THERE HAVE been many unkind words levied at the BMW iX ever since the Bavarian company whipped the covers off its new flagship electric car: “Bugs Bunny”; “Alien”; “hand me the bleach for my eyes”. It’s fair to say it’s not off to a great start in life.
It’s a shame that the challenging exterior design of the iX is garnering all the attention, however, because underneath is a cutting-edge electric SUV that previews the technology that will underpin the next generation of BMWs.
Its all-wheel-drive electric powertrain is impressive enough, delivering headline figures such as 380 miles on a single charge and 0-62mph in as little as 4.6 seconds, but the iX also hosts the debut of a swish new on-board operating system, a new direction for cabin design for the brand and the near-future promise of Level 3 self-driving capability, meaning drivers will be able to hand control over to the car completely under certain circumstances.
When you’re inside, enjoying all that, you can’t see the exterior.
Exterior design and rivals
The obvious focus of attention is BMW’s new upright grille design. It was first used on the 4 Series, which was controversial enough, but on the iX it seems to be even more prominent because it’s paired with particularly slender LED headlights.
There’s a clamshell bonnet – that can’t be opened – and unusual sculpting around the wheel openings that add unwelcome bulbosity to the car’s appearance.
Alloy wheels of up to 22in help to break up the slab-sided bodywork and the window line rises to a stylised D-pillar that clearly references the very first BMW i car, the i3. The iX is considerably bigger, roughly sharing its length and width with the BMW X5, though with a lower roofline to aid aerodynamics. Flush door handles — finished in a contrast colour— were chosen for the same reason.
BMW quotes an outstanding 0.25 for the iX’s coefficient of drag— as opposed to 0.34 for the X6. That should help with how far it can travel per charge as it means less drag through the air, but it also means reduced noise from the air rushing over the bodywork.
The rear of the iX, while perhaps not as loathed as the front, takes some getting used to. Incredibly slim LED lights wrap around the car and, viewed directly from the back, the shut line for the tailgate is not visible. It’s all very smooth and minimal. Obviously, there are no exhaust outlets, either.
Indeed, that feeds into BMW’s “shy tech” (don’t say that too quickly in polite company) philosophy, where technology is hidden away.
Within the BMW badge at the back, for example, is a self-cleaning rear-view camera system. The BMW roundel on the bonnet, meanwhile, pops up to reveal a filler for the windscreen wash. And behind the grille is an array of radar sensors, with an integrated heater system to keep it clear in wintertime.
With a length of nearly 5 metres, the BMW iX is in the large electric SUV category and as such rivals include the Tesla Model X and Audi E-Tron. The former comes with up to seven seats while the BMW, like the Audi, is strictly a five-seater. The Mercedes-Benz EQC and Jaguar I-Pace are a little shorter but also worth a look if you’re looking at cars of this type.
Interior and practicality
Shy technology is the basis of the iX’s cabin, too, apparently, where BMW claims it has reduced the button count by half. It wouldn’t be the first car maker to assert such a thing, of course, with the widespread move to using touchscreen technology, but the big question is, can it make an uncluttered design work well and safely in practice?
It’s not just about the controls. BMW has engineered a particularly neat housing for the head-up display, there are speakers hidden in the seats and headrests, depending on options, and there’s a novel surface heating feature available that warms various parts of the interior, including the door panels, dashboard and armrests.
What the eye can see is rather pleasant, it has to be said – and notably different to what you’ll find in any other BMW on sale right now.
For starters, there’s an odd-looking steering wheel, with a vaguely hexagonal shape. Perhaps taking a leaf out of Tesla’s book, the new controls on the spokes of the wheel take on different functions depending on the menu options. In spite of the strange appearance, the wheel feels good to hold and allows a great view of the information behind.
There you’ll find the new curved glass dashboard display that is mounted away from the soft-touch material underneath on magnesium struts. In front of the driver is a 12.3in screen for the instruments and to the side is a massive 14.9in touchscreen, angled towards the driver. Thanks to anti-reflective glass, it looks good even in bright sunshine, and the graphics are crisp.
It’s fast to respond to touch, too, while the voice control system is better than ever. Nonetheless, BMW has sensibly retained its iDrive rotary controller between the front seats, allowing more precise use of the menu system when on the move. It looks and feels like a solid piece of glass if you go for the Clear & Bold option, which is oddly satisfying.
That also upgrades the control surface surrounding it to an open-pore walnut finish with real wood texture. Think Scandi-cool rather than Del Boy luxury. It’s not just for appearance, either, as it allows haptic selection of core menu items – and it’s neatly illuminated at night.
A warm gold colour is used throughout the iX’s cabin as an accent and for functional items such as the door-mounted seat adjustment controls. It’s even found within the integrated headrests of the eye-catching new seats. They get distinctive asymmetrical quilting seams and stitching as standard, with synthetic leather upholstery or the option of soft cloth-microfibre. Buyers must pay considerably more for actual leather.
We found the seats to be really comfortable after a long day at the wheel but the lack of adjustment on the length of the base may put some buyers off. Otherwise, there’s plenty of fine-tuning of the driving position available, though there’s a significant blind spot in terms of the ‘over the shoulder’ view.
Those in the rear aren’t much worse off than the front-seat passengers. All doors get frameless glass, so it’s a bit of an occasion getting in and, due to the battery pack positioning underneath, you have to step up into the car. The back accommodates three adults comfortably. The rear of the console between the front seats is even shaped to make space for feet, while the floor is completely flat all the way across.
Using levers in the boot, the backrests split and fold 40:20:40, which may be needed if you regularly carry big loads, as the boot itself holds only 500 litres with the rear seats in place (the same as the smaller Mercedes EQC and much less than the 660 litres offered by the Audi e-tron). It expands to a maximum of 1,750 litres with the seats down.
On the subject of practicalities, the iX can tow up to 2,500kg using an optional extendable and retractable tow hitch, which is very decent for an electric car — though towing will reduce the range.
Technology and safety
Powering that swanky curved glass display is a new operating system that will eventually roll out to all future BMWs. It focuses on customisation and connectivity, with 5G technology built in. Over-the-air software upgrades and the option to purchase some functions on demand (get ready for more of these electronic opportunities to upgrade our cars in the future) are included.
Of more use on a day-to-day basis might be the enhanced navigation system, which now features augmented reality video. This takes a camera feed from the front of the car, showing the road ahead, and overlays directions on it as a junction approaches. It works very well.
More of a gimmick is the ability to take snapshots of the car’s occupants from an integrated overhead interior camera, which can be done by voice, touch control or even gesture. The same hardware is employed by the Remote Theft Recorder system, so users of the BMW smartphone app can access the camera remotely to check on the car.
Integration with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is at a high level. For example, the directions and display from the smartphones’ navigation can be shown within the digital driver’s display in front of the steering wheel, and even on the head-up display system.
The 5G connectivity will be crucial to the future of “driverless” technology, as vast quantities of data will be transferred from cars to the internet cloud and back.
According to BMW, the iX can process data at 20 times the rate of other existing models, and it believes that the car will have Level 3 automated driving functionality in the medium term thanks to a new suite of sensors and software. Reading between the lines, such a feature may be downloadable by owners in the future once the technology has been certified. For a price, no doubt.
Remote controlled parking is possible in certain scenarios, which is nothing terrifically new, but the iX is the first car we know of that can be ‘taught’ up to 200 metres of a manoeuvre that is regularly undertaken and then can automatically that manoeuvre when required. So in theory you could programme the iX to drive itself to a dedicated parking space in a multi-storey car park while you check your WhatsApp messages.
Right now, the iX is fitted with an army of driver assistance features, including an extension of active cruise control that assists with steering and lane centring, too. We found all this massively useful on a snarled-up motorway section, as it takes the stress out of a traffic jam, allowing the driver to relax rather than focus on the constant stop-start.
Performance, electric range and charging times
You can buy the BMW iX in the UK with a choice of two power outputs. Both feature all-wheel drive as standard, using an electric motor on each axle, and as with most electric cars there’s no gearing — the motor either runs forwards or backwards — but for the driver it essentially has the same controls as a car with automatic transmission.
The xDrive40 version has up to 321bhp and 465 lb ft and it can accelerate from standstill to 62mph in 6.1 seconds. It comes with a 71kWh battery pack and an official range of up to 257 miles. The maximum charging rate possible in this model, using a DC rapid charger, is 150kW, which theoretically allows for a 10-80% recharge in 31 minutes.
For now, the range-topper is the xDrive50, and it gets a bigger battery, more power and a faster DC charging rate. Maximum outputs of 516bhp and 564 lb ft are on tap, making light work of this car’s considerable weight. BMW quotes a 0-62mph time of 4.6 seconds, which is faster than any X5 other than the bonkers 617bhp X5 M.
It feels rapid, too, though the four-wheel-drive system removes any drama from the experience. Nevertheless, on a derestricted section of the German autobahn, with 100mph showing in the speedometer, there was still significant acceleration up to the car’s speed limiter at 124mph.
Response to pressing the accelerator varies between the Sport and Efficient driving modes. It’s smoother in regular driving in the latter setting, though some will like the instantaneous hit of torque when the Sport option is selected.
The xDrive50 comes with a 105.2kWh battery pack, allowing a range of up to 380 miles. As ever, the distance you manage on a charge will depend on a variety of factors, such as the weight in the car, whether heating or air conditioning is in use and your driving style. Motorway speeds tend to dramatically reduce an electric car’s range.
Still, even travelling at higher speeds than are legal in the UK, we recorded an average of 2.7 miles per kilowatt hour over 150 miles. That suggests that most drivers should surpass 300 miles on a charge, under normal driving conditions. Rapid charging of up to 195kW is possible in this model, meaning 10-80% in 35 minutes at a minimum.
Ride and handling
Although the iX weighs in at some 2.5 tons, thanks to its heavy electrical components, it’s far better to drive than many will expect. A wide track, long wheelbase and low centre of gravity all contribute to that.
The xDrive50 version also comes with air suspension and electronically controlled dampers as standard. The latter adapt to driving conditions but the baseline depends on driving mode — the driver can choose a firmer ride for better control or a softer setting for comfort.
Meanwhile, the air suspension maintains the level no matter how big the load in the car. It also allows raising of the suspension for rough roads or steep inclines, while it automatically reduces the ride height by 10mm in Sport mode or speeds of over 87mph.
At such speeds — and faster — the iX is incredibly stable and composed. Just as impressive is its quietness. The test car rode on optional 22in alloy wheels, which would usually add to the road noise, but these ones feature a special noise-absorbing foam inside the tyres, and it works. Wind roar only becomes prevalent well above the UK motorway speed limit and the electric powertrain is silky smooth and silent, too. In short, long commutes or journeys are a joy in the iX.
Away from cruising on the motorway, it does well, too. Sure, it’s too big and heavy to be taken down a British B-road for the fun of it, but it’s more capable than many will expect. Variable ratio power steering is fitted as standard, which helps with manoeuvrability at low speeds and through tight corners, while preventing any nervousness at a faster pace. It’s well-weighted, as well, helping to disguise the car’s heft when entering a bend.
Do that with a little enthusiasm and odds are the big wide tyres will just grip. It will understeer a little if you misjudge the corner-entry speed, but it changes direction moderately well, mid-corner it is well-balanced and there’s even a hint of oversteer if you start to accelerate out of a tighter corner too early.
The system varies output from the front and rear electric motors depending on requirements and the driving mode, while there’s also particularly quick traction control— or ‘near-actuator wheel slip limitation technology’ according to BMW— at work.
One last item worth mentioning here is the new integrated braking system, which amalgamates all the various braking sub-systems in one unit, allowing for, among other things, consistent brake pedal feel whether the car is using regenerative braking to slow down, or the conventional hydraulic brakes. It works well for the most part, though the pedal feel is a little wooden in comparison to a traditional system.
Pricing and on-sale date
The BMW iX is on sale now and available in Sport and M Sport trims, starting at £69,905, with first deliveries expected before the end of 2021.
The entry-level iX features 21in alloy wheels, sat nav, the curved display, four-zone climate control, heated front seats, wireless phone charging, a heat pump, a parking system including camera and sensors and lots more, making it already well-loaded with tech.
The M Sport trim adds sportier looks for the most part, starting at £72,905.
Verdict: BMW iX review
Many will write off the iX because of its controversial appearance, which is a shame as underneath the divisive body is an incredible statement of intent by BMW, one that previews a range of future electric cars that are beautifully made, packed with technology (even if some of it is “shy”) — incredibly civilised and yet, somehow, still good to drive.
In fact, it’s quite possibly the best large premium five-seat SUV with electric power on the market right now.