Joseph White:

“I’ve never seen anything like this car,” said Mr. Munro, who has been analyzing auto designs and costs at his Michigan company Munro & Associates Inc. for 26 years.

The i3 has a long way to before it achieves the market success of BMW’s 3-series, which is expected to top 500,000 sales world-wide this year, and sales success is still what matters most in the car business.

But the era ahead will be defined by more than growth. This is where the BMW i3 comes in. The vehicle isn’t just the carbon fiber, clamshelll doors or two-tone color schemes that make this car unique. The i3 points to a very different way of balancing the risks of innovation.

The i3 shuns the industry’s piece-cost approach, taking instead a life-of-the-car-and-beyond view. The car’s batteries are designed with simple plugs that should allow them to be easily reusable for such things as storing energy generated by solar panels once their life powering the car is done.

“This car makes money,” Mr. Munro says, something he doesn’t say about other electric or plug-in vehicles.

The i3’s advanced electronics points to another important trend. The i3 is a car for a digitally connected, urban environment in which cars will be expected to think and act for themselves.

Cars are transforming into digital devices. The latest infotainment systems use high-powered chips adapted from the gaming industry to deliver bright, dynamic displays that could help drivers anticipate and avoid accidents.

BMW i3 Teardown & Benchmark Study.

The i3 Long Bet.