The BMW i3 hopes to do for electric cars what the M3 did for compact performance sedans.
This a vehicle that’s been six years in the making and with no shortage of hype, though whether battery-powered cars will ever be adopted en masse remains a lingering question.
The BMW i3 follows a recent spate of EVs that include the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, all of which have sales figures that currently make a mockery of some industry predictions that such vehicles could account for 10 to 20 per cent of the market by 2020.
BMW is certainly taking the more complex and expensive route for its attempt to turn zero-emissions vehicles into a showroom revolution.
Where those aforementioned electric cars are essentially electrified versions of existing conventional models (i-MiEV was based on the i-Car, Volt is based on the Cruze) or built on conventional car platforms (Leaf), the BMW i3 is built from scratch with construction that’s alien to any other BMW.
At its core is a passenger section constructed from carbonfibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) and attached to an aluminium chassis incorporating the lithium-ion battery pack in the floor and accommodating the rear-mounted electric motor.
BMW says its EV philosophy helps avoid the compromises faced by electrifying standard models, also the route taken by Audi and Mercedes with upcoming models (A3 e-Tron and B-Class Electric Drive, for example).
One of the keys is saving weight. BMW says its build approach saved more than 100kg than if the i3 had been constructed from more conventional steel. At 1195kg overall, the i3 weighs halfway between a Mini Cooper S and a 118i hatch.
The Mini may be the shortest vehicle in the BMW Group but the i3 is the shortest BMW, measuring a millimetre under four metres.
It doesn’t look like your average BMW, of course. At the front there are still a pair of kidneys – purely as a design reference with no engine to feed air to – but the overhangs are remarkably short, there are U-shaped lights front and rear, and the staggered side window treatment is visually radical.
Equally unusual are wheels that are 19 inches in diameter and fitted with narrow tyres that are just 155mm wide.
That combination is designed to lower the i3’s rolling resistance (the larger the contact patch the more power required) to increase range, though the tall wheels are also needed to allow for the extra body height created by the floor-mounted battery.
So you step up slightly into the BMW i3, which dispenses with B-pillars and features rear-hinged rear doors that can only be opened once the main doors are – as with the Mazda RX-8.
There’s a strong element of Avant garde to the interior, which features some familiar BMW displays and audio panels but gains a distinctively organic feel compared with, say, a 1 Series with its mix of materials that include wool, cloth, wood, plastic, leather and naturally grown fibres.
Pressing a Start/Stop button on a lever jutting out of the steering wheel column fires up the BMW i3’s electric power silently, with the 6.5-inch colour display immediately ahead telling the driver the system is ‘Ready’ and showing the state of the battery charge in terms of percentage and calculated range.
Twist that same lever to Drive and the accelerator pedal is the only thing standing between being stationary and getting under way.
It doesn’t take long to appreciate the BMW i3 driving experience is dominated by a ‘single pedal’ concept, where it’s possible to drive for hours without touching the brake pedal and simply use the throttle pedal for going and slowing.
We experienced this in the electric Mini E back in 2008 that formed BMW’s first mass trial of electric vehicle technology. The regenerative braking set up – where the car takes kinetic energy and uses it to replenish battery power via the electric motor – also teams with an action where stepping off the accelerator slows the car like a case of severe engine braking.
It was a fun but rather abrupt, rubber band-like sensation in the Mini E, but BMW has refined the action so that slowing is almost as impressively linear – and like coasting – as the acceleration.
It doesn’t take long before the driving style becomes instinctive and you’re able to easily judge slowing to a standstill at traffic lights or scrubbing speed before turning into a corner at higher speed. The brake lights automatically illuminate when the car detects more sudden deceleration.
Acceleration is more satisfying, though. Press firmly on the BMW i3 accelerator pedal to tap into the electric motor’s near-instantaneous torque and the result is a burst of seamless thrust that will guarantee you virtually any gap in traffic or an overtaking move that requires limited caution.
The rear-wheel-drive BMW i3 can reach 60km/h from standstill in 3.7 seconds, with the 100km/h mark reached in 7.2 seconds – the same as a Mini Cooper S.
We found the performance especially handy in the launch location of Amsterdam, where you need all your wits and all the car’s quick reactions in a mazy urban minefield of scooters, trams and cyclists.
Acceleration is relatively hushed, of course, with a mild whine from the electric motor. The narrow tyres are barely audible, leaving wind noise – which becomes particularly loud above 60km/h – as the main blemish on refinement.
How far you can travel on the i3’s battery can be boosted by selecting an Eco Pro Plus mode that reduces the throttle’s responsiveness, cuts the air-con, and restricts top speed to 90km/h (unless you override it with a kickdown-style press of the accelerator pedal).
There’s an intermediary Eco Pro or Comfort mode that’s the default mode.
The stiff construction of the i3 has allowed BMW’s engineers to achieve a suspension tune that delivers a fine, if not quite luxurious, ride quality. But only sharp surface ridges bring any notable intrusions beneath your seat.
Handling is also noteworthy considering the relatively tall body and skinny tyres, and the BMW i3 is brilliantly manoeuvrable around tight city streets as a result of smooth and direct steering, a tight, 9.8-metre turning circle and that stub-nosed front overhang (you can’t see the bonnet from the driver’s seat).
The slightly elevated seating and window shapes and sizes also create excellent all-round vision.
The rear seat doesn’t feel claustrophobic despite the half-sized rear door, either, with the deep glass of that particular door helping to allow plenty of light into the back.
There’s more space than in the back of a Mini and about the same as a 1 Series, so knee room doesn’t sit in the generous camp while foot space is almost non-existent.
BMW has set the i3 up with SIM card and smartphone-based connectivity to help i3 owners reach their destination come-what-may.
The i3 is permanently connected to a giant BMW back-end server to make constant calculations that would require too much power for the car’s software. It can take into account real-time traffic and weather, time of the week, topography and driving style to assess whether you can reach the destination entered into the sat-nav with the battery charge available.
Theoretically, BMW says the i3 has a full-charge range of up to 160km. On day one of the launch, we started with a predicted range of 147km and covered 95km with 12km ‘still in the tank’.
Simply switching to Eco Pro Plus mode may be sufficient to make it from A to B, though if not the BMW i3 will direct you to a charging station (easier in Europe than Australia) or car park.
There you can plug in your car and the i3 will provide you with alternative transport options to get to your destination. It synchronises with a BMW i3 smartphone app that allows owners to take that travel info with them as well as providing an update status on the recharging process and then directions for getting back to the car.
Charging will take between anywhere from 25 minutes (DC fast charge station), to six hours using the BMW Wallbox (which will cost between $1200-1500 locally), to about 11 hours using a normal power socket. A Wallbox Pro is coming in 2014 that, for a higher outlay, will half the charging time of the installation designed for home or office garages.
For those buyers who want an electric car but think they’re going to suffer from ‘range anxiety’ – the fear of being stranded by running out of power– BMW is offering an optional range extender.
We didn’t get to test a range extender i3 but the model – which is expected to carry a premium of up to $10,000 in Australia – features a two-cylinder petrol bike engine that acts as a generator to sustain battery power for a range of up to 300km.
Range anxiety contributed to killing the electric car in the early 20th century as gasoline vehicles emerged. And while range extenders – as employed by the Chevy/Holden Volt – deal with that to a certain extent, they still can’t overcome the issue of cost.
While the BMW i3 promises eco-friendly motoring (if you can recharge using electricity generated by sustainable energy sources rather than coal-based as primarily found in Australia), lower running costs, and reduced repair costs thanks to the outer body sections formed from the same plastic used for conventional bumpers, cost remains a critical barrier for the majority of car buyers.
The i3 is expected to start from about $60,000 in Australia when it arrives in the third quarter of 2014. That figure will likely be closer to $70,000 for the range extender.
But while it’s easy to remain sceptical about the latest revival of electric cars even in an era of intense climate change debate, the BMW i3 is one of the most persuasive of the EV breed.