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BMW i3 (2013) electric car test ride

By Georg Kacher

CAR Features

25 February 2013 09:00

BMW’s pioneering i3 electric car is one of the most exciting cars of 2013. It employs BMW’s trademark, sporty rear-wheel drive, which marks it out from the front-drive electric cars from Nissan and Renault. It’s a clean-sheet design, using exotic lightweight materials to save weight and maximise the electric range. So, an aluminium chassis housing the batteries and rear-mounted, 170bhp electric motor is paired with a carbonfibre bodyshell; with the i3, materials typically the preserve of luxury cars and supercars are being used on a small hatchback.

When the i3 goes on sale in November, the standard electric i3 will cost around €40,000. To eliminate the i3’s vulnerability to running out of juice, buyers will be able to specify a range extender hybrid version for an extra €3000. This employs a 35bhp two-cylinder motorbike engine to act as on-board generator: it’s mounted close to the rear wheels and accompanied by a 9-litre fuel tank wedged behind the front axle.

BMW has tooled up initially to produce 30,000 cars a year, but this can be extended to 50,000 units if the i3 takes off. But with electric cars so far proving commercial flops, there’s a lot riding on this car, the most radical BMW ever conceived. And today we’re riding in it at BMW’s Munich-Ismaning proving ground, with project i chief Ulrich Kranz.

How big is the i3 and what’s it like inside?

Everything about this car is unusual – and not just the swirly camouflage to confuse spy photographers. For a start, the i3 is shorter than a Suzuki Swift, wider than a 7-series and lower than a Hyundai i10. It weighs 1250kg – significantly lighter than the 1567kg Nissan Leaf, but a couple of hundred kilos more than the conventional Swift. In production form, the ground-breaking low-drag shape blends these stand-out proportions with a unique silver, blue and black colour combo. Unhindered by B-posts, the roomy cabin is accessed through front-hinged front doors and rear-hinged rear doors. A two-door coupé may follow in 2015.

The cockpit is dominated by a sweeping dark-grey composite sculpture which blends conventional buttons and switches with two colour displays. The 6.5-inch one in front of the driver accommodates the digital speedometer, the charge and range indicators, a selection of warning lights and an analogue eco-meter. It’s colour coded according to your driving style: red signals what BMW describes as debit driving mode, the blue one lights up when you’re in credit mode. The bigger 8.8-inch screen on top of the centre console looks as if came straight out of the iDrive parts shelf.

The four seats are comfortable, height-adjustable in the front and either trimmed in natural leather or in a new fabric made from recycled natural fibres. Thanks to the absence of a transmission tunnel, the driver can slide through and exit or enter through the passenger door in a confined parking situation. The gear selector, positioned behind the wheel in a two o-clock position, has been designed from scratch. The black stub with the matte chrome ring fulfills two functions: it starts the motor at the push of a button, and it selects a gear when you twist the quadratic end piece. Although the backlit readout suggests that one can choose from P, R, N and D, neutral cannot be dialled in manually. The i3 will coast whenever it makes sense, but it does so automatically or when you keep the throttle consciously this side of a deterrent. Let’s hit Start, wait for the Ready sign, twist the gear knob into Drive, and off we go.

Flat out in the i3

While I reach for the grabhandle, Ulrich Kranz is already grinning widely. After all, the plastic panel-clad BMW takes off like a miniature tram on steroids, with instant maximum torque threatening to scalp the narrow-scale 19-inch Bridgestones. The sprint from standstill to 40mph requires only a brisk 4.0sec. Around 3.3sec later we pass the 60mph mark. This is Mini Cooper S performance but it feels even faster, because the silence allows you to focus more on the sensation of full-throttle acceleration. In comparison, 0-62mph in a Leaf takes 11.9sec, and the car is restricted to 90mph.

Wafting down the main straight, the four-seat i3 slows down a little at 70mph, but after a mile or so the speedo reads 90mph. ‘That’s it for the time being,’ says Kranz. ‘Eventually, we’ll go with a 100mph speed limit.’ Surely, the range must suffer when an i3 is driven the way most owners would drive their fossil-fueled BMW. ‘Yes and no,’ is the answer. ‘When you push her really hard, you will have to find a charge point after about 80 miles. But when you go with the flow, 100 miles are a realistic target. On the [US urban driving test cycle], the car recorded an even more impressive if somewhat theoretical 140 miles.’

Although a minimum range of 80 miles may sound marginal, it should suffice for nine out of ten customers. European drivers typically drive 64 miles per day, stopping 33 times; Americans travel 39 miles stopping 97 times, and the Chinese average 26 miles and 228 stops. In all three cases, the car is left parked for roughly 22 hours per day, which should provide ample time to plug her in. While a full 100% charge takes between three and six hours, the available fast charging kit will restore 80% of the energy in only 60 minutes.

A left-hander beckons. The sign says 120kph max, but we barely lift off. The car turns in, the wheels grab the drenched tarmac with vigour, and the i3 carves through, dancing along its ambitious slip angle yet remaining flat and nicely balanced. No, not a single warning light flashed in the process. No momentary brake intervention, no ESP interaction, no tug at the steering. Is the system not working, or am I missing something here? ‘On snow or gravel, ESP will reel you in and keep the vehicle on a relatively short leash,’ explains Ulrich Kranz. ‘In the wet, we don’t really depend on the electronics. That’s the beauty of this set-up. Its natural limits are very high, so you have to be going wild to overstep the mark.’

Weight distribution and the centre of gravity are critical to the i3’s dynamics. The batteries and motor are mounted low in the chassis, with the energy cells evenly spread out between the axles, to make the chassis grounded and balanced.

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