A profoundly different approach to motoring has arrived in the form of the most unique BMW to hit our shores, the i3. It’s about as futuristic, showroom-concept looking a car can get. But what worth is a pure-electric, four-seater car constructed with exotic materials like carbon fibre, aluminium, open-pore eucalyptus and olive oil infused leather seats combined with a range of at best 300kms? Chris Bowen found out for EFTM.
The 10 Minute Test Drive
Aside from the radically styled BMW i8, the i3 ranks up there with one of the more daring motoring creations of all time. It sits tall, with a relatively flat roofline but maintains a boxy type appearance with short overhangs at each end. The “bonnet” rakes away so steeply it doesn’t appear in your field of vison at all. Tall 19’’ wheels look the part, but then you realise you are actually riding on four cheese cutters only 155mm in width.
Externally the window glass is arranged in an unusual way, with a staggered approach to the side windows plus a huge windscreen providing excellent visibility all round. There are no B-pillars and the addition of rear “coach” doors. Given this is a brand new design from the ground up and not a rehashed version of a current BMW model the only distinguishing Bavarian features are the faux twin kidney grille up front and a smattering of BMW logos around the car.
Inside is a revelation in which the average driver would initially feel alien. Very few of the materials used in the cabin feel like or look like anything I’ve ever experienced. Sustainably-sourced materials include leather/wool fabric upholstery. The seats themselves are ultra-thin and light. Forward of the dash and around the upper doors is a type of trim that looks like exposed carbon fibre glass but is relatively smooth and hard to touch, it’s known as Kenaf Fibre. It’s all very raw but at the same time executed with typical BMW finesse and has a fresh airy feel to it all.
There’s not your typical instrument display rather a 5.7-inch screen that shows how much juice remains in the battery and current speed. The gear selector is suitably innovative, positioned as a knobbly rotating dial with a start / stop button incorporated into it.
The real multimedia control surface is a huge 10.25-inch horizontal screen that floats above the centre console displaying every conceivable bit of information ranging from the audio system, navigation and communication functions. It’s rich in content and accessible via BMW’s iDrive Controller.
So what about on the move? Well as with all pure electric cars it’s a silent affair with a fair pack of instant thrust when required. In fact the dash to 100km/h is done in 7.2 seconds. The typical distant electric whir can be heard but other than that it’s mostly road noise and wind buffeting at higher speeds. The ride is somewhat bouncy and at highway speeds a little ungainly. You can feel the narrowness of the wheels and to be honest it feels a little tippy side to side. But around town is where this car excels, with a tiny turning circle combined with a flat front and back ensuring finding a park is easy. Things become unsettled over rough patches, those near bike wheels do have their drawbacks!
Ins And Outs
The BMW i3 BEV is powered by a 360 V DC electric motor with an output of 125kW and 250Nm. A single speed transmission drives the rear wheels. To keep all this going is a Li-Ion battery with active cooling. That includes 8 modules with 96 cells and 21.6kWh gross with 18.8kWh available.
I charged the battery pack via a standard domestic power outlet overnight. It’s said to take up to 11 hours for a full charge. However an optional $1750 BMW i Wallbox Pure accessory unit reduces the charging time to just six hours. Under the 360° ELECTRIC program, the BMW i3 can also be charged at public charging facilities run by BMW partner ChargePoint using the ChargeNow card for cashless payments.
But of course it’s all about the range. To be fair I tested the i3 outside of the normal parameters a typical buyer would consider. My daily commute involves a round trip of 108kms outside of peak hour and at mostly high speeds of 80 – 100km/h. So with limited kinetic brake regeneration the return leg became an uncomfortable highwire balancing act between the different eco modes, COMFORT, ECO PRO and ECO PRO+. The end result produced just 6kms of power left on the return leg. Thank goodness for the power point near my car space at work.
The claim is the BMW i3 three modes of operation enable a range of 160km in COMFORT, ECO PRO adds 20km while nearly 200km is on tap in the ECO PRO+ mode. The latter disables climate control, so if you’re prepared to freeze to death you’ll go the extra distance.
For even greater driving distances, the BMW i3 is also offered with an optional Range Extender two-cylinder petrol engine that allows the car to travel up to 300km between charging.
This of course is a very different approach to the biggest Electric contender in the market – Tesla. Tesla’s 400km plus range is no-where near being matched by any other auto-maker. BMW’s range extender option is good, not dissimilar to the now end of life Holden Volt for giving you those extra legs.
Tesla also provide their wall-charger with the car, while BMW is charging extra for it – however, given the standard power outlet option available on the BMW is not yet available for Tesla the BMW is the overall winner for simplicity of go-anywhere electric charge – you can plug it in at a car-park if there’s a power point!
The Tech Inside
Plenty going on here as you’d expect. For starters the i3 does score a stack of premium goodies. Some highlights include heated electric folding mirrors, electric one-touch front windows, automatic windscreen wipers and lights, LED interior ambient lights, keyless start/stop, Navigation Professional System with 20GB hard drive and BMW i-specific functions, DAB+ tuner, and convenience telephony with extended Bluetooth functions including audio streaming, Voice Control and pairing of multiple devices.
The i3 is well connected with internet access, Concierge Services, Real-Time Traffic Information and BMW Online services. The BMW i Remote App is on offer allowing smartphones to remotely operate the climate control, door locks and even flash the headlamps. The later was able to be done via Trevor Long’s Apple Watch from China while the i3 sat in my Sydney garage. The app unfortunately is a tad gimmicky and does suffer from annoying lag before instructions are eventually “sent” to the car.
The entire construction of the i3 is a technological feat on its own. The so-called LifeDrive architecture combines two separate modules with an aluminium module housing the drive elements and a very strong carbon fibre passenger cell BMW likes to call the Life module. With many external plastic panels, all up the i3 BEV tips the scales at just 1195kg.
The Hip Pocket
For a four-seater, electric city runabout there’s little debate that this is excessively expensive even for early adopters. Our test car had a Manufacturer’s Recommended Retail Price including Luxury Car Tax of $63,900. Throw in a few options such as a $2,246 glass sunroof and $562 for front seat heating and let’s talk $66,708 before on roads. That’s big $$$ to boast a fuel economy figure of 0.0L/100km and zero CO2 emissions. Interestingly the battery has only an 8 year / 100,000 certificate.
EFTM Rubber Stamp
Aside from the BMW i8 I drove earlier this year the i3 is certainly the most interesting car I’ve driven this year. It has an element of fun built into what almost looks like something from the Jetsons. As a car it performs well with a quality interior, decent luggage space (especially when the 50/50 spilt fold seats are down), good headroom for four and a drive which is adequate for around town. The price is a deal breaker for me but you have to admire the millions BMW has poured into making standalone e-drive vehicles rather than piggy backing the new technology onto existing platforms in their portfolio. I award the BMW i3 The EFTM Credit Rubber Stamp of Approval.