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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Onto the handling circuit
After a few high-speed laps, we turn off to explore the handling circuit. The 1.2mile loop contains the full works: fast corners, slow corners, gradients, surface variations. Novices who encounter BMW’s baby Ring for the first time next to a pro are bound to reach for the sickbag halfway through the course. The blue and white psychedelic i3 stops at the gate, waits for the striped bar to go up, silently drives through, then points its stubby nose towards the first bend.
All 184lb ft of maximum torque grabs the rear rubber at the word go, and again there is not even the faintest trace of wheelspin. ‘Just like the VW Beetle back in the old days,’ murmurs Kranz. ‘That’s what dynamic weight distribution will do for you.’ The i3 threads through the blind S as if it was guided by an invisible rail. A tight right-hand kink approaches rapidly, but the confident Kranz brakes so late and hard enough to cause whiplash. The car zooms towards the apex, kisses the cobbles and flies out onto the short straight. This is extraordinary.
The i3’s most awesome dynamic talent is its incredible grip. The made to measure tyres are about as narrow as those of a 125cc motorbike, yet they hang on almost as tenaciously as BMW’s latest DTM racer. ‘It’s not rocket science,’ says Kranz. ‘All that matters is the size of the contact patch.’ The 19-inch tyres may be skinny, but their tall height generates the same contact patch as a low-section 16-inch Mini tyre, says Kranz.
Although the snow keeps falling, it does not take long to establish a racing line which widens a fraction with every lap. Even at ten tenths, the i3 remains calm and composed. Try eleven tenths, and you’ll experience some understeer as the front wheels try to scrub off excessive energy. Go for twelve tenths and lift off in the middle of a tightening bend, and you will encounter a nudge of oversteer accompanied by that familiar faint ESP snarl. Since the handling is as neutral as a good referee, you can open up the steering quite early and put the power down accordingly. There is very little lean considering the considerable pace, and I don’t recollect more than a faint trace of front end pitch and no yaw at all. This i3 appears to handle like the best BMWs.
The i3’s steering is an unassisted rack-and-pinion device, but it’s by no means slow, heavy or indifferent. At 2.5 turns from lock to lock, it is unexpectedly quick, with a commendably tight turning circle. BMW quotes just under 10 metres, but in traffic the incredible manoeuvrability feels more like eight metres, which would equal a London black cab. Since the front wheels have no propulsion duties, the steering - devoid of wind-up, shock and fight - is commendably tactile and communicative. Watching Ulrich Kranz at the helm is a revelation. If his sparse and well-timed inputs are anything to go by, this BMW is every bit as entertaining to drive as any of its front-engined sister models. And what about its stability during an emergency lane change? Stupid question: the i3 zig-zags past an imaginary obstacle with such determination that the delicate measuring equipment in the boot bangs together in loud mechanical protest. ‘No problem at all,’ chuckles Herr Kranz: ‘This car learned to cope with every elk in our simulator early in its life.’
A punishing ride and refinement test
Next on the agenda is the torture track. That’s torture as in about twenty different attempts to upset a vehicle’s composure, to kick it off course, to push the suspension to the brink. We get thrown about in the cabin as the road starts to attack the i3’s aluminium chassis or ‘drive module’. But despite all sorts of irritations - lateral, vertical, horizontal, diabolical - the four-seater stays firmly planted. And while there is the odd groan (all well as noticeable windnoise) from the bolted on camouflage cladding, the body itself remains eerily quiet. No undue resonance, no rattle or scuttle shake, no protesting seals and joints, no suspension thump, only a distant tyre hum and that faint e-motor whir which actually sounds quite sporty under full acceleration.
The upper ‘life module’ is so stiff that, with doors closed, it resembles an oyster on wheels. Although the body connects to the drive module primarily via nuts and bolts, the tight fusion between the two clamshell elements ensures the i3 is quiet as a whisper. And it possesses a truly compliant, occasionally even cushy ride that a Mini or a 1-series can only dream about. Kranz says it’s due to generous wheel travel, and low unsprung weight. ‘The large wheels tend not to drop into potholes the way smaller-diameter rims do, and the tall sidewalls contribute a special suspension effect of their own,’ he adds.
Just before the sun sets, we go play on the skidpad. There are various radii and surfaces to choose from, and we try them all. The goose-pimple growing 60mph low-friction circle is ideal to simulate high-speed cornering at the limit. Like an M3, the i3 can be easily controlled by steering and throttle. When you give it stick, the typical attitude is a subdued four-wheel drift which becomes a little wavy as you begin to modulate the torque flow and the steering angle. And guess what: the ESP tell-tale does not light up once. On the smaller-diameter 45mph track covered with freshly fallen wet snow, it’s a different story altogether. Here you get enough momentary power oversteer to frighten the passengers, here stability control is indeed required to quash lift-off drama before it begins.
Speaking of lift-off, it is worth noting that you can step off the accelerator even in the middle of a fast corner. ‘Lift-off is essential in a car like this,’ reveals Ulrich Kranz. ‘After all, energy recuperation largely depends on it.’ In city traffic, the secret is to avoid touching the brakes: merely lifting off generates enough deceleration, and helps recharge the batteries. The i3 has three driving modes, including a hypermiling Eco Pro Plus, which caps the peak power output, restricts the maximum speed to 55mph, adjusts the transmission algorithm, recalibrates the accelerator action and reduces electric loads to a minimum. The other two drive programmes are Comfort and Eco Pro.
Time to wrap up the late afternoon session, time to head for the dry and warm garage for a closer inspection of the car. Unlike other BMW models, this one is made almost entirely in-house. The fully packaged battery stack, the 170bhp electric motor, the single-speed transmission and the performance electronics are manufactured by BMW. The same is true of the carbonfibre body (the raw material is shipped from Moses Lake, USA, to Wackersdorf, Bavaria) and the aluminium chassis assembled in Regensburg. Unusually, just 20% of the components (by value) come from outside suppliers. Among these items are the energy cells from mobile ‘phone giant Samsung, the Fuchs aluminium wheels and the special compound Bridgestone tyres. LED headlights and a Bang & Olufsen sound system are among the options.
The first ride verdict
The i3 is shaping up to be a breakthrough electric car. It delivers dynamic thrills like no electric car before it. The steering seems highly involving, the drivetrain’s punch would flatten a Leaf, and the handling and road-holding seem up there with BMW’s best. Ulrich Kranz and his team appear to have succeeded in bringing pure driving pleasure to the environmentally friendly car. We’ll know for sure when we drive the car in summer 2013.