The 2015 BMW M3. The next version will give its Twin Power engine a hybrid boost.

© 2015

Aiming to give its iconic performance model a boost while also making it more environmentally friendly, BMW will migrate to a plug-in hybrid powertrain when the next version of its M3 sedan comes to market, several senior company officials have revealed.

The new system draws from both the German maker’s motorsports experience as well as some of the lessons it has learned since launching the BMW i battery-car sub-brand several years ago. Versions of the new drivetrain are expected to be used on a wide range of additional BMW models, and could be offered in both rear- and electric all-wheel-drive configurations.

“We have a lot to learn from BMW i,” a senior executive who has worked on both the battery brand and on BMW M, told He noted that until recently, the maker saw it as one of the company’s “bookends,” a counterpoint to BMW M. But now the maker is ways the two can be brought closer together.

In this case, the goal is to satisfy performance fans by adding more power while, at the same time, helping the M3 meet increasingly stringent emissions and fuel economy standards around the world. Some cities are discussing the possibility of banning the use of conventional gasoline power, but the next M3 would be able to sidestep such restrictions by switching to electric power for as much as 20 miles per charge.

“We have to go that way,” confirmed Ludwig Willisch, the CEO of BMW of North America.

(BMW’s plans to add a number of new battery-cars to its line-up. To learn more, Click Here.)

The basic drivetrain under development starts out with a similar engine to what’s found in today’s M3, as well as the M4 coupe. For the 2016 model, that’s a TwinPower 3.0-liter inline-six engine that now makes 425 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque offered with an option of either a 6-speed manual gearbox or a 7-speed double-clutch transmission.

One senior BMW executive involved in the development of the next M3 said the maker expects to boost torque by at least 100 Newton-meters, or about 73 lb-ft. He didn’t reveal the targeted horsepower rating.

The system under development is similar to the KERS, or Kinetic Energy Recovery System, technology that has been used in motorsports programs including Formula One.

Power on the M3 would remain directed to the rear wheels only, he added, as that is the layout the classic model’s fans expect and prefer. But the basic drivetrain being developed for the M3 will have significant flexibility. It could be used to offer what some call through-the-road all-wheel-drive.

The rear wheels of a vehicle would be driven by gasoline power, as is the case on most BMW models today. But rather than using a driveshaft to also power the front axle, the forward wheels would be electrically driven, the BMW M executive explained. That could mean either one or two electric motors, the latter offering the ability to torque vector. In that case, more power is applied to the outer wheel during a turn to enhance cornering stability.

Going to a plug-in hybrid drive system for the M3 generated some internal controversy, at least initially. One reason was the potential weight such a powertrain would add. Mass is considered an enemy of performance, and BMW has always tried to reduce as much weight as possible when developing a new version of the M3.

(Your next BMW could spot the red light before you do. Click Here for the story.)

The good news is that the latest batteries are becoming both lighter and smaller, even as they grow more powerful, another BMW insider explained. They also are becoming less expensive. Where a kilowatt-hour of lithium-ion batteries cost as much as $1,000 at the beginning of the decade, he suggested it has now come down to around $400. And the goal is “$150 to $200” by the end of the decade, though it’s uncertain that aggressive target can be achieved.

To offset some of the added mass of a plug-in hybrid drive, BMW will use additional lessons learned from vehicles like the i3 and i8, the M executive noted. Those models make extensive use of carbon fiber, and the next BMW M3 will use more of the ultra-light material, as well.

BMW is considered a leader in the development of carbon fiber for automotive applications. It has formed a partnership that is currently turning a pilot plant in Washington State into the world’s largest source of the material.

Asked when the new hybrid BMW M3 would come to market, the senior source laughed and said, “I can’t tell you everything.” BMW North America chief Willisch, however, noted that the current version of the iconic performance sedan was only launched in early 2014. At the maker’s normal pace, it wouldn’t be due for a complete makeover until around 2020.

BMW, incidentally, won’t be the only one to be marketing an electrified performance car by then. Audi is working up an all-electric take on its R8, for one thing. Mercedes-Benz may electrify some of its performance models. And Tesla has already charged into this new market niche with offerings like the P85D version of its Model S. It recently announced an update, dubbed “Luuudicrous Mode,” that will allow the battery sedan to launch from 0 to 60 in a mere 2.8 seconds.

(New Audi electric SUV will get more than 300 miles range. Click Here to find out more.)

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