The BMW i3 has hallmarks of a game-changer, not just for the German company’s own brand but for the automotive landscape at large.
We’ve seen electric and plug-in hybrid cars before, and indeed some of them are already in Australia, but delve in deeper and it is clear that this small city focused BMW is a bit different.
This is because, according to BMW, the i3 is the first electric car built from the ground up, as exactly that. Behind the distinctive design sits a construction method employed by no rival. Of course, and as some have pointed out, Tesla may feel compelled to question this claim.
Little about the i3’s structure is shared from an internal combustion engined BMW, which immediately separates it on an engineering level from an Audi A3 e-tron, Holden Volt or Nissan Leaf. There’s nothing, for instance, in the car’s architecture sourced from another car or platform.
Instead it has a specific ‘i brand’ modular architecture made of aluminium and encompassing a 120kg, 96-cell, 360V, 22kWh battery pack in the floor to power a 230kg, 125kW/250Nm electric motor near the rear axle. Plus, where applicable, an optional 28kW, 650cc two-cylinder petrol range-extender unit to recharge the battery pack if it runs low.
This all sits beneath a radically designed drop-in body made with a carbon-fibre passenger cell and recycled thermal plastic panels, keeping weight down to offset to batteries. A kerb weight of 1195kg (or 1320kg for the range-extender) is very respectable indeed; about the same as a Volkswagen Golf hatchback.
The BMW i3 looks like nothing else and it’s made like nothing else. It is a very different approach to rivals Audi and Mercedes-Benz, which have electric versions of the A3 and B-Class that look scarcely different to the petrol and diesel versions. The i3 is a gamble.
And it’s a costly one to get into - it is expensive to amortise an all-new architecture, after all. The entry car costs $63,900 plus on-road costs in BEV (pure EV) guise, $4000 more than the A3 e-tron or Volt, or $69,900 in REX (range-extender) guise that will net around 70 per cent of Australian buyers, by BMW’s projections. See here for more details.
Targeted eco-friendliness is not limited to the finished product. BMW has gone full-tilt at what it calls a “holistic” approach, sourcing its carbon-fibre from a plant powered by hydro-electricity, and making its own factory in Leipzig, Germany, powered solely by four giant wind turbines.
The mission is to make the ‘i’ brand a new ‘bookmark’ for its brand, sitting on one end of the spectrum, with the M range on the other and its regular offerings in between. The i3 and i8 may be the first pair, but they won’t be the last, and there are many numbers left to fill in.
Let’s clear something up: we drove the attention-seeking i8 a few weeks ago, but since that car isn’t actually on sale until early 2015, this i3 you see here is in fact the first BMW EV to arrive in local showrooms.
Why begin with the i3? Its compact dimensions (its 4.0-metre length, or 3.99m to be exact, is less than a Mazda 2) and 9.86m turning circle (10 per cent better than a Mini) make it a car for cities, and cities suit the inherent weakness of these early electric cars: limited range. In Australia, 85 per cent of the population lives in a city, and by 2030 so will 60 per cent of the world.
The range in the i3 is up to 200km in the Eco Pro mode on the official NEDC European cycle, though in reality somewhere closer to 130km is what you can hope for (the 200km-enabling mode limits top speed to 90km/h, alters the gearing and neuters the climate control).
The tiddly 650cc scooter engine option generates power for the cells and extends the range to 300km before its nine-litre tank expires, which is half the overall range of the conceptually similar Volt.
So even this so-called REX model is no long-range cruiser, meaning weekends away are likely to belong to what BMW no doubt hopes is the X5 diesel occupying the other spot in the garage. For the day-to-day office commute though, it will suffice.
So what did we make of this statement car for well-heeled, inner-city environmentally minded folks on our first Australian drive?
Well it sure is a looker. At least that’s what the horde of neck-snapping students at the Australian National University seem to have thought. Only the kidney grille (closed off with no function since there’s no radiator behind there) tells you it’s a BMW.
The proportions are what really grab you, notably those non-existent front and rear overhangs that keep the dimensions demure but maxime cabin space, and the rear 2.85mm thick cosmetic glasshouse that makes the car look UFO-ish in traffic.
The cabin is also a rather unique place to be. There’s no centre tunnel for a start, because the entire powertrain is next to the rear axle (and powers the rear wheels), meaning the fascia floats in mid-air (a bit like a 1990s Honda CR-V). Storage is boosted by vast front door pockets.
Above the ventilation controls sits a large cubby, above which is perched a 10.3-inch widescreen for the navigation, infotainment and communication info, as well as vehicle information such as power usage and range remaining. The regular BMW iDrive module sits between the seats.
Standard equipment includes LED light elements, auto reverse-park technology, cruise control with braking function, front and rear sensors and reversing camera, sat-nav and DAB+ digital radio. However, a glass sunroof ($2920), full LED headlights ($1400), Harman Kardon sound system ($1550) and metallic paint ($1250) are all pricey extras, as is a more efficient cabin heat pump ($1300).
Also, the Driving Assistant Plus pack, which has lane departure warning, forward collision warning, pedestrian warning and active (radar-guided) cruise control that brakes to zero and re-starts the car again, costs $2200. On a $70K, high-tech city car, shouldn’t it be standard?
Ahead of the driver sits an unusual (almost upside-down looking) steering wheel with a 5.5-inch screen in place of the traditional instruments. There’s no gear-shifter in the regular since, rather a stork next to the wheel that tilts forwards for D and backwards for R (it’s a single-speed fixed-ratio transmission).
The real highlight, though, is the materials. There’s sustainable real wood, olive-oil tanned leather and door panels made of natural fibres from the Kenaf plant rather than plastic. It feels like plastic, but with extra smug.
Seriously, though, you have to commend the little details, though not so much the few examples of somewhat iffy quality. The lovely wooden glovebox cover, for instance, continued to separate from the plastic liner on one car.
Befitting customer demand for SUVs, the driver sits up in a more commanding position than the looks suggest. The deep dash and plentiful glass make it feel light and airy, benefitting visibility. Rear visibility for parallel parking is less fantastic, however.
It’s not most practical car out there, but its 260-litre boot (1100L with the rear seats folded) in on a par for the class. In the nose, you get a tray for the tyre repair kit, though the cord to open it is hidden behind a panel in the passenger footwell.
Access to the rear is via a pair of small suicide doors, made easier by the absence of a B-pillar.
The rear headroom is SUV-like, though the legroom for each rear seat (there are only two) is average. On the plus side, those deep side windows give great visibility, though the lack of door pockets and vents and tiny map pockets diminish the appeal for backseat drivers.
A few performance figures now, because this i3 is deceptively quick: It dashes from 0-100km/h in 7.2 seconds (matching the Mini Cooper S) and from 80-120km/h in 4.9s (matching a BMW 435i).
The electric motor on the REX powers the car by itself, until its charge drops to 18 per cent, at which point the little engine fires up. At higher speeds, the engine will also engage to supplement the battery. Only the motor powers the rear wheels, with the engine acting as a mere generator.
You can also manually activate the engine via iDrive when the battery drops below 75 per cent charge, meaning the cells remain powered up for later. The engine itself makes quite a thrum when running. At low speed in EV modes the car emits a pedestrian-warning, Jetsons-esque whoop-whoop-whoop (we stole that italicised description from Car and Driver in the US).
It’s not lacking for instantaneous torque delivery (always an inherent EV strength), which gives it an immediacy and a seamless momentum ideal for the inner city. Even better is its intense brake regeneration that BMW claims reduces the need for actual braking by 80 per cent.
You can drive most of the time with just one pedal. When you see a red light, just lift off and the friction of the energy regeneration slows the car drastically. It takes some familiarity, but it’s quite fun attempting to predict your final stopping place.
The darty steering, good visibility and very compliant urban ride even on 19-inch alloy wheels make the BMW i3 a breeze in the inner-city, and the nimble handling at low speeds makes it a fun companion in this context. The sub-10m turning circle almost reminds you of a London Taxi.
We also found ourselves sitting at the 110km/h limit in what felt like no time at all, a symptom of the complete lack of engine noise most of the way (top speed in electric mode is 120km/h).
On that topic, wide open country roads are not the i3’s natural habitat. Those low-rolling resistance tyres are super skinny (155mm-wide, and 70-aspect), the suspension tends toward softness and the body is quite tall and narrow, meaning the body has a tendency to bob about and wallow mid-corner.
Those tyres also make a fair racket on backroads in lieu of any engine drone, and the wind noise through the pillars also picks up.
But we’re not going to criticise it too much on that point. You could even say that BMW’s famous ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ company slogan is fit for a broad church of thoughts. Furthermore, the electric steering system is as well-weighted as any conventional BMW at higher clips.
Finally, to the ownership. Recharging times vary from 11 hours on a regular household socket, to six-hours via a BMW wallbox in your garage (quoted price is $1750 plus fitment), three-hours on a public rapid charger (you get a ChargePoint card) and just 30 minutes if you can find one of Australia’s trio of 125kWh DC chargers and you paid an extra $1000 for the special socket on your car.
BMW will give buyers ChargePoint cards to access the current 80-odd public charge stations in Australia, and it also offers an eight-year/100,000km battery warranty and eight years of roadside assist. There’s also a phone app to to check your charge and remotely control the air and lock the doors.
The i3 will initially be distributed through just four ‘i’ dealerships in Australia, in Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. That network is expected to increase to Canberra and Adelaide in early 2015, while service facilities will be established at 10 additional dealerships.
It is safe to say this is a car that will be like catnip to the EV landscape's early adopters, because at this price it's never going to be more than a niche. But with that design, you'll sure as hell take notice on the rare occasions you do see one. You have to admire BMW's brave approach, and its first 'i' brand product is among the most 'complete' EVs you can buy.