Editor's note: In the second annual CultureMap Auto Awards, our automotive correspondents Nic Phillips and Kevin McCauley bestow honors in 10 categories for the top cars and trucks of 2013/2014.
Best New Design: 2014 BMW i Models
The significance of the BMW i-Series was best summed up for us when, under his breath, a rival automaker's head of design shared his surprise upon realizing the pair of BMW i3 and i8 models on display at the 2014 North American Auto Show were not concept cars but full-on production ready automobiles coming to dealerships in mere months. Concept cars typically convey carmakers' wildest dreams of what a future model could be — design cues, materials and technologies that may or may not make the light of day.
But in the BMW i-Series, we have the future of cars today. The i-Series is introduced in the form of two models: the urban transport i3 full-electric drive and the plug-in hybrid i8 super sports car — destined to be the eco-friendly super car of the A-listers
Starting around $40,000 before government incentives of $7,500 or more, the BMW i3 is an incredible value.
The significance of the i3 is more than just future-forward looks; it's the first mass-production car with a carbon-fiber passenger cell mated to a high-strength chassis, which carries the electric motor drive, batteries and suspension components. Known as "BMW LifeDrive," the concept does away with the bulk of intrusions into a conventional car's interior, creating a flat floor throughout and incredible weight savings. The i3 weighs 345 pounds less than the diminutive FIAT 500e and 650 pounds less than Nissan Leaf all-electrics.
BMW takes sustainability to a whole new level with interior materials like kenaf, a hemp-like natural fiber used on the door panels; shaped open-pore eucalyptus wood inserts on the dashboard that, over time will change color with exposure to the sun; and futuristic ultra-thin seats yielding significantly more leg space for rear passengers while saving weight. The carbon-fiber body isn't completely covered up inside with the exposed bits serving as another reminder of how special the space-efficient i3 is at its core.
Starting around $40,000 before government incentives of $7,500 or more, the i3 is an incredible value, which explains why BMW already has more than 10,000 orders.
Opposite the city-dwelling i3 is the sex-on-wheels i8. While standing still, it's moving, and when moving it's a blur — blowing past everything on the road.
The two-seater is a stunner of a sports car not only in looks but also in performance, with an electric motor on the front wheels and a mid-mounted twin-turbo combustion engine on the rear wheels. Working together the system promises benchmark performance at all four wheels, while separately the electric motor drives with all-electric efficiency, and the gas engine generates power to the wheels and batteries.
It's a hybrid concept other automakers have suggested and theorized about. BMW has delivered and sold out the initial availability.
Best New Design Runner-up: 2014 Cadillac CTS Sedan
Although not the concept-come-reality of the BMW i-Series, Cadillac's all-new CTS is every bit as important in the transformation of the storied brand from Grandma's ride to today's drive. When first introduced in 2002, the CTS was the first demonstration of Cadillac's "Art and Science" design philosophy and now enters its third generation as the volume leader of the brand, making it the most important model to get right.
We feel it does just that, incorporating the trim, athletic yet distinct Cadillac character of the smaller ATS, our pick for last year's CultureMap Car of the Year, successfully scaling all that was good up to its mid-size luxury frame. It's that new size that's probably most significant, as previous CTS models had a clouded identity straddling rivals' compact and mid-size luxury models. This CTS is a clear competitor to the BMW 5-series, Mercedes Benz E-class, Lexus GS and Infiniti M.
The all new CTS is the clear design leader in its newfound class and is most definitely worthy of consideration, unless of course you're looking for Grandma's Cadillac. This isn't it. (The XTS fills that role.)