LOOKING around the floor of the Frankfurt auto show in September, it would have been easy to conclude that the future of cars lies in pod-like electric models and not sports cars.
But with his Vision EfficientDynamics car, a model of what future BMWs might become, Adrian van Hooydonk, director of BMW Group Design, presented a different sketch of the future. BMW’s offering at Frankfurt was a plug-in electric diesel hybrid that is about as green as they get, rated at the equivalent of about 75 miles per gallon, but with the sporty acceleration of a BMW M3 sports car — like a zero-to-60 time under 4 seconds and a top speed of 155 miles per hour.
The Vision EfficientDynamics is only a concept car, but its elements could influence future BMWs. It is also the first new car BMW has introduced since Mr. van Hooydonk took over last spring from Christopher Bangle, known for his “flame surfaced” look, with its taut lines and dynamic, concave forms. That style made BMW design among the most talked about in the world.
Mr. van Hooydonk, 44, is a tall, lanky Dutchman, calm and discursive where Mr. Bangle was fiery and outspoken.
“All this new technology and lower fuel consumption appeals to the rational side of the brain,” Mr. van Hooydonk said. “The car’s shape is highly emotional. It offers a dynamic driving sensation, which is what BMW is all about.
“Some doubt that there is a future for that.” he said. “This concept was created to demonstrate that it is possible to make a car that is fuel efficient but also exciting to drive.”
The Vision EfficientDynamics resembles an exploded sketch of a car. What Mr. van Hooydonk calls its exoskeleton is a series of ribbon- or shell-like pieces that appear to be not so much attached as floating together in formation.
The sides appear to be casually folded; the tail lights are narrow strips of red LEDs. The same design philosophy continues in the interior. The instruments and dash are made up of what appear to be floating layers, like images electronically projected into thin air.
There are reasons for this look, however, and to hear Mr. van Hooydonk tell it, they have as much to do with energy efficiency as the plug or motor does.
The design is driven by light weight and aerodynamic efficiency, he said. These factors are critical to squeezing every possible amp from the car’s electric battery.
The concept was influenced by BMW’s Formula One race cars, he said. Its body is carbon fiber, lighter than metal. Its aerodynamic profile lends it a very low 0.22 coefficient of drag. Unlike many sports cars, it has been built so that it does not require pop-up or projecting spoilers or wings for downward force at high speeds.
“This is the first concept car of ours for which we tested the shape in a computer,” he said. Computers are now powerful enough to process the complex algorithms of air motion. Computerized virtual wind tunnels let designers test more shapes than if they had to place each one in an actual wind tunnel.
“We have to pay attention to every detail of aero and control the airflow all around the car,” Mr. van Hooydonk said.
For instance, he explained, the panels that appear to have been loosely, almost casually draped on the body look that way for a reason. “The blue flap-like area behind the front wheel helps make the air stream continue smoothly. Then, at the end, we snap it off cleanly with a sharp edge.”
The car has two power plants, one electric and one diesel. When the car is running on electricity, its grille — a classic BMW kidney shape — is closed and glows blue. When the diesel is running, the grille opens to cool it and the light goes off. The feature is esthetic as well as practical.
“People want to show that they have bought a car that incorporates new technology,” he said. Drivers want their cars to signal that they are green. “Design has to communicate these things.”
Mr. van Hooydonk studied at Delft Polytechnic University and at the Art Center College’s European campus, in Vevey, Switzerland. He joined BMW in 1992 and worked on early concepts for the new Mini before becoming head of BMW’s California studio, Designworks USA, which also shapes products for other companies. In 2004, he was given specific responsibility for designing BMWs under Mr. Bangle.
Already some have begun referring to the look of the Vision EfficientDynamics as a new BMW style, a “layered” look. Mr. van Hooydonk is more cautious. “With flame surfacing we learned many things about complex surfaces and compound curves.
“If efficiency becomes a major factor — and it will — this could be one way our design language evolves.”
It is easy to imagine the adjustments necessary to apply the look of the Vision EfficientDynamics to a production car. Lose the wasp-wing-like glass scissors doors, say. But Mr. van Hooydonk is careful about predictions. “I’m from Holland, where we’re straightforward. I don’t like labels,” he said. “A word can take on a life of its own. I don’t want to add to the world’s supply of vocabulary. I want to add to the world’s supply of design.”