Roadtest: BMW i3
Not that far down the road, the electric car will be the new normal and cars powered by fuel will no longer be the only conventional mode of transport on the road.
The uniquely designed BMW i3 puts us on that future road. It’s a cracking electric car that goes like the clappers, is roomy, comfortable and environmentally friendly. And while range anxiety will still be an issue for some, BMW hopes to alleviate this somewhat with its i3 range extender option.
Constructed from lightweight carbonfibre-reinforced plastic and aluminium, the BMW designers have made extensive use of glass and black in the i3 design makeup. The result of their design is a two-tone, unconventional looking car with generous and sweeping glass surfaces and tail lights that appear to be floating in glass.
Though still fairly compact, the i3 is tall and roomy. A distinctive feature of this purely electric car is the coach doors that allow for easy access into the rear seats, and the long wheelbase provides generous interior space comfortably seating four adults. That interior space features a significant amount of natural material forming a cabin that is modern yet understated. The rather bulky control lever housing the start/stop button and gear selection on the steering column is the one unfamiliar feature in a mostly familiar BMW cockpit. Yet whatever reservations you
might have about the i3 pales into insignificance once you drive it. And that comes as soon as you plonk your foot on the accelerator. The power delivery – thanks to the hybrid synchronous electric motor with its 250 Newton metres on tap – is instantaneous. Not even a nanosecond of lag and the electric motor provides that same constant and unbroken power through acceleration to seamlessly reach cruising speed.
The driving experience is one that takes a bit of getting used to. Having been caught unawares by the surge of power and speed of its delivery, the next surprise happens when you remove your foot from the accelerator. Expecting the continuous momentum that one would normally experience, slowing down or de-accelerating takes on a whole new meaning in the i3. This is the i3’s ‘ braking’ effect of de-acceleration. The strong regenerative braking from the motor means that there is little need to use the brake pedal unless a quick stop is required, and removing one’s foot from the accelerator activates the brake lights and helps charge the battery. Quite a lot to get your head around, but once you do, you find that driving the zippy i3 is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The rear wheel drive i3 is a comfortable, smooth ride with accurate steering and good traction even on the i3’s narrow tyres. Being an electric car, other than the scarcely audible murmur of the electric motor, the ride is mostly silent. The narrow tyres, while contributing to better efficiency due to less rolling resistance, also result in less road noise. Plus the low centre of gravity and well-balanced weight distribution helps keep the i3 planted, even in windy conditions.
This distinctive electric car has three driving modes: Comfort, Eco Pro or Eco Pro+, the latter two in each case able to extend the range of the i3 by an additional 20km. But those with chronic range anxiety can opt for the i3 range extender (REX) that allows the i3 to travel more than 100km further before refuelling. This is accomplished by the fitting of a 650cc two-cylinder 28kW petrol engine coupled to a generator that generates electric power and increases the i3’s driving range. Blissful silence becomes invasive noise when the range extender kicks in, the noise not unlike that of being pursued by a lawnmower, but rather that than the alternative – waiting by the side of the road for a tow truck.
The i3 driving experience is a refined and serene one. It’s an effortlessly smooth and nimble urban commuter. But it’s not cheap and the lack of charging stations are potential cause for anxiety. Currently, there are only four charging stations around the country, with plans to increase this as the car park rises. Until this happens, charging for the foreseeable future would have to take place mostly from the owner’s home. While using a conventional domestic 15V socket can supposedly be used to charge the i3, this could take 8 hours or more. The other option is to install a BMW i Wallbox, which uses the maximum current strength available at the property to charge the battery in less than three hours.
With more range, less price and a charging network countrywide, this is a car that could find its way into the garages of many urban homes in the future.