BMW charges into the electric brigade
With a revolutionary carbon-fibre body and impressive powertrain, the i3 really sparks
Is this the car to finally kickstart the electric transport revolution? Can we expect to see post-Budget motorists queuing outside Joe Duffy Motors off the M50 in Dublin to be amongst the first to part with more than €30,000 for an electric supermini?
Even the most optimistic economist would harbour doubts about the likely impact of the new BMW i3 on the Irish motoring landscape.
Yet don’t mistake the BMW i3 for just another electric car; it represents an entirely new way to build a car, and in the near future will incorporate a range of apps that changes the way we interact with our car and how it interacts with its environment.
BMW’s new i range incorporates two new models, a venture capital investment fund and a group of engineering talent that has partnered with some of the world’s top tech firms. The end result is a supermini with the look and feel of a concept car, the i8 hybrid supercar that will arrive by the middle of next year, and several apps that, for example, will let you rent parking spaces from private householders.
This is a big leap, even for the BMW brand.
Take something as simple as the interior plastics and underbody parts. Up to now all BMW models in the range shared significant parts in order to save costs. This is a firm run by accountants, after all.
With the i3, however, the only significant shared part is its steering, which is taken from the next generation Mini, due for launch next month.
The heart of the i3 powertrain lies beneath its floor, an aluminium frame housing the 230kg lithium-ion battery pack. On top of this is the revolutionary new carbon-fibre body, made from the same material that encases Formula One drivers and fighter pilots.
The combination of strength and lightweight materials has made it the favourite building block for car developers and engineers, but costs have been too excessive for mass production models. Up until now we have only seen it used sparingly on sports cars or in the frames of costly supercars from Lamborghini and Lexus.
Yet BMW partnered with an innovative carbon fibre firm on the US west coast to come with a way to make carbon fibre bodyframes affordable for mainstream production. BMW plans to build 30,000 i3s a year. The end result is a massive 30 per cent weight saving over a conventional design. Some engineers suggest that this – and not the electric powertrain – is the real revolution in the i3.
The stylish dashboard is topped with an upright multimedia screen, similar to a docked tablet computer. A smaller version sits in front of the steering wheel, offering the driver a digital speedometer and battery charging information.
With the high seating position and flat floor, there’s an airy feel to the cabin despite the car’s relatively small footprint. Impressive headroom adds to the effect, but, aside from a decent glovebox and various door sills, there’s a lack of stowage space. The boot is similar to a Mini while the front storage well – where the engine used to be – really can only take a single full shopping bag.