Gavin Green on the hidden highlights of the BMW i3

Published: 24 August 2011

Flew to Frankfurt a few weeks ago for the unveiling of the new BMW i electric cars, and very impressed I was too. Although still two years from production, the i3 (we’re told the concept is ‘very close’ to the showroom vehicle) is easily the most credible EV I have seen, not least because it has been conceived from scratch as a battery car rather than a petrol car convert.

Even the Nissan Leaf – the best EV to date – has petrol car platform carryovers, and an architecture that does not fully utilise the many design advantages offered by an all-new powertrain. Not least, the Leaf has a largely redundant grille, conventional two-box dimensions, and its style is petrol car generic.

The Nissan engineers, I suspect, were conscious that too much boldness – no matter how practicable – would ostracise those more timorous early adopters. So they played safe, using petrol car cues to reassure the wary. By 2013, BMW will have the advantage of a further three years of EV conditioning. It also has a naturally more adventurous customer base.

The full story on the i3 and its soulmate, the i8, can be read elsewhere on this website. But one quality, largely unpublicised, was especially meritorious.

Behold! A city car you can see out of!

Manufacturing the body from carbon fibre reinforced plastic has obvious weight advantages. The i3 carbon passenger cell weighs half as much as steel. Just as important, it offers greater strength. So, on the i3, we do not get roof pillars with the thickness of oak trees; they are unnecessary (in fact, we get no B pillar at all). Instead, we discover a car that has a view, inside looking out, more like a bowl than a bunker.

Hallelujah! At last, a city car that offers decent rear three-quarter visibility! In contrast to other small hatches that pretend to be well suited to the urban jungle but, owing to the peep-show panorama, frequently are not.

The appalling visibility of current small cars – in fact, most cars, irrespective of size – is one of the greatest design indictments of modern automobiles. It’s a direct corollary of overbearing regulations, and numerous influential consumer studies, that highlight and prioritise secondary safety (surviving an impact) over primary safety (avoiding it).

The i3 circumvents the problem owing to the muscular wonders of carbon fibre. As carbon spreads – and it will – so there is the welcome prospect of new-age city cars that actually allow you to see what’s happening over your shoulder. 

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience