2023 BMW iX5 prototype first drive review: The future is not (battery) electric

2023 BMW iX5 prototype first drive review: The future is not (battery) electric

ANTWERP, Belgium – “Range is always going to be a problem in electric mobility – especially if you want affordable products,” said BMW boss Oliver Zipse. It’s a shockingly blunt statement from a firm with a growing lineup of EVs, but it explains why executives are leaving space in the range for hydrogen-powered cars.

On paper, it’s an argument that holds water: a hydrogen-electric car requires a much smaller battery pack than a comparable electric car, providing the same amount of driving range regardless of outside temperature. , and it can be refueled as quickly as possible. Gasoline burning model. Gypse clarified that BMW is not developing hydrogen technology as a replacement for EVs; They are two similar powertrain technologies that complement each other. Electric is best suited for small cars, he said, while hydrogen is better for larger vehicles, especially those that regularly make long trips while pulling something heavy.

Fair enough, but what does this mean in real life? BMW developed a hydrogen-electric, X5-based prototype called the iX5 to find out, and I was one of the first people outside the company to drive it.

BMW began experimenting with hydrogen technology before most of its peers and rivals. In 2005, it released a 7 Series-based prototype called the Hydrogen 7 that was modified to burn hydrogen (it can also run on gasoline) with a 256-horsepower, 6.0-liter V12. It worked well, with about 100 units being built and tested, but the project was put on hold. One issue was efficiency; The second was that the engine was not 100% emission-free.

“It’s still possible, there will be some manufacturers that do that, but we think it’s not the right strategy because we have EVs. If we didn’t have an electric car, we would think differently. A fuel-cell vehicle The resemblance to an electric vehicle is so close – much closer than a gasoline-powered combustion engine – and it changed our opinion. That question has been answered,” Gypse said.

Later, the main contribution of Hydrogen 7 was showing BMW what not to do.

Four years in the making, the iX5’s drivetrain is simultaneously complex and simple. It is complicated in the sense that the power that accelerates the rear wheels is generated onboard. It’s like the wood gas-powered generators that were common throughout Europe after World War II, or like how BMW built the gasoline-powered X5 with a miniature oil refinery stuffed into the engine bay.

With that said, you don’t need a master’s degree in chemistry to understand how it works. Gaseous hydrogen enters two, 700-bar tanks through integrated fillers in the passenger-side quarter panel, the same place you’d find the fuel filler in a gasoline-burning X5. From there, it travels to the fuel cell under the hood where it reacts with oxygen from the air to create electricity. The water vapor emitted by this process is released into the atmosphere, while the electricity generated travels via thick, orange wires to a roughly 2-kWh lithium-ion battery pack mounted just above the electric motor under the trunk floor.

The fuel cells come from Toyota, which BMW has a partnership with (it’s not just the Supra and Z4, you know), and the motor is sourced from the ix. This is its essence. Of course, this process relies on hundreds of small components including an air filter, a compressor, a high-voltage coolant pump, a humidifier with an air cooler, and a control unit. It’s too early to predict the reliability and longevity of the drivetrain, but BMW has already warned that parts such as the storage tank will need to be replaced after 15 years – this is a legal requirement in many countries.

BMW bumps the system’s total output to 401 horsepower, and the nearly 5,500-pound iX5’s driving range checks in at 313 miles when tested on the WLTP cycle used in Europe. It takes about 6 seconds to hit 60 mph from a stop. It doesn’t take a great deal of powertrain wizardry to get these figures with a battery-electric drivetrain, and a 10-year-old V8 could easily post similar numbers, but the main selling point here is that the tanks can be driven around. Filling up with 13 pounds of hydrogen (which is the maximum they can carry) takes three to four minutes. It’s no faster or slower than filling a tank with gasoline.

promising? Sure, but the iX5 isn’t ready for prime time and neither is its powertrain. BMW says this is a prototype built specifically to test the technology in real-world conditions. This partly explains why the iX5 is rear-wheel-drive. As it stands, there’s not enough room under the hood to add the second electric motor needed for all-wheel-drive, though I’m told that’s on the engineering team’s to-do list.

Jürgen Guldner, general manager of the hydrogen program, tells me that production of the iX5 will be limited to less than 100 units. Some will be used as demonstrators – BMW specifically needs to convince lawmakers that hydrogen is a viable alternative to electric technology – while others will be loaned to real-world motorists.

“We plan to have short-term loans, maybe for a week or two, so people can give us feedback,” he explained.

This approach is not unprecedented. In 2008, BMW built a handful of electric Mini prototypes for a similar pilot program launched to gain knowledge about EVs. However, this time the loans will be very less.

“On the basis of experience [we got from the Mini project]we decided it was better to give [the car] To more people instead of just one,” Guldner explained.

BMW plastered its prototype with powertrain-specific decals so you can’t mistake it for a run-of-the-mill X5. Even without them, the iX5 would still be the same thanks to styling cues like blue accents, a subtle “i” emblem in the grille, and new-look wheels. Inside, the iX5 gets “Hydrogen Fuel Cell”-branded sill plates, the same emblem on the passenger side of the dashboard, a whiff of blue trim, as well as redesigned graphics in the instrument cluster and infotainment system. There’s a useful menu that tracks real-time hydrogen consumption and another that helps the driver find the nearest fuel station… which could be hundreds of miles away, depending on where you are (though I believe it or not – not too distant future). Don’t look for a frunk; The fuel cell takes up the entire space.

Of course, there’s not much to say about how the iX5 drives – and that’s the point. It’s like a plug-in hybrid X5 when it’s running on battery power, which means smooth and silent, or as I imagine a battery-electric X5 would feel. Nothing about the driving experience suggests that the power comes from an on-board fuel cell rather than a charging station; The system doesn’t make any noise (unless the driver switches on the artificial powertrain noise, then it sounds like the iX), and the emitted water vapor is only visible on a cold day. From the driver’s perspective, the iX5 accelerates and brakes like an electric car, which is pretty much it (unlike the older, hydrogen-burning 7 Series prototype). It’s off the line for instant torque, and the brake pedal inevitably feels a bit artificial.

Handling is relatively difficult to evaluate, and not just because the winding roads in northern Belgium are similar to the mile-long stretches of straight pavement in the Alps. BMW doesn’t make a battery-powered X5 to compare the iX5 to, and the experimental SUV has no direct rival—there’s no hydrogen-fueled version of the Mercedes-Benz GLE. The best way to sum it up is that, again, it takes a turn like the plug-in hybrid X5. It’s not as bottom-heavy as most large, electric SUVs I’ve driven (the ix comes to mind, and I’ve taken more than my fair share of them in this) and not as playful as non-electrified, rear-engined SUVs. wheel-drive X5. The air suspension system’s Sport mode makes the ride markedly firmer (Comfort, in contrast, softens it considerably), and features a distinctly BMW-ness steering. It’s not a sports car, and it wasn’t designed to be one, but it also doesn’t float in turns like a cruise ship.

Under normal driving conditions (the ones most of us encounter on a daily basis), the iX5 is comfortable and comfortable to drive. One-pedal driving mode can be triggered by flicking the gear selector left to “B” mode, and a pair of steering wheel-mounted paddles let the driver choose one of three regeneration modes. The most aggressive profile makes the brake pedal almost useless: you can come to a complete stop by taking off the accelerator pedal. Leave the gear selector in “D” and the iX5 coasts like any other car.

Since this is essentially a regular-production X5 (there’s one model worldwide) powered by a zero-emissions drivetrain, why can’t BMW add it to its list of SUVs and let the market judge its viability? Guldner tells me that marketing a hydrogen-powered car isn’t as easy as it sounds. It doesn’t make sense from a business perspective to invest in a mass-producing iX5 if no one buys it, and no one will buy it if there’s nowhere to fill it. The lack of refueling infrastructure is the biggest hurdle that all hydrogen-powered cars need to overcome. Various governments and third-party companies say they are working on expanding the network of fueling stations, but this is a medium-term project, not one that can be completed in months. Cost is another issue: Guldner believes that the cost of buying and operating a hydrogen-powered car needs to be comparable to the cost of buying and operating an EV, and that reaching this point will require scale as well as engineering. Some heavy lifting is required from the side. the equation.

BMW believes that hydrogen will merge into the automotive mainstream during the second half of 2020, assuming everything goes according to plan. Until then, prototypes like the iX5 play an important role in helping this relatively new technology reach maturity. It’s not ready for mass production, but it’s already promising to lower some of the barriers associated with driving an electric car.

If BMW’s crystal ball is accurate, hydrogen-electric cars could eventually topple EVs on many shopping lists.

“You have already seen that there will be a shortage of raw materials in 2027 or 2028 [needed to build EVs] If we continue to increase production. So, that’s where hydrogen comes in,” Zipse concluded. “It uses fewer raw materials, it’s a much smaller battery, the car is lighter, and it doesn’t need the same charging infrastructure. you can use more or less the same [gas station] infrastructure that we have today.”

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