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We love BMW’s electric cars, but they’re selling slowly. BMW says it is playing the long game.

The i3 was outsold about 3:1 by the Nissan Leaf last year in Britain. BMW’s global sales and marketing chief Ian Robertson admitted to Top Gear that sales have been held up by “challenges” manufacturing the carbon fibre body shell, but claimed there is a good order bank.

He also said that i8 sales are running ahead of the internal prediction. “We thought it would sell like a supercar, a Ferrari. In fact we did more than that - 1700 in six months.” We liked the i8 enough to crown it our Car of 2014, so that’s good news.

The i3 did 17,000 globally last year. OK, that’s much more than the i8, but not enough because it’s a far more mainstream car. And it went on sale earlier than the i8.

The i3, strangely, is doing tiny numbers in its home market of Germany. That’s because electric car sales are still very dependent on tax and other incentives, which Germany doesn’t really have. “In Norway they can use the bus lanes. That saves many people at least an hour a day on a commute into Oslo,” says Robertson. “The UK also has good motivation in place. Germany is nowhere.”

The i3’s little petrol engine will only get it 80 miles on a tank, so most people use them as pure EVs, he said.

Some full plug-in hybrids, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, are vastly outselling it in Britain. BMW’s own plug-in hybrid crossover, the X5 eDrive, has been seen as a concept and I’ve driven a prototype, but the on-sale date is still months away.

In the face of all this, Robertson puts up a confident face. He says the i project wasn’t a waste of money for BMW, because most of the R&D budget of the i cars has developed tech that will be used on other BMWs. The firm will make many more plug-in hybrid versions of its mainstream cars over the coming years.

The special types of carbon fibre used in the i cars turns up in large amounts in the bodyshell of the next 7-Series later this year - it’s expected to be up to 100kg lighter than the current car.

At the moment you could say EV owners (and the manufacturers of the cars) are being heavily subsidised by people who drive combustion cars. Petrol and diesel cars drivers pay much more tax on the fuel, and don’t get a £5000 subsidy when they buy a car.

Robertson says this is necessary to get EVs off the ground - though he objects to my suggestion that his company, via the i project, is indirectly profiting for the tax paid by combustion-car drivers. “We do our bit, and governments must do theirs,” he counters.

Robertson says there will be a switch point when EVs make sense. “The costs of EVs and their batteries are going down. And the cost and extra weight of keeping combustion engines legal [for pollution regulations] is rising. At some point, maybe five years from now, maybe seven, maybe more, there will be a crossover.”

He says BMW has patented all the names from i0 to i9, but still hasn’t decided on exactly what the next i model will be. Given the i3’s slow start, maybe it’s wise to wait and see.

Don’t expect hot M versions of the i cars either. “M and i are our opposite bookends. They don’t mix too well in my view.” From a technical perspective or marketing? “Marketing.”

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