‘I’ is for ‘in­tel­li­gent’

BMW’s i3 a smartly de­signed all-elec­tric with gas op­tion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - FRONT PAGE - By Graeme Fletcher

AM­S­TER­DAM — Some au­tomak­ers are tout­ing plug-in hy­brids while oth­ers are look­ing to­ward all-elec­tric con­veyances. Re­gard­less, the thrust is to re­duce the foot­print the au­to­mo­bile leaves in its wake.

BMW’s take is its new “i” brand, a sub­di­vi­sion an­chored by two elec­tric/ hy­brid-elec­tric cars. The i8 com­bines an elec­tric mo­tor with a gasoline en­gine, mak­ing it one of the world’s premier green su­per­cars. The se­cond car, the i3, takes a slightly dif­fer­ent ap­proach — it’s a fully elec­tric de­sign, avail­able with an op­tional range-ex­tend­ing gasoline en­gine.

What the two have in com­mon is a plat­form pur­posely built to ac­com­mo­date the pow­er­train of the fu­ture — it was en­gi­neered to house and pro­tect the bat­tery, plus ac­com­mo­date the power elec­tron­ics and run­ning gear.

In the i3’s case, the body com­prises a car­bon-fi­bre-re­in­forced plas­tic (CFRP) pas­sen­ger cell that rides atop an alu­minum struc­ture that houses the bat­tery, elec­tric mo­tor and the brain that keeps things hum­ming along.

In this in­stance, the i3 gets its mo­ti­va­tion from an elec­tric mo­tor that drives the rear wheels through a sin­gle-speed trans­mis­sion, a 22-kilo­watt-hour lithium-ion bat­tery (only 18.8 kWh is ac­tu­ally used) and an in­tel­li­gent man­age­ment sys­tem de­signed to ex­tract the best from the com­bi­na­tion. In this ap­pli­ca­tion, the elec­tric mo­tor gen­er­ates 170 horse­power and 184 pound-feet of torque the in­stant the elec­tric mo­tor be­gins to turn.

Driv­ing the i3 proved ev­ery bit as quick as promised — my stop­watch clocked the run from rest to 100 km/h in 7.3 sec­onds and pegged the more im­por­tant pass­ing move (80 to 120 km/h) at 5.1 sec­onds. Both times would not be out of place in a gasoline-pow­ered ve­hi­cle.

The big­ger dif­fer­ence be­tween the i3 and its con­ven­tional coun­ter­part is in the launch. The pull off the line is strong (the ra­pid­ity ac­tu­ally shocked me) and this work ethic con­tin­ues through the mid-range and up to high­way speeds. More im­pres­sive was the man­ner in which the elec­tronic trick­ery com­bined to pro­duce a com­pletely seam­less drive.

The i3 has three dif­fer­ent driv­ing modes. Com­fort de­liv­ers a 160-kilo­me­tre range af­ter the bat­tery has been charged for eight to 10 hours us­ing a 110-volt out­let. EcoPro and EcoPro+ then in­crease the driv­ing range by 20 and 40 km, re­spec­tively, de­liv­er­ing a max­i­mum of 200 km.

That is an im­pres­sive range by cur­rent elec­tric-car stan­dards — Nis­san claims the Leaf has a 160-km driv­ing range, al­though the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency rates it at 120 km.

The key is that both num­bers were gen­er­ated un­der ideal con­di­tions. Throw in a lit­tle cold weather and that range drops dra­mat­i­cally — the i3 was show­ing a range of 133 km on a cool 9C day, and it dropped in uni­son with the dis­tance driven. This is a first for any elec­tric car I have driven. Usu­ally, the range di­min­ishes faster than the dis­tance driven.

The dif­fer­ent drive modes do af­fect how the i3 feels. In Com­fort, it’s perky and peppy, while each of the EcoPro modes knocks a lit­tle off the edge. The EcoPro+ does man­date a deeper dig on the ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal, but it did do ex­actly as promised — it added around 28 km to the driv­ing range com­pared to the Com­fort mode.

An im­por­tant part of the i3 pack­age is re­gen­er­a­tive brak­ing. Lift­ing off the ac­cel­er­a­tor pro­duced enough re­tar­da­tion from the elec­tric mo­tor — as it har­vested oth­er­wise waste en­ergy and used it to recharge the bat­tery — that I sel­dom had to use the brake pedal un­der nor­mal driv­ing sit­u­a­tions. It was an eerie sen­sa­tion pi­lot­ing a car through tight city streets without ever reach­ing for the brake pedal. Mer­ci­fully, when the driver does lift off the ac­cel­er­a­tor, the brake lights come on.

The i3 boasts an ideal 50/50 front/ rear weight bal­ance and a low cen­tre of grav­ity, thanks to the bat­tery’s place­ment.

Along the drive route, two things im­pressed me. First, the sus­pen­sion soaked up the some­times-rough Am­s­ter­dam roads without ced­ing any­thing in terms of out­right agility. A spir­ited sprint through a se­ries of twisties and around a han­dling track pro­duced very lit­tle un­der­steer and even less body roll.

Se­cond, the elec­tri­cally as­sisted steer­ing had bet­ter feel and feed­back than I ex­pected. It was crisp on-cen­tre and it turned in with the right sort of re­sponse. In this re­gard, the i3 is true to BMW.

For those with the need to drive be­yond the all-elec­tric i3’s range, there’s the Range Ex­tended model. It fea­tures all the reg­u­lar i3’s equip­ment plus a two-cylin­der, 647-cu­bic-cen­time­tre gasoline-pow­ered en­gine. It pro­duces 34 horse­power and drives a gen­er­a­tor. When the bat­tery reaches a pre­de­ter­mined state of charge, it comes to life and main­tains that level.

The en­gine is mounted be­side the elec­tric mo­tor above the rear axle so it does not eat into the cargo ca­pac­ity, mean­ing there’s no down­side to hav­ing it along for the ride. When the i3 is so equipped, it has a range of up to 300 km. This is more re­al­is­tic and it ditches the “range anx­i­ety” that dis­suades so many po­ten­tial cus­tomers.

What went un­said, how­ever, is the abil­ity to keep top­ping up the gas tank un­til an elec­tric out­let be­comes avail­able. In prac­tice, this means the i3 can be driven in the same man­ner as a reg­u­lar car. The lim­it­ing fac­tor is the nine-litre fuel tank.

The i3 goes on sale in Canada in the se­cond quar­ter of 2014 and will cost $44,950 for the all-elec­tric model and $48,950 for the Range Ex­ten­der ver­sion. It re­mains a mys­tery to me why all i3s head­ing to Canada are not equipped with the range ex­ten­der. In Europe, where com­mut­ing dis­tances are typ­i­cally shorter, the all-elec­tric ver­sion makes the most sense. Here, there are the va­garies of a longer com­mut­ing dis­tance, traf­fic con­ges­tion and the neg­a­tive effect cold weather has on the bat­tery and the re­sult­ing driv­ing range.

For ex­am­ple, the heater rep­re­sents a huge draw that short­ens the driv­ing range, as does the use of the de­froster, head­lights and, heaven for­bid, heated seats. Hav­ing the $4,000 gasoline backup along for the ride is, for me, the only way to go.

The i3 fea­tures BMW’s Con­nect­edDrive, which of­fers a host of neat tools, in­clud­ing a Range As­sis­tant. It comes in handy for pre-trip plan­ning and, dur­ing the drive, it con­tin­u­ally up­dates the driver on the bat­tery’s state of charge.

If, for ex­am­ple, the des­ti­na­tion keyed into the nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem is be­yond the bat­tery’s range in Com­fort mode, it looks at the range of­fered by EcoPro or EcoPro+ and makes the ap­pro­pri­ate rec­om­men­da­tion.

The link be­tween the driver and car is found in the Re­mote app. It al­lows the driver to tai­lor things via a smart­phone — ev­ery­thing from ac­ti­vat­ing the air con­di­tion­ing or heater to pre­con­di­tion­ing the bat­tery to 20C us­ing grid elec­tric­ity rather than con­sum­ing the elec­trons dur­ing the drive.

GRAEME FLETCHER

The i3 of­fers three dif­fer­ent op­er­at­ing modes, de­liv­er­ing driv­ing ranges of from

160 to 200 km, BMW says.

The i3 goes on sale in Canada in the se­cond quar­ter of 2014 and will cost $44,950 for the all-elec­tric model and $48,950 for the

Range Ex­ten­der ver­sion, com­plete with a two-cylin­der, 647-cu­bic-cen­time­tre gasoline-pow­ered en­gine.

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