Can car-sharing trigger the electric car revolution in Ireland?

BMW joins forces with car-sharing firm Go Car to launch its new longer-range electric i3


We were given repeated assurances that Ireland, with its mild climate, lack of significant mountain ranges, short distances between major urban centres and part-state-owned public utility company was ideal for electric cars. The perfect test case we were told. Ten per cent of all cars on the road will be electric by 2020, we were told.

Ummmm, not so much. In fact, in spite of telling us five years ago that the first 2,000 electric car buyers would be given free at-home charging points, the ESB told The Irish Times just this morning that it doesn’t expect to wind up that offer until next March at the earliest.

So, what’s to do about Ireland’s electric car phobia? With Germany this week signalling that it wants to end production of all internal combustion engines by 2030, we’d better get our skates on when it comes to EV adoption.

BMW’s solution is two-fold. First off, it’s launching an improved version of its highly-regarded i3 electric car with a battery which can power it for longer. Secondly, and possibly more significantly, it’s partnering with car-sharing firm GoCar to put 10 i3s on Dublin streets, available for instant rental at any time by anyone.

Paulo Alves, Managing Director of BMW Group Ireland told The Irish Times that “we are delighted to bring our partnership with GoCar to life with the new BMW i3 94Ah. GoCar’s car sharing service complements our strategy to promote the use of electric vehicles across the city with their GoElectric range. Dublin residents are demanding more transportation options and car sharing is a convenient choice to get around the city. We are now in a position to offer on demand, eco-friendly mobility when it is needed through this partnership. This partnership is a win-win for GoCar and its customers who get to experience a premium electric vehicle with extraordinary performance while being environmentally friendly. It is also a valuable partnership not just for BMW but for the motor industry as it raises awareness for electric vehicles not as cars of the future but cars of today.”

We quietly posed the question to another BMW spokesperson that allowing such a supposedly exclusive and high-end car to be used by a company best-known for its micro-rentals of small Hyundais and Fords might not be an awesome thing for the brand’s or the car’s image. That suggestion was rebuffed, however, with the spokesperson saying “it’s all about getting the car seen on the streets and getting people into it. We’re not strictly speaking looking at turning Go Car users into customers, but if it gets people talking about EVs in general and the i3 in particular, then that has to be a good thing.”

Colm Brady MD of GoCar said that “today marks a big day in the GoCar journey as we incorporate electric vehicles into our fleet. Expanding our fleet offering to include electric vehicles has been a goal for us since we first launched GoCar. GoCar members have asked for both automatic cars and electric vehicles and we’re delighted to be able to deliver on both to individuals and companies.

“We are now giving Irish drivers the opportunity to experience an electric vehicle, without the upfront commitment of buying one. The hope is that this will allow members to experience electric vehicles, and if users enjoy the BMW i3, then more will be added to the service. This also brings the added benefit of increasing electric vehicle usage in Ireland.”

As pointed out earlier, we’d want to get our skates on in that department, but at least BMW and GoCar have a suitable poster boy for electric motoring in the shape of the i3. Say what you like about its quirky exterior styling, as a thing to drive, it’s instantly convincing. Aside from the battery, the i3 is virtually unchanged, so it’s still a rear-drive EV with seats for four, a modest 260-litre boot and a 170hp electric motor driving the rear wheels. That motor provides instant, addictive roller-coaster-going-over-the-top acceleration from zero rpm even though its total system torque is rated at a mere 250Nm. Part of the thrust is down to the instant nature of the torque, while part is down to the i3’s ground-breaking mix of aluminium and carbon-fibre construction. With a soothing ride (thanks to those tall but skinny wheels) and sharp steering it remains the best electric car this side of a Tesla to drive.

And now you can drive it further, on a single charge at any rate. Without increasing the physical size of the battery, BMW has increased the energy density, bringing it to 33kWh. That gives the i3 more range but BMW is being slightly conservative about how it publicises that fact. Officially, the old 21.6kWh i3 battery could power the car, according to the official EU test figures, for 190km. BMW always reckoned that was a bit too optimistic (and it certainly proved so in our hands) so it generally advised buyers that 150km was more realistic. With the bigger battery, the i3 has an official range figure of 312km, a significant improvement, but once again BMW is being just slightly brutally honest - it says that 201km is a more realistic range, while the REX version with its tiny two-cylinder generator engine and nine-litre fuel tank, can manage a claimed 332km on a combined charge and full fuel tank.

Still, these are improvements and improvements that, potentially, increase the circle of potential buyers for the car. And a 332km one-charge range would, theoretically, allow you to drive at last from Dublin to Cork without needing to stop off for a quick-charge or a refuel. We’ll shortly give the i3 a more rigorous test on open roads to see if it can live up to the hype. And indeed to the price. Even with the €5,000 Vehicle Registration Tax rebate and the €5,000 grant from the Sustainable Energy Authority, a pure-battery i3 costs from €33,600 while a REX is €43,330.

So will that reserve of free home-chargers finally be used up? Well, every little helps in the electric car game, and the ESB is preparing to wrap up the freebie programme some time around next March or April, after which it will cost around €1,000 to buy a home-charger and get it installed. For mass acceptance, EVs will probably have to wait another couple of years until the horde of 400km and 500km range models coming down the line (with their attendant 350kW 10-minute charging points) but for now, the improved i3 remains the most instantly desirable electric car on the Irish market. Whether you’re owning it or renting it.