BMW i3: the 10 things you need to know

30 July 2013

BMW i3 debut

BMW finally unveiled its first production electric car to the world yesterday, though everyone already knew what it looked like anyway. But now that all has been officially revealed, here’s the full lowdown on the new battery-powered Beemer, in ten simple steps.

1. It’s surprisingly affordable

The stubbornly high cost of lithium-ion batteries has made most electric cars about as cost effective as bathing in Bollinger. To this already high water mark BMW has added cutting-edge construction technology, deciding to make its first production electric car from an untried structure of carbon-fibre atop an aluminium chassis. Great for making the car light and agile, but not so hot for the pocket.

Or so we thought, until BMW revealed that the i3 will cost from £25,680 on the road (after a £5,000 handout from the government’s plug-in car grant). While this may seem steep for a smallish car hampered by the constrained range of an electric vehicle, this is surprisingly affordable for a BMW.

BMW i3 debut - side view in orange

2. You may need to be patient

You can’t order an i3 until August, and the first ones won’t arrive in the UK from Leipzig until mid-November. And of course you will need to be patient (or organised, or possibly both) if you aim to tackle long journeys. Quoted range is 80 to 100 miles per charge.

As standard, UK cars will accept 7.4kW charging, via an optional BMW i Wallbox (currently costing just £315 installed, due to grants for home chargers). This or an equivalent public fast-charger will boost the battery to 80% capacity within three hours.

Top up from a three-pin plug and be prepared for eight to 10 hours from empty to full. Optionally, a DC rapid charging post can provide an 80% fill-up in half an hour or so, though good luck finding one.

3. There’s a petrol-powered version

Pay an extra £3,150 and your i3 can be ordered as a range-extended hybrid electric car, with a 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine borrowed from a motorbike installed under the boot floor, alongside the drive motor. The engine isn’t ever connected to the wheels and is instead focused on generating fresh electricity.

With only a modest 9-litre fuel tank squeezed under the bonnet, the i3 Range Extender edition is unlikely to be a first choice for a trip to St Tropez. With the 22kWh battery exhausted, the extended-range i3 will need to stop for petrol every 75 to 90 miles, or halt for longer to replenish with electricity.

BMW i3 debut - bare chassis

4. There’s more to carbon than CO2

The i3 is as much about carbon fibre as it is about carbon reduction, from BMW’s perspective at least. The company says the i3 will be profitable from day one, but only because it has spread the cost of tooling up for carbon fibre production across other models. Whether the i3 catches on or not, we can expect to see more BMWs using structural carbon fibre in the future, bringing savings in weight that will translate to better performance, improved handling and reduced fuel consumption.

BMW i3 debut - front view silver

5. It looks a bit odd

At the launch, BMW styling chief Benoit Jacob described the i3 as “clever and clean”. Both points are open to contention.

Shorn of disguise, we can see that the BMW i3 features an oddly kinked window line, with the glazing in the rear doors notably deeper than the rest of the glasshouse. The front grille, split into two halves in distinctive BMW style, isn’t a grille at all but a piece of plastic decoration on the bonnet. And the bonnet itself is painted a glossy black, irrespective of the colour of the rest of the car, with the black section stretching up into the screen pillars as far as the door mirrors.

The proportions are unusual too. It’s roughly the same length, width and height as a Citroen C3 Picasso, with a similar distance between the wheel hubs. But it looks much more purposeful on account of its chunky, angular style.

BMW i3 debut - rear view

6. It has really big wheels

Another reason the i3 has more presence than a C3 Picasso is the size of its wheels. Made from forged aluminium, these come in at a whopping 19 inches as standard, with 20 inch items an option.

Viewed from ahead or astern, however, the wheels look as weedy as a sparrow’s leg. Their 155/70 profile is the kind of measure you’d normally find on a featherweight city car like the VW Up.

The extreme diameter and skinny width combine to give a normal-sized contact patch, but with less air resistance due to the slim frontal area. That means grip without drag. Which is clever.

BMW i3 debut - front storage compartment

7. It isn’t particularly practical

With its drive motor and control electronics mounted at the rear, the boot of the i3 was never going to be big. Offering 260 litres it’s a little smaller than the luggage compartment of a Ford Fiesta, and higher off the ground. The rear seats flop forwards to provide 1,100 litres for cargo.

There is a small storage cubby under the bonnet, for stowing the charging cable and other modestly sized items. I’m guessing it’s about nine litres in volume and will be full of petrol in the range-extender version of the i3.

There are five doors providing access to the interior, but the rear-hinged rear doors aren’t the most practical. They open only after the front doors have been swung aside, and it’s still a bit of a clamber for adults to reach the two rear pews. I imagine strapping a child into a seat would be simple, however, due to the absence of a pillar in the middle of the car.

BMW i3 debut - interior

8. It ought to drive like a proper BMW

Most of the i3 above the wheels is carbon fibre or plastic, and the dense mass of the battery is slung at axle height between the wheels. Weight is shared 50:50 front to rear, and the car’s centre of gravity must surely be sports-car low. The i3 is also rear-wheel drive, providing the opportunity for uncorrupted steering. Electrically assisted, the wheel turns 2.5 times from lock to lock.

All of which sounds very promising, if you want a car that feels agile. Power is the other vital ingredient, of course, and BMW’s motor provides 125kW (170 horsepower) and 250Nm of torque. As a result the i3 should offer the usual electric car surge from a standstill, and indeed can get to 62mph in only 7.2 seconds. Top speed is capped at 93mph in the interests of preserving range.

9. It ought to be great in the city

Quick acceleration and nippy handling will be useful in the city, as will the 9.86-metre turning circle – usefully better than average if not quite up to London Black Cab standards. The compact proportions, squarish shape, modestly elevated driving position and deep glazing should make the i3 ideally suited to the urban cut and thrust – as well as parking in tight spots.

If the i3 weren’t well suited to city life, something would have gone horribly wrong, given that the car started life with the code name “Mega City Vehicle”. That said, the Renault Twizy will run rings around the i3 when it comes to parking on a postage stamp or beating congestion.

BMW i3 debut - front interior

10. It bodes well for the i8

The i3 is, of course, only the first of a planned series of BMW i cars. Next up is the i8 hybrid sports car, expected to be unveiled in finished format in the autumn. It ought to be well worth waiting for, if the i3 is any guide.

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