Kenaf door panels are among interior innovations

BMW takes a chance with i3's ultrathin seats

Kenaf door panels are among interior innovations

Thin-profile front seats in the BMW i3 create significantly more leg space for rear passengers. Motorized controls were eliminated to save weight.
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The BMW i3 has gotten considerable attention for its electric powertrain and carbon fiber body structure, and rightly so.

But more groundbreaking innovations -- BMW's vision of eco-friendly urban transportation -- can be found in the cockpit.

Check out those thin-profile front seats, which weigh only half as much as those of a 1-series sedan. Next, check out the i3's door panels, which are made of kenaf, a hemp-like natural fiber.

BMW didn't use vinyl, leather or anything else to cover up those panels, and it didn't conceal the car's carbon-fiber doorsills.

"We didn't want to hide it," said Jose Guerrero, the BMW i product manager for the United States. "We wanted the i3 to have the look of a New York City loft, which uses exposed brick."

The i3 went on sale in Europe in November. It is expected in U.S. showrooms about April. CEO Norbert Reithofer said during the i3's unveiling in July that BMW expected about 10,000 global sales of the car in 2014.

The most significant interior feature could turn out to be those ultrathin seats, which create significantly more leg space for rear passengers.

The i3 "was built for an urban environment."

Guerrero said BMW wanted to make sure that rear-seat passengers could easily enter and exit the i3 from the right-hand side, to avoid stepping into traffic.

To do so, the rear compartment has to be spacious enough to allow passengers to slide easily across the rear bench. "This car was built for an urban environment," Guerrero said.

Until now, automakers have not adopted thin-profile seats because potential car buyers might think they are flimsy or uncomfortable.

In truth, the seats did require some fresh thinking on BMW's part. To save weight, BMW eliminated motorized seat controls, and it also had to redesign its side airbags, which did not easily fit in the smaller package.

Since seats are safety-related components -- capable of cradling the passenger in a crash -- automakers are reluctant to tinker with their design.

Wood inserts in the i3's instrument panel are made from eucalyptus.

BMW has not disclosed which suppliers produce the i3's seats and door panels. But virtually every major seat maker -- Johnson Controls, Faurecia and Magna, for example -- have designed thin-profile prototypes for their customers.

"Slim seats have been a topic for many years," said Tom Gould, Johnson Controls' North American director of industrial design. "We certainly do think that a very thin, elegant seat can make a design statement."

If the i3 catches on in the marketplace, it could also encourage public acceptance of natural materials such as the kenaf door panels.

Interior suppliers have tinkered with kenaf and other natural materials for years. Those materials often are used in door panels as filler, with a vinyl or leather skin.

But automakers have been reluctant to use kenaf as a surface material because to some people it might look cheap and unfinished. Will kenaf become a design statement like the brickwork of a New York loft? Time will tell.

Yet another trendsetter may be the instrument panel's wood inserts, which are made of eucalyptus. The inserts are considered environmentally sound because eucalyptus trees grow rapidly and because the inserts are minimally treated with chemicals.

The wood will change color over time, taking on a honey-colored patina.

The result of all those innovations is a vehicle that is 95 percent recyclable, according to Guerrero. Most vehicles are 80 to 90 percent recyclable.

If U.S. regulators emulate their European peers, automakers may find themselves emulating the i3 and its "exposed brick" aesthetic.

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com.


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