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.

Multimedia screen
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.

The rear seats are well able to take three adults - as was proved during our trips around the Frankfurt motor show in the car – but getting in and out through the rear-hinged doors can be a pain. Somehow, despite being designed with ease of access in mind, they actually make things a little more complicated.

Driving the i3 is relatively easy. Hit the “on” button and then twist the stubby control unit on the right of the steering column. It’s a new addition to BMW: click it forward for drive, back for reverse, and half-click it for neutral.

As with most pure electric cars, the throttle takes a little time to get used to. The Lithium-Ion battery pack has 22kW/hrs of electric power and discharges at 360 volts into a 125kW electric motor.

Power is almost immediate and, despite its small-car looks, its packs a sports-car kick thanks to a torque of 250Nm, which is more than you get in the hottest Mini on the market. The little car can hit 60km/h in an incredible 3.8 seconds, 100km/h in 7.2 seconds and is limited to 150km/h. This car is a lot faster than you think and even knowing the figures doesn’t prepare you for the surge of power.

Giddy feeling
It’s so sharp, in fact, that the chassis feels a little giddy at full throttle, struggling to plant all that power on the ground. That’s only at the extreme, however; overall the i3 is great fun to drive – and remarkably easy as well. The steering is light in town but informative on the open road, while the benefits of having the heaviest part – the batteries – low to the ground and between the wheels, gives it impressive balance and poise.

The i3 has three driving modes: Comfort, EcoPro and EcoPro+. BMW claims it will do between 130km and 160km on a full charge in the Comfort mode, somewhere towards 200km in the EcoPro mode and a claimed 300km in the EcoPro+ mode. The likelihood is that you will not be able to cope with 300km on EcoPro+ mode, given that it effectively switches off the air-con and makes the throttle limp and lifeless. On the official EU numbers, the range is claimed at 190km/h, which is probably more realistic.

One big difference between driving the i3 over a regular car is when you lift off; the car slows down immediately, as if you’ve just dropped anchor. It’s so dramatic that BMW applies the brake lights when you lift off at speed, as a warning to cars behind. This is why many BMW engineers say the i3 is a really a single pedal car. There is of course a brake pedal, but after a few minutes’ use, you start to fall into the rhythm of slowing down by simply lifting off the throttle.

Another striking feature, of course, is the sound – or lack of it. The complete lack of an engine means this little Beemer scoots along with only the whisper of tyre noise to disturb the cabin. In built-up urban areas you’ll spend a lot more time startling sleepy pedestrians than you would with a regular car.

So it’s remarkably quick and remarkably quiet, but it’s also remarkably pricey. A price tag of €34,010 – even after the €5,000 VRT rebate and another €5,000 grant from the Sustainable Energy Authority – puts it out of the market for many aspiring eco-friendly buyers. Even those who might be able to scrape together the money might not be able to live with either its limited range of supermini size.

Range anxiety
And, like all electric cars, range anxiety will limit its appeal. BMW will fit a range-extending hybrid into the i3, nestling a two-cylinder, 25kW scooter engine alongside the electric motor. The petrol engine doesn’t drive the wheels but adds energy via cranking the same i3 generator that helps to recharge the battery during braking. However, even with all the rebates, the price of this version is a hefty €41,040. That’s just €2,000 short of a 518d SE and well within the price range of a wel-equipped 3-Series.

The arrival of the last tranche of electric models on the Irish market coincided with our economic collapse. As the nation sought shelter from the economic storm, the idea of taking a €40,000 punt on new technology seemed absolutely mad. The i3 arrives in Ireland next month as the worst of the recession seems to be receding. It’s also targeted at a customer segment that is more likely to have the cash to spend on new technology and have a relationship with the BMW brand.

Given its size, range issues and price, the market is going to be limited to the wealthy few who would use it as a second car, mainly a town runaround. This is not going to replace the Toyota Prius or its hybrid equivalents.

Yet there is a niche for this car that probably didn’t exist two or three years ago. BMW expect to sell 50 i3s in a full year, which is not excessive. Whatever about the market for the i3 in Ireland, it represents a major leap in motoring innovation, and not just because it comes with a plug.