We finally get behind the wheel of the brand new BMW EV – The i3 – Io find out if it truly is a new dawn for Sheer Driving Pleasure.
Earlier this year, BMW launched its brand new BMW i3 electric car at simultaneous events in London, Beijing, and New York. It was a watershed moment for the Bavarian giant, since it was the culmination of five years of research, planning, and execution on a new vehicle program that represents the company’s vision for the future of mobility. I was fortunate enough to be present in London to see the unveiling on at least one of the three continents. Well, I saw the others as well, albeit through a live video feed that connected all three events.
A few months after that I had the first opportunity to take a ride in the BMW i3 – around a purpose built half-kilometre track inside the BMW pavilion at the Frankfurt Motor Show. It was quite a surreal experience – to be driven around inside a building, in a car that drives eerily along (in complete silence) as show-goers stop for pictures and then go on their way to whichever displays caught their attention.
On both these occasions, I had tasted first blood – but now I was itching to get behind the wheel to find out for myself if this new EV really did feel like a BMW. The all-important question was – is this truly the EV equivalent of Sheer Driving Pleasure? In other words, does it deserve the blue-and-white propeller on its carbon fibre bonnet?
Well, we headed to the land of the windmills to find out – Holland. Amsterdam, is famous for many things – most of which are out-of-bounds for an auto magazine to address – but I bet you didn’t know that the Dutch capital city is also home to 700 charging stations. That’s why we were there, of course! The narrow streets would also serve to demonstrate the advantage of the i3’s compact proportions – as you fight tooth-and-nail for road space with the thousands of cyclists in the city. If you can complete a walk in Amsterdam without staring death at hands of a cyclist in the face, you have far better motor skills and reflexes than I.
Anyway, back to the BMW i3. As you approach the car, you’re thankful that BMW has changed little compared with the first concept car that was shown a couple of years ago. This is no watered down derivative. This really does look like the future of motoring. The rear lights are cleverly encased in the tailgate. In front, the kidney grille is wide, and appears to glow as you move along. In profile, the wheels fill their arches fully, and the shape of the greenhouse appears to have been sculpted in the wind tunnel.
On the inside, it’s even more of a departure from convention. The suicide doors give you plenty of access to an airy cabin. Two TFT screens display all the information that you’ll ever need. The one in the centre is a 10.2-inch wide-screen that appears to be floating atop the dashboard. The dashboard itself appears to hover inside the cabin. The materials seem to be largely recycled. It’s just a fresh take on an automotive interior. I did hear some complaints from BMW traditionalists at Frankfurt, but, personally, I think the interior is warm, welcoming, novel, and very well thought out – not to mention impeccably put together. I can’t say the same for the suicide doors though, which can be a bit of a nuisance – but the advantage is that access to the rear seat is excellent. And legroom isn’t bad either.
Getting going is as easy as pressing the start-stop button, and flicking a toggle switch mounted on the steering column to select ‘Drive.’ You’re greeted by quite a funky welcome note to ensure that you’re aware all systems are go. Otherwise, there’s pin-drop silence. Ease your foot onto the throttle pedal, and you sense that it’s quite well damped – you don’t lunge forward in an unnecessarily violent manner. If you are in the mood for violence, though, that’s easily done as well. 0-100km/h is achieved in just 7.2 seconds, and the BMW i3 shoots off the line with full torque (250Nm) at zero rpm.
And things get even more interesting as you drive along. The steering feels surprisingly responsive – not brimming with feel, but quite direct all the same. The ride is firm thanks to the 20-inch rims. The grip levels are another surprise – they’re exceedingly good considering the limited 155mm patch of rubber at each end. Well, it starts to make sense when you consider that the BMW i3 – like other BMW’s – has 50:50 weight distribution, not to mention the fact that the 230 kilos of batteries housed in the floor keep the centre of gravity down and aid handling.
When you come to the first stoplight though, you’re likely to come to a halt about 50 meters short of your intended point. This is because the regenerative braking is actually quite aggressive, and applies the brakes to recharge the batteries almost as soon as you let your foot off the accelerator pedal. BMW calls this single-pedal drive, and it can actually be quite convenient once you get used to it. What it means, in fact, is that you don’t have to get on the brakes at all in normal city driving. You simply let the car do it for you, and focus all your energies on the pedal to the right. On the highway, once again though, this takes some getting used to. Whereas you expect the car to coast when you get off the accelerator, it actually decelerates quite decisively. Soon, you learn to modulate the throttle – which is to say ease your foot off the pedal rather than just lift it off, as you would in a conventional machine.
That apart, the driving experience is actually sublime. This is an incredibly easy car to drive and get used to. So much so that when I got into a conventional, diesel-powered, five-speed manual BMW later in the day, it felt like I had stepped back in time. And that’s when you realize that the BMW i3 does, in fact, feel like the future of motoring, and it’s a future that petrol-heads needn’t be afraid of – because the BMW i3 is so much more than an electrical appliance on wheels. Lo and behold, it is fun to drive. It really does live up to the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ tag. BMW appears to have pulled it off.
But there is one problem – range. BMW says 130-160 kilometres are possible on a single charge. Plus, an added 20 kilometres if you drive in Eco or Eco-Pro mode. And even a 300 kilometre range is supposedly possible with the 650cc, 2 cylinder, range extender petrol engine mounted in front. In reality though – minus the range extender – we could only manage about 120 kilometres at best. While that’s plenty for a daily commute, you’re always exceedingly aware of the amount of range left on a single charge. Moreover, with hundreds of charging stations, the BMW i3 is imminently usable in Amsterdam, but will be less so in our conditions.
There’s no question that BMW has clearly moved the game on with the i brand – it’s the first mass-produced car to be made out of carbon fibre. It’s also the first mass produced EV that’s fun to drive, but they still need another breakthrough in battery technology to make widespread electric car use a reality. As it stands, the BMW i3 is on the precipice of a paradigm shift. It demonstrates massive courage and commitment from a company that’s got the best engineering prowess in the business – to the extent that the next car that I really want to pilot is the far sportier i8.
Oh my, I really do hope I don’t make longing for EV’s a habit!