The future might just have arrived, courtesy of Munich’s technical wizards | By Andrew Frankel
It is possible that right now you are wondering what on earth BMW is doing building an electric car with a top speed of just 93mph, and why it somehow merits a full review on the pages of a title such as Motor Sport.
I’ll justify it three ways: it’s important, it’s interesting and it’s good. There’s a fourth that would not necessarily guarantee its inclusion here, but is worth pointing out now: despite its looks, choice of power and modest top speed, the BMW i3 is as worthy of the blue and white propellor badge on its nose as any other made today.
It’s important because this is the first electric car to go on sale that someone might want for reasons other than the fact it’s electric. Despite limitations I’ll arrive at shortly, as a thing just to get in and drive it is entirely convincing, both as a means of everyday transport and as a BMW. It’s interesting because it does things that no other electric car has ever sought to do, and I know it’s good because it was one of fewer than a handful of cars I tested in 2013 that I’d actually like to own rather than merely drive.
The i3 earns is place on this page because, whether we like it or not, the future of daily personal transport is electric. I’m not saying the internal combustion engine has had it – indeed I’m confident it will be around at least until most of us are not – but its role will become increasingly niche, either as a supplement to extend the range of an otherwise electric power train, or for recreational purposes. But living in an increasingly metropolitan world as we do and the imperative to drive down tail pipe emissions being what it is, electricity appears to be the only act in town to offer a sustainable future.
Living in a country and on a continent where miracles of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are now being made by diesel engines, it’s hard to remember this is a play in which we are merely bit players. The real money lies out there in China, the US, Russia and elsewhere, where diesel is what you put in your truck. If cities around the world declare themselves as emission-free zones to cars, an electric vehicle is your only option. And this BMW knows.
But rather than cut its own way through the technological and marketing jungles that stood between any manufacturer wishing to go electric and successful sales of the resulting cars, it wisely sat back and let others clear the path first. It would be able to learn from their mistakes and follow far faster in their footsteps. Nissan, wishing to make its name as synonymous with electric as Toyota has managed with hybrid and Hoover with, well, hoovers, bravely and obligingly pulled out a machete and started hacking.
The resulting Nissan Leaf was an admirable first effort, but it was plain for all to see it was too slow and limited in range to appeal to all but those already pre-disposed to wanting an electric car. With the i3, BMW’s mission is to conquer those who’d hitherto never have considered such a machine.
To do it they needed a car that avoided all the Leaf’s flaws. Most obviously, because it helps both range and performance, the i3 needed to be light, so BMW built an aluminium chassis and clothed it in carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic bodywork. Who knows how much it costs to produce but the results speak for themselves: a Nissan Leaf weighs 1567kg, an i3 just 1195kg. That’s barely 20kg more than a Lotus Exige and less than any other BMW on sale.
BMW did not stop there. It then fitted a 168bhp electric motor compared to the measly 109bhp offered by the Leaf; as a result it has almost exactly double the power to weight ratio. Which is why this four-door electric family car will outgun certain versions of BMW’s two-seat Z4 sports car to 60mph.
It will also suck attention off the streets better than any other BMW this side of an original M1. I’m no better judge than you of this car’s appearance but, while I know some of my colleagues have taken quite violently against it, I think it looks fresh and funky. Certainly it would be hard to quibble with the interior styling, which is inimitably BMW but at the same time clean, airy and modern.
A shame, then, that there’s not much room in either the back or the boot. It’s particularly annoying that you can’t operate the rear suicide doors without first opening those at the front. Whoever was responsible for that particular touch clearly doesn’t do the school run.
But as a thing to drive, the i3 is a revelation. It’s light, nimble and possesses a turning circle you’d only better significantly with a London taxi. And when you put your foot down, it feels faster than its 7.2sec 0-62mph sprint suggests, because maximum torque is available from rest. It dives in and out of traffic gaps like a motorcycle courier.
So you’d think a car so focused on urban dwelling would feel entirely out of its depth in the country. But it doesn’t. It’s top speed might be just 93mph, but it’ll cruise at 85mph on a light throttle. Nor is it in the least stumped by twisting roads: because it is light, has a low centre of gravity (the lithium-ion battery pack is under the floor) and is a BMW, so it’s a delight to hurl about.
There is, however, a catch. I approached the i3 with the same mindset I’d had when I first drove the Leaf. This is a car for suburbanites. It’s a commuter car. Or so I thought.
In fact to see the i3 this way is to sell it woefully short. This is car I’d happily drive to southern France, and use every day and in every way. But you can’t. Every 80-100 miles you have to stop somewhere with off-street parking and stay stopped for either eight hours, if you charge it on a standard plug, or a little more than three using a £350 BMW home-charging kit.
BMW’s answer is to sell you (for a further £3500) a version with a petrol-powered 660cc scooter engine that will act as a generator to maintain (though not increase) charge in the battery and allow you to continue on your merry way. The problem is the fuel tank which holds only nine litres, so at best, it’s only going to buy you another 80 miles or so, giving the i3 a maximum potential range of just 180 miles. And it’s far too good for that.
Then again this is just the start of BMW’s electric journey, and in time there will be a long-wheelbase version with a far larger fuel tank. I believe this will answer all the issues from range to room.
In the meantime, if you don’t need the range and possess the means to charge it, don’t let any preconceptions about electric cars put you off the i3. As I’ve said, it is the first electric car you’d consider buying for reasons other than the fact it’s electric. In fact I’d do more than consider it: if I could make it fit my life, I’d have one now.
Including £5000 government grant
Engine: electric motor powered by lithium-ion battery. Range extender optional
Torque: 184lb ft @ zero rpm
Transmission: single speed, rear-wheel drive
0-62mph: 7.2sec (7.9sec with range extender)
Top speed: 93mph
Economy: 99 miles per charge (approx 40mpg with range extender)
CO2: 0g/km (13g/km with range extender)