AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS – Electric vehicles (EVs), green motoring, sustainable materials and other associated cleverness aren’t new topics. One of the first Porsche’s ever made was an EV with hub-mounted motors, for example, and that was more than 100 years ago.
But BMW i is different. The new sub-brand was launched in 2011 and aims at providing customers a ‘holistic solution to the problems of mobility’. In short, it’s a green brand, but also aiming to be much more than that (see below).
Switching customers from plain-old motoring to mobility might not sound like a sound business plan for a carmaker, but the core of BMW i is still product. Two have been announced in production form at September’s Frankfurt motor show – the i8 plug-in sports car and the i3 electric city car.
CarBuyer did an exclusive test drive of the final production prototype back in August. It was still clad in camouflage, both outside and in, but ‘Big’ Ben Chia came back from that experience with lots of positives, saying in CB213 that he was, “very much convinced that the i3 will fit our urban landscape very well indeed.”
Having tested the full-production machine in and around Amsterdam, we’re inclined to agree with him.
(Urban) Jungle Warrior
To begin with, the i3 looks like nothing else on the road. BMW concentrated on a different aesthetic for the cars to match their new intent and it’s succeeded in creating an attractive package that’s instantly recognisable as both as something new and something BMW.
A general dome-shaped appearance and novel proportions lets you know you’re looking at something practical, while the multi-layered and contrast colour body confirms this. Our test car came in ‘Solar Orange’, although the car looks equally pleasing in its ‘Ionic Silver’ and white iterations.
The i3 isn’t the sort of car futurists might have penned thirty years ago, but in a sense it’s even more radical because much of its design is in homage to practicality and packaging.
Like Alec Issigonis’s classic Mini design, the wheels and drive components are pushed outwards for maximum interior space, while the overhangs are shrunk for good maneuverability.
The i3 has five-doors – a hatch back, two main portals and two ‘suicide doors’, like the Mazda RX-8, so passengers can enter without spraining any body parts.
At just under four-metres long, the car’s about the same size as a Mini Countryman, and like its distant group cousin, also sits four people with ease. Yet, the i3 has a sense of space that’s MPV like, thanks to its clever packaging.
Head and legroom are plentiful, as are visual spaces: the sweeping dashboard, the tall windscreen and roof. There’s plenty of useful room, as the lack of a transmission tunnel spells for a spacious arm console, and you can stow a small bag right next to your knee too. The door pockets are massive and the wood-figured depression under the iDrive screen can hold knick-knacks as well.
It’s the mix of material and the unique design that’ll grip you, though. Most of the material is recycled, and this is nothing new (most cars are 95 percent recyclable, and the Toyota Prius C is another overt example of a cabin with recycled material) but the i3 combines its renewable bits, such as the felt-like door lining, with top-grade leather and technical plastics in a way no other green car has done. Like the exterior design, it’s recognisable as a BMW, but also as a premium, eco-friendly product in its own right. Even the leather, BMW boasts, is tanned with natural olive-leaf extract.
What scores more points is how comfortable and logical everything is. Just last issue I was complaining about weird driving positions in modern cars. Here, the i3 proves me wrong – flat benches and no cowing headrests means the driver always comfortable. Less logical is the column-mounted gear shifter. It engages with a solid feel and positive click but goes in contrast to every production car ever: pulling back engages R, pushing forward engages D. Fitting, since the i3 is intended to be the first to turn the tide for EVs and against internal combustion engines.
The i3 is powered by a 170bhp electric motor with 250Nm of torque, and it draws its juice from a 20kWh lithium-ion battery pack located in the vehicle floor. The motor resides in the rear, where it drives the rear-wheels directly. This is also where the optional range-extender will reside, a 650cc parallel-twin gasoline engine (basically the mill from the BMW C 650 GT scooter) which recharges the battery. No matter what you choose, it makes the boot floor very high, giving you just 260-litres of space, albeit in a easily accessible manner, and expandable to 1,100-litres with the rear seats down.
Once you’re in D, the car emits a ready tone and accelerates away briskly and silently, like all EVs do. There’s almost no noise, although certain markets such as Japan will require a sound-making device for safety.
It’s obvious after a short while that the i3 is optimised for life in the big city (BMW calls them ‘megacities’, geographers call them ‘conurbations’) just much as a Range Rover is aimed at going off-road.
Acceleration is brisk, given the car weighs just 1,195kg, about a 100kg less than a 116i, and the torque-on-demand electric motor gives the i3 instantaneous sprinting ability. You’ll easily outgun most traffic in and around town, and at full-bore, the car feels very quick indeed.
A novel idea is BMW’s ‘one-pedal’ driving approach. As you lift off the gas, the motor spins in the opposite direction to regenerate energy that’s stored in the battery. Because it’s been engineered for heavy regeneration, the car slows down quickly when you lift off. It takes a little getting used to, but by the end of the day we were navigating stop-and-go traffic without touching the brake pedal at all. This doesn’t just reduce driver fatigue, but also improves range. Additionally, if the deceleration is beyond 0.3G, the brake lights come on automatically, so you don’t have to worry about rear-enders.
The seating position and tall wheels mean visibility is excellent, thanks to a generous greenhouse, while the quickness and foot-easy manner will leave you smiling. But the i3’s very good at going around corners too.
The biggest mass of the car is the 230kg battery, and that lies closest to the ground. As a result, the i3 is a very tidy handler. Body roll is evident, but beyond an initial tip-in, the car grips and gets on with business. It’s shod with Bridgestone Ecopia EP 500 tyres to match the 19 and 20-inch wheels – BMW aimed at increasing the contact patch longitudinally rather than laterally. Yet another sign of the i3’s urban savvy is its tiny turning circle – just 9.86-metres, nearly a full metre less than the 116i.
As you might already know, the i3 has a new construction technique, one that ironically harks back to the opposite of a city car – tough trucks and flat-bed lorries. The i3 is made almost in a body-on-frame manner, by combining an upper carbonfibre passenger cell (‘Life’) with a predominantly aluminium running chassis (‘Drive’) that holds the battery and motor (all together now, ‘LifeDrive’). BMW’s own research into carbon fibre processing means the i3 is the first affordable, mass-production car to have a predominantly CF construction.
It’s a very stiff body structure, but not one that delivers a bad ride. In some areas, the i3 does get jiggly, but Amsterdam’s huge number of speed humps were tackled easily (good news for sleeping-policeman-infested Singapore) and the firmness doesn’t delve into crashiness or pitching.
Home On The Range
But here’s the million-dollar questions: How far can it really go?
The i3 isn’t the first EV we’ve driven, but it’s the first one we’ve driven for more than 40km without feeling intense range anxiety. That in itself is a major victory.
You can drive an i3 without crippling worries about running flat because it does exactly what it says on the box.
It’s got a range of um, ranges. BMW quotes the official EU cycle range as 190km, but in its official spec sheet it also gives a honest ‘range in everyday driving’.
There are three different drive modes – Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro+. Eco Pro, like on conventional BMW, retards the throttle response, engine output and climate control. The new Eco Pro+ takes that even further, as it shuts off the AC compressor too. In Comfort mode the car will do a quoted 130-160km, and up to 200km in Eco Pro+. The range extender expands this to 240-300km, up to a maximum of 340km in Eco Pro+ mode.
Since the i3’s supposed to be a usable EV, we kept a sharp eye on battery consumption, range, average speed and our own driving habits.
Our first journey in the car was a 63km from Schipol Airport, through the Dutch countryside and on to Zandvoort. The battery indicator was full and showed a range of 133km in Comfort mode, which fell to 69km at the end of our journey, where we averaged 40km/h.
Our second journey was a 70km stretch from the city centre and eventually back to the airport. We spent at least an hour in Amsterdam traffic, through numerous jams and detours, and then on through the countryside. The average speed was 25km/h and at the end of the tour our range indicator had gone from 138km down to 58km.
The first journey was done in Comfort Mode, the second in Eco Pro mode, both with the climate control and stereo on, in weather that ranged from sunny to rainy, from eight to 12-degrees Celsius. Both legs were driven as normally as I could manage – there was no holding back on the accelerator, sometimes there was gratuitous bursts of speed, and about 10km of highway taken at 80-110km/h in the last leg.
So, we can say with conviction that the 130km range of the i3 is certainly no lie. That’s immensely refreshing, with every EV we’ve ever had a hands-on (both two and four-wheeled) falling far short of their quoted ranges.
Given most city dwellers travel less than 50km a day, the fact that the i3 has a real range of 130km is a big plus. In Singaporean conditions, we imagine users will get approximately the same mileage, perhaps a little worse due to heavier use of air-conditioning. BMW’s engineers say the latter will reduce efficiency by 10-15 percent at most.
i Am Into Something New
BMW itself is not a stranger to trying out radical new solutions to getting around. The tiny Isetta bubble car was launched in 1956, while the ‘covered’ scooter C1 debuted in 2000. Both of these products failed to inject themselves into the mainstream – although the Isetta has the honour of being the best-selling single-cylinder engined car ever – but neither were they backed up by the kind of efforts that have gone into BMW i right now.
But i3 has also passed one of the sternest tests of its ability – that of actual, usable range.
The i3 is a rarity, for now. An EV that actually has the usable range and stamina for a day spent out on the road and it’s also proven it can handle air-conditioning, highway speeds and quick progress without draining its battery.
That in itself is remarkable, at least in our experience, but tie that in with the fact that it’s got an attractive design, a premium feel and lots of convincing green-ness, and it becomes a package that could seriously begin to woo conventional car buyers, even in Singapore.
Taking this with the cutting-edge style and early-adopter cool it makes owning a green car not just a possibility, but an active and enticing choice.
NEED TO KNOW
Electric Motor 170bhp & 250Nm
Battery 20kWh lithium-ion
Gearbox Reduction Gear
Top Speed 150km/h
0-100km/h 7.6 seconds
Fuel efficiency 12.9kWh/100km
Also Consider: Audi A3 e-tron, Nissan Leaf, Smart Electric Drive, Volkswagen e-Golf
Photos by BMW