We’ve just spent a day driving from Canberra out beyond Tidbinbilla and back hardly touching the brake pedal. The car was BMW’s all-new i3 electric hatchback and amongst its many features is a regenerative energy system which replenishes battery charge and provides a controlled braking effect which can actually bring you to a complete stop even in city traffic.
BMW says the i3 was ‘Born Electric’ as it takes the high-ground by being conceived as an electric vehicle right from the very first doodle on a napkin by a designer thinking creatively. And of course the i3 ushers in BMW’s ‘i’ sub-brand which is all about the environment and sustainability – the stunning i8 twin-turbo-hybrid sports car is next, hitting Australian shores early next year.
And if there are any Fred and Wilma Flintstones still out there who think electric cars belong in ‘The Jetsons’…well consider a couple of stats. Currently 85 per-cent of Australians live in urban environments and could easily use an electric car for their everyday needs and further, by 2030 over 60 per-cent of the world’s entire population will be living in cities and thus similarly able to function perfectly driving these sorts of vehicles.
Preparing for i3 production, BMW undertook massive real-world field tests as far back as 2008 first using the MiniE and then the ActivE (based on the 1-Series Coupe). While the ‘nay-sayers’ said they wouldn’t consider an electric car unless it offered a range between battery re-charges of 350kms, the truth - as determined in these field studies in Germany, UK, France, North America and Japan - was that 80 per-cent of people drive an average of 50kms per day – so rather than re-charge your electric car every day, in the real world charging three times per week would suffice.
BMW i3 Overview
In ‘BMW-Speak’ the i3 is a ‘premium five-door hatchback’, available in either a zero-emission pure electric version or with a tiny three-cylinder petrol engine used as a ‘Range Extender’ (exclusively to charge the batteries). BMW Australia reckons initially 70 per-cent of local buyers will stump-up the extra $6,000 to buy the ‘Range Extender’ model but this will decrease as electric charging stations become more common in city and suburban locations.
Surprisingly spacious inside and luxuriously equipped as you’d expect from BMW, the i3 comprises a strong F1-inspired carbon-fibre passenger cell, a separate aluminium drive cell (the chassis, batteries, engine(s) and transmission) and a bodyshell comprising plastic panels, a carbon-fibre roof and a tailgate made from glass. Inside, the sustainable approach is evident immediately with seats trimmed in wool, timber panels made from eucalyptus (the world’s fastest-growing tree) and door panels finished in material sourced from the kenaf plant (part of the cotton family which consumes C02 and, as used by BMW, is 30 per-cent lighter than the equivalent plastic component).
But it goes further than that as BMW ‘i’ adopts an all-enveloping approach to vehicle manufacturing. For example to find a suitable source for carbon fibre strands from a plant using a totally sustainable manufacturing process, BMW tuned to a company in Moses Lake, Washington, North America and the i3 is produced at its Leipzig plant which is totally powered by wind turbines.
|BMW i3 with Range Extender||$69,900|
BMW i3 Engine
The electric motor was designed and developed totally by BMW and is mounted at the back driving the rear wheels via a single-speed transmission. BMW says the electric motor in the i3 weighs only 49kgs (that’s about 30 per-cent of the weight of say a conventional 2.0-litre diesel engine).
Maximum power is 125kW and, with that single speed transmission, the peak torque of 250Nm is available instantly.
So that means zero to 100km/h in 7.2 seconds (faster than a BMW 320d) and - perhaps even more impressively - for overtaking, 80km/h – 120km/h in 4.9 seconds (around the same as a BMW 435i).
For an extra $6,000 you can option your BMW i3 with a ‘Range Extender’ engine which recharges the batteries on the go and can extend the driving range to 300kms. That engine is actually a 28kW, 0.650-litre two-cylinder motor scooter engine sourced from BMW’s motorcycle division Motorrad.
Power for the electric motor comes from a liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack with eight modules and 96 cells which are ‘daisy-chained’ together and produce 360 volts.
Returning to weights for a second. While the electric motor weighs-in at just 49kgs, the 650cc ‘Range Extender’ engine weighs 120kgs and the battery pack weighs 230kgs. Hence BMW’s use of the aluminium drive cell so this mass actually sits only about 12cms from the road – keeping it low enhances chassis dynamics.
BMW i3 The Interior
There’s a hint of BMW’s traditional interiors around the centre console but mostly the i3 does not look like any other vehicle from Munich. For starters there is no gear lever – instead a small rotary dial on the right of the dashboard enables you to select ‘D’, ‘P’ or ‘R’.
And on the centre console, the drive mode selector offers ‘Comfort’, ‘Eco Pro’ or Eco Pro+’ (the latter used for maximum battery range so the climate control operates at a bare minimum and top speed is limited to 90km/h). Erm there would be no ‘Sport’ mode or ‘Launch Control’ in this car…unlike the BMW M3 sedan we had the week before.
There’s those sustainably-sourced timber and cotton-based trim materials and wool and/or leather seats (the leather tanned with olive tree leafs). Incidentally BMW says wool for the seats is an ideal material as it stays cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
On top of the two-spoke steering wheel is a 5.5-inch digital instrument screen and centre-dash is a 10.3-inch screen for the satellite navigation, climate control and audio. Between the seats is the familiar BMW iDrive controller which manages all of this.
The rear seat (easily access via those ‘backwards’ coach doors and no B-pillar) is reasonably spacious, has two ISOFIX child seat points and split-folds 50:50. Cargo space is 260-litres with the rear seat in-place or 1100-litres when folded flat plus there’s an additional storage bin up-front under the bonnet (the BMW i3 is rear-engined remember).
Overall the i3 delivers a very aesthetically pleasant interior which is light and airy. Maybe not a traditional BMW look – but classy and stylish nevertheless.
BMW i3 Exterior & Styling
So we have a modern and distinctive five-door hatchback with a rear engine, bodywork from plastic, glass, a carbon-fibre passenger cell and it all sits on an aluminium chassis. So far so good, but check-out those rear doors – they’re rear-opening ‘coach’ doors (as used by BMW-owned Rolls-Royce) so there are no B-pillars…and so the innovations start.
Look closely at the hallmark BMW ‘kidney’ grille and you’ll notice there are no air ducts (the small amount of cool air needed for the ‘Range-Extender’s’ engine and the cooling system for the batteries doesn’t require a normal grille). And look closely at the rear tailgate and you’ll see it’s made entirely of glass.
And if you get close-and-personal with the BMW i3, check-out the sloping roofline and tapered rear bodywork (‘stream flow styling’) – all for aero of course.
Rounding-out the distinctive look is the colour scheme which always features the bonnet, roof and rear in high-gloss black. When we first saw it, we commented that even if the i3 was just a conventional combustion-engined hatchback it’s slick, contemporary styling would immediately put it on our shopping list.
Dimensionally, the BMW i3 measures 3999mm in length, 1775mm in width and stands 1589mm high. Weight is just 1195kgs.
BMW i3 On The Road
As we mentioned, BMW selected a drive route from Canberra, out towards the Snowy Mountains and back – and ideal combination of some city environments and twisty mountain roads. We ran the first 80kms on pure electric power and then switched-on the 650cc ‘Range Extender’ engine – but of course it was always only the electric motor providing propulsion for the car.
There’s no doubt BMW has nailed the i3’s electric motor. It’s lively, as you’d expect from a car wearing this badge, and that mid-range urge is very impressive – so much so it takes a few kilometers to adjust your personal throttle modulation (the i3 is just so responsive and then when you lift-off, braking recuperation introduces a marked slowing effect – BMW has labeled this a ‘single pedal control system’ and, with practice, you really can spend most of the day without touching the brake pedal).
Out on the open road it’s the same story (although once you exceed 100km/h you do notice a rapid use of electricity as shown on the dashboard display). But the point is, in terms of responsiveness at all speeds the BMW i3 drives just like a car with an internal combustion engine with plenty of response available for overtaking (you just need to adjust your operation again easing-off the accelerator for corners to account for that braking recuperation effect).
BMW i3 Issues
However it must be said BMW could have given the i3 a sportier suspension calibration. We understand the i3 doesn’t wear an ‘M’ badge and by necessity runs narrow tyres on the 19-inch alloy wheels - but it is a BMW so regular BMW customers will probably find the ride/handling not quite as dynamic as they would otherwise expect.
BMW i3 Verdict
The BMW i3 succeeds on many fronts. Sure the car is a winner, but even more so BMW i’s holistic approach to a sustainable and low-emissions automotive industry is to be applauded.
But back to the car itself – when BMW applies its massive talents to a task the outcome is invariably spectacular. So not surprisingly the i3 is without doubt the best electric car so far…partly because it’s so damn normal.
The styling inside and out is contemporary and ground-breaking without being nuts, the electric drivetrain and range-extender provide good performance while alleviating range anxiety and the whole package is beautifully conceived and put together in the BMW way.
Bottom line: if this is the future for electric cars sign us up today.