the recent introduction of BMW’s i3 electric five door premium brand supermini sized hatchback was always going to raise the profile of battery powered cars and widen the buying audience.
Rechargeable batteries play a big part in today’s life, phones, computers, household gadgets and power tools all use them and so do an increasing number of vehicles. BMW has recently launched their first full-production EV, the i3. It comes in two forms, a battery only BEV version and the range extender REX version supported by a 647cc two-cylinder petrol engine that acts as a generator and more or less doubles the car’s range from around between 80 and 100 miles for the battery model up to around 180-miles on one 9-litre tank of petrol. Of course the tank can be refuelled and the long journey continues with the engine charging the battery which drives the electric motor which turns the driving wheels. The driver can also select a mode where the electric power is kept stored in the battery pack for later use, say in city low CO2 zones, and instead the i3 runs on the petrol engine/generator. In no mode does the petrol engine directly drive the wheels. A full electric charge in eight hours can be achieved from a domestic 13amp plug supply or a BMW AC Fast Charging box (£315) can charge the battery pack from zero to 80% in three hours and a full charge in four hours.
The i3 BEV version costs £25,680 and the REX range extender model £28,830 once the Government’s £5,000 plug-in grant has been applied. BMW UK say that they have a production restricted supply of around 2,000 i3s available this year and 850 have already been sold with 55% of customers opting for the range-extender REX version. The typical customer profile for the i3 so far is wide ranging; fleet and business users attracted by the 0% Benefit-in-Kind tax for the BEV version and 5% for the REX, and retail customers of all ages seemingly are attracted by technology, low running costs and free road tax.
There are currently 46 UK BMW i dealers and lots of ownership propositions including BMW Access which allows i3 owners to borrow other BMW or Mini vehicles for longer trips. These ‘360 Degree’ subscription packages range from £40 to £80 per month and makes the using process more like choosing a mobile phone contract. Leasing the i3 will be a popular option and a three year lease for instance requires a £3,000 deposit and monthly payments ranging from £369 to £447 depending on the version.
The BMW i range expands in July with the arrival of their i8, 155mph, 2+2 coupe. This plug in electric-petrol hybrid model is powered through the rear wheels by a three-cylinder, 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine built at their Hams Hall engine plant in Birmingham and is boosted by an electric motor which drives the front wheels. All 300 units available this year priced at £99,845 are already spoken for.
As for the here-and-now, the i3 radical family five door hatch is rear wheel drive and uses a mix of aluminium, carbon-fibre and thermoplastics in its construction. It weighs in at a relatively light 1,270kg of which 230kg is taken up by the lithium-ion battery pack which sits under the floor. The electric motor and driveshafts are located under the load area floor and the two-cylinder 647cc motorcycle petrol engine, which acts as a generator, is also mounted at the rear for of the REX range extender version. With the main mechanical elements positioned at the rear, inside the car travelling along it is eerily quiet as any noise is left behind.
The upright design of the i3 looks more like a supermini sized MPV people carrier than a family hatch but maximum carrying space and passenger safety rather than driving aerodynamics are the priorities in this sector. The front large bumper extends a fair way forward of the grille and bonnet giving the front a ‘stepped’ appearance. The side profile is also distinctive with the waistline stepped lower for the rear side doors for good visibility and at the rear is the obligatory tailgate giving access to a reasonable sized boot at 260-litres but with the rear seats folded that goes up to 1,100-litres. The seats are slim-line, skeleton style maximising interior space and minimising weight. However the most unusual feature is the pillarless entry. There is no B-post so the rear side doors are hinged at the rear and open from their leading edge. Known in the past as ‘suicide doors’ these are not new or unique in the industry and this re-invented design is said to give easier access for rear seat passengers and for getting young children into and out of child seats. Rear seat legroom is not especially generous but the totally flat floor gives plenty of foot space.
The interior ambience is totally modern in keeping with our i-technology world. Lots of bright colours, lots of different finishes but I’m no great fan of the ‘engineered’ wood effect finish on the dashboard. Of course there are lots of option packs where the i3 can be personalised but at significant extra cost. My test car – the REX range extender version with options and accessories was priced at £42,115 but £5,000 comes of that price once the Government grant is applied.
Standard equipment includes; CVT auto transmission,19-inch alloy wheels, charging cable, 50/50 split folding rear seats, front-side-curtain and head airbags, alarm, automatic air conditioning, Bluetooth, stability control, BMW emergency call, iDrive controller, Eco-Pro driving modes, hill-start assist, navigation system, auto lights and wipers, electric windows and door mirrors, central door locking and rear parking control.
But it’s really all about driving the i3 that matters. It is really easy and simple and the only hard thing is the ride comfort. A column mounted stalk controls the power-on, the auto gearbox with D, P, N R modes plus the parking brake. Switch on, select forward or reverse, press the accelerator and go. The steering is light and with 2.5-turns lock to lock makes it easy to move through traffic, enter side streets and squeeze into narrow parking places.
There is a driving technique however for most of the electric or hybrid cars on the market. A technique which requires taking your foot off the accelerator to slow down sooner than normal rather than using the brakes. The ‘harvesting’ of power kicks in as soon as the accelerator is not being pressed and this significantly slows down the vehicle – even to a standstill at junctions without touching the brake pedal. It is especially strong with the i3 in this ‘regeneration’ mode and the car can be driven in most instances just by using the throttle.
As for ‘going’ rather than stopping, the usual high torque from the 168bhp electric motor from standstill applies with 184lb ft (250Nm) available instantly. This whooshes the i3 in near silence from zero to 62mph in just 7.9 seconds for the range extender version and 7.2 seconds for the marginally lighter BEV version. Top speed is 93mph for both models. The 647cc, 27bhp, 39lb ft, two-cylinder petrol engine which is used only as a generator combines with the electric motor to give an official EU Combined Cycle fuel consumption figure of 470.8mpg. The REX version with the petrol engine has CO2 emissions of 13g/km but the VED road tax remains zero cost and BIK company car tax goes from £0 for the battery only version up to £5% for the range extender.
When it comes to reporting on real-life fuel economy it really does depend on how the i3 is used. If it stays around 80 or so miles a day and charged by electricity the petrol use is nil. Once the battery power is being charged on a longer drive by the petrol engine, how much fuel will be used for how long? Real-time reports back from some of my colleagues who have been running i3’s REX versions in real-life conditions over a longer period are finding 75-80mpg is a nominal figure but with plug-in cars such as the i3 is all about the driving range distance and low taxes.
MILESTONES: BMW i3 REX (Range Extender) 5-door electric supermini. Price: £28,830 (including the plug-in grant). Power source/transmission: Electric motor 168bhp, 184lb ft of torque, 647cc 27bhp two cylinder petrol generator engine, CVT auto transmission. Performance: 93mph, 0-62mph 7.9 seconds, 470.8mpg Combined Cycle, CO2 13g/km, range, around 180 miles using battery/generator power, VED road tax £0, BIK company car tax 5%. Insurance group: 21. Warranty: 3-years/unlimited mileage. Dimensions/capacities: L: 3,999mm, W 1,775mm, H 1,598mm, boot/load space 260 to1,100-litres. For: Practical city car, interesting design, easy to drive, does away with conventional electric car range anxiety, minimal taxes and running costs. Against: Expensive, firm ride, small petrol tank for the generator. Miles better news agency