco-friendly than chromium-based ones were employed and subtly referenced, in this case by a debossed leaf motif on the passenger side dashboard.
"We want our future cars to empower the user, not get more complex "
Another key aspect of the iX is the ‘shy-tech’ treatment of the stereo speaker panels hidden under the cabin’s surface in the door panels and in both rows of headrests front and back. “Classically you use bigger speaker panels to frame or highlight how many units are hidden in the car, but in the iX you hardly see any of the 30 speakers there,” says Junghanns. “It’s a technological masterpiece but we wanted it to be more human, more natural”. Less obvious still is the tucked-away nature of the head-up display kit, normally an unsightly plastic box that sits on top of the IP in front of the driver display but which on the iX is virtually hidden, indicating an approach that looks only set to increase, as Junghanns concludes: “Making things ‘not seen’ is sometimes the hardest task. We want our future cars to empower the user, not get more complex, so technology steps into the background and is only there when you really need it.”
Head of BMW Group design: Adrian van Hooydonk
Head of BMW design: Domagoj Dukec
Head of BMW i design: Kai Langer
Head of BMW i interior design: Matthias Junghanns
Interior designers: Simon Sebastian, Christoph Braunwieser
Head of BMW i colour and trim: Claudia Geidobler
Head of UI/UX: Jessica Covi
Project started / completed: Autumn 2016 / Autumn 2020
Launch (virtual): Germany / November 2020
Text: Guy Bird