The i of the be­holder

BMW’s elec­tric city hatch is a land­mark ve­hi­cle, prac­ti­cal, en­joy­able to drive — but not flaw­less

Herald Sun - Motoring - - The Tick -

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.

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