Putting the i into sustainable, with BMW

By David Linklater

BMW has delivered a leading edge in electric car technology with the release of groundbreaking, range-extended i3

BMW's i3 electric car has just been launched internationally and is expected in NZ next year.
BMW's i3 electric car has just been launched internationally and is expected in NZ next year.

You really can judge a book by its cover: the BMW i3 is just as cutting-edge as its outrageous styling suggests.

The i3 is the first car to emerge from BMW's i-brand: a new division that puts the emphasis on sustainability, albeit without abandoning the driver-focused principles on which BMW has built its reputation.

Well, that's the theory.

The practical was provided by BMW's international launch for the i3 in Amsterdam last week: this megacity of seven-million-plus provided the perfect environment for the motoring media to put this new-generation electric vehicle through its paces.

What makes the i3 so special? Carmakers are always telling us vehicles are all-new, but in this case it's really true. New in design, new in concept.

Almost nothing is shared with other BMW models.

The i3 is available in pure electric and range-extender models.

BMW i3
BMW i3

Only the former were provided for Driven's Amsterdam drive, although it's only the latter that will be available in New Zealand when the i3 is launched here this time next year.

No matter: the driving experience is virtually the same.

The electric model has a 125kW/250Nm motor driving the rear wheels through a fixed-ratio gearbox.

The lithium batteries integrated into the floorpan take about eight hours to charge (between three and five hours using one of BMW's optional "i Wallbox" home-charge units) and can power the vehicle for 130km-160km.

Cables are provided for ordinary household sockets as well as more sturdy fast-charge connectors.

The range-extender i3 model is configured in exactly the same way, but also has a 650cc petrol generator and nine-litre fuel tank nestled next to the electric motor.

So when the batteries run flat, the generator fires up and maintains a minimum charge so that the electric motor can continue to work, until you have the opportunity to plug in again. Range is effectively doubled in this model, to about 300km.

Some of the BMW engineers on hand at the launch seemed implicitly dismissive of the range-extended i3- a step too far that spoils the "born electric" ethos.

Drive around a European megacity and you can appreciate that point of view: in Amsterdam there are 650 charge points, all listed on the i3's satellite navigation system. Frequent fast-charging is entirely feasible.

In New Zealand, not so much. Decent EV infrastructure must surely come at some point.

But until then, plugging in your EV is a matter of routine - at home overnight or, if you're lucky, at work.

In the absence of a network of public charge points, you really have to plan your driving around those times.

So extended range will be a highly desirable feature for Kiwi buyers - a safety net even if they don't plan to use the petrol generator.

Like any other BMW production model, the i3 has a low centre of gravity (because the batteries are under the floor), perfect 50/50 weight distribution and rear-wheel drive.

However, it's nothing like any other BMW to drive and was never meant to be.

BMW's i3 plant is powered by wind turbines.
BMW's i3 plant is powered by wind turbines.

You travel in silence, of course - well, kind of, save for wind noise that is a lot more obvious in an EV than a car with a noisy combustion engine.

There is speed: the electric-only model sprints to 100km/h in 7.2 seconds, which is getting close to hot-hatch performance.

The range-extender version is slightly slower at 7.9 seconds, but still as quick as a Mini Paceman Cooper S.

The i3 actually feels a lot quicker than the numbers, because you get instant torque at any speed from the electric motor.

The car accelerates strongly/easily right up to 130km/h. Top speed is limited to 150km/h, to preserve battery life.

The i3 is dynamically accomplished, albeit in an idiosyncratic way. Despite the SUV-like ride height, stability is beyond reproach because of those heavy (230kg) batteries under the floor. BMW says the i3 is one of its best-performing small cars in the European emergency lane-change manoeuvre (the "elk test" that toppled the original Mercedes-Benz A-class back in 1997).

For a city car, the i3 rides on massive-diameter wheels - you have a choice of 19 or 20-inch rims - but the tyres are incredibly skinny at just 155/175mm.

Having so little rubber on the road reduces rolling resistance and allows a turning circle so tight you have to experience it to believe it: just 9.86 metres.

All of the above mean the i3 can be quite nimble, but it still requires a certain driving technique.

You can't throw the car into corners too aggressively because there's a limit to the amount of grip those slivers of rubber can provide.

Here's the other strange - but ultimately enlightening - lesson you need to learn about the i3: one-pedal driving.

There's a huge amount of regenerative drag built into the powertrain, so when you lift off the throttle the automatic-braking effect is quite severe.

This is quite deliberate: the idea being that you simply drive with the throttle and ignore the brake unless there's an emergency.

So it proved: by the end of our two days in Amsterdam, I was driving the i3 in congested urban areas solely by accelerating and decelerating, never touching the stop-pedal. Loved it.

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The cabin shows the same clean-sheet thinking as the rest of the car. The i3 is a five-door four-seater, with rear-hinged coach doors at the back. There's no conventional dashboard, just two screens: a small one in front of the driver for essential information such as speed, and a larger one in the centre for the sat-nav and vehicle status information.

The interior is a sustainability showcase, with recycled plastics, door trims made from the Kenaf plant and leather tanned in a natural process using olive leaf extract. Regardless of its eco-status, the i3 certainly feels special on the inside.

When you leave the car, a little part of the i3 can come with you.

The vehicle has an embedded SIM card that communicates with an application on your iPhone or Android device. Through the phone you can check on charging status, view analysis of your driving style and even fire up the climate control before you get back to the vehicle.

In Europe, these car-to-phone-to-BMW-server functions extend into advanced route planning and even real-time public transport information. What level of connectivity will be offered in New Zealand is still not known - the local BMW "i-team" (yes, there is one) is working with colleagues in Australia around this issue.

Also not known at this stage is price. However, we're talking more high-end smartphone than landline, if you know what I mean.

Overseas, the i3 is priced at a similar level to entry-level 3-series models, so don't expect too much change from $80,000.

Early adopters, over to you.

- NZ Herald

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