The i of the beholder
BMW’s electric city hatch is a landmark vehicle, practical, enjoyable to drive — but not flawless
A PETROL bill of just $4.53 for more than 1200km of driving is a revelation.
It’s no surprise, though, because I’m driving the BMW i3 and it’s an electric car that only kicks into petrol power when the onboard batteries are critically low.
Even then, the two-cylinder “range extender” engine is only providing charge to the batteries; it’s not actually involved in turning the wheels.
That job is done happily, and impressively, by an electric motor in the back-left corner of a car that has arrived at a tipping point in global motoring.
Electric cars are the future and BMW is punting hard with its i8 hybrid supercar and the baby i3.
The latter is intended primarily for city runabout work in countries where governments are working to exclude cars to cut pollution and congestion. Lots more i-cars will be coming.
In Australia, things are different and the i-cars are an oddity. Expensive too, because no one in government has the foresight to provide any subsidies for people driving down the new green road.
After time with the i8, which is impressive but flawed in some basics — such as access and boot space — I’m keen to see what the i3 can do. My first drive in Germany, more than 18 months ago, was an eye opener and I remember the oddball looks and impressive performance.
Now I’m home, with three weeks of ordinary family work ahead, and I can see the same strengths and weaknesses.
The i3 is swift and silent, comfortable and rewarding.
I like the use of sustainable materials in the cabin, including wood that looks and feels like wood, and the z-zing sound on acceleration.
But I’m wondering about the clamshell doors, the flawed four-star safety rating and the price. It costs $63,900 for a basic i3 and the range-extender car I have is $69,900, without worrying about the extra for a home charging station that gives a much shorter plug-in time than a regular wall socket.
I’m also in the rangeextender model because I’m not sure if the battery-only car will get through my daily chores without needing either a plugin top up or, if I’m away from a socket, a flatbed ride home.
And then there is the Car of the Year controversy. The i3 didn’t even qualify for our Carsguide contest because it’s not a five-star safety car, yet it somehow won the Wheels award despite a bunch of other shortcomings.
On that front, my family is not happy with the doors in the i3’s otherwise-classy carbonfibre body. They give great access, but if you have a fiveyear-old who wants to get out then you have to leave as well, because the rear doors are locked to the fronts and those serve as seat belt mounts.
The ride is not great on patchy surfaces, sometimes crashing through on bumps; the headlights in the test car are ordinary, with xenon low beams but only halogen highs; and, a major surprise, the car’s regenerative braking cuts out when you turn the wheel for a corner and the sudden switch can give you a big fright at times.
The price would be fine for a vehicle that is as revolutionary
as Marty McFly’s DeLorean — but not remotely good for a car that does the same job as a $20,000 Hyundai i30.
But the more time I spend with the i3, the more I like it.
I can get through a full day of suburban driving and school runs without resorting to a plug-in or the range extender. It charges happily — and cheaply — overnight.
It’s very practical with great outward vision and it’s extremely easy to park. The view from the driver’s seat is a peek into the future.
The i3 matches or betters ordinary cars away from the lights. Regenerative braking means that just by lifting off the accelerator you’re effectively braking. It’s simple and always gets people looking and talking.
Just as BMW led the world with its iDrive onboard computer controller and got some things wrong at first, the i3 is not perfect. The nextgeneration model will be better, with improved electric-only range and other tweaks, and I wonder what other spin-offs will come above the i3’s chassis — which is effectively a giant skateboard loaded with batteries.
I set out to drive the i3 with lots of questions and I now have most of the answers. Despite my niggles, I could live happily with one because it is practical and enjoyable to drive.
People are warming to the car and BMW Australia reports plenty of orders, almost all from city folk. There are surprisingly few gen Y buyers, who originally had been expected to jump on the electric car bandwagon.
The i3 deserves, and gets, The Tick. It’s a landmark car and, despite its flaws and hefty price tag, is still one I could happily recommend to people who know what they want and know what they’ll get for their money in the new electric hero.
But a car of the year winner? Not likely.