I’ve driven and ridden in electric cars before – a few of them, in fact. (No, I haven’t driven a Tesla…) Each time, a few key traits have stuck out that gave me a good idea of what electric mobility is all about. However, I’ve not had any time behind the wheel for an extended period and so, when I was able to book BMW’s refreshed i3 electric city runabout for a week-long test, I couldn’t wait to get plugged into the driving seat!
The vehicle in question was the i3 BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle), which meant it went without the range extender (a small, two-cylinder petrol engine that acts only as a generator to charge the battery pack) fitted to the more expensive i3 REx (Range Extender). Upon realising this, a few questions immediately came to mind… (Their answers became clear after briefly living with the i3 BEV.)
How often would I have to charge it? (Not as often as expected.) How long would it take to charge? (Slightly longer than expected.) How much would it cost me to charge? (Very little.) Would I suffer from “range anxiety”? (Range anxiety?)
The most important question I had to answer, though, was whether or not electric vehicles are all they’re cracked up to be… The answer was an undeniable “Hell Yes!” Before I explain why, though, it’s important to know what the i3 is…
BMW’s four-seat electric city car was first launched into the South African market during 2015, two years after its international debut, alongside the i8 hybrid-electric sports car. During this year it received a mild visual update (as well as the addition of a Sport model), but the basic car remains the same.
Made from Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic on an aluminium chassis, the i3 is powered by BMW’s eDrive technology that includes “a hybrid synchronous electric motor with integrated power electronics, charging unit and generator function for energy recuperation”.
The only Lithium-ion battery to be offered locally is the 94 Ah unit, which provides a net energy content of 27,2 kWh (a 120 Ah, 37,9 kWh unit will be offered during 2019). This means it provides a real-world driving range in the region of 200 to 250 km. The electric motor has a maximum output of 125 kW of power and 250 Nm of torque, and slingshots the i3 from 0 to 100 km/h in a brisk 7,3 seconds and onward to a top speed of 150 km/h.
The i3 was handed over to me with about 90-percent charge and an indicated range of about 190 km. As with an internal combustion engine, the consumption and range are determined by how heavy the driver’s foot is. To aid range-maximising efforts, the i3 offers three driving modes: Comfort, EcoPro and EcoPro+ (which disables various power-sapping functions, like the air-con).
However, I discovered that maximising one’s range in the i3, at least at first, can be a bit of a problem… The main stumbling block is that the power delivery – if you’ll excuse the pun – is electric. And addictive. Sure, on paper the i3 is only as quick as an average warmed-up hatchback, but in reality it shoots forward with an immediate urgency unlike almost anything else you could compare it to.
Sure, all electric cars have this point-and-squirt characteristic; but the small i3 (it’s four metres long, 1,77 m wide and 1,6 m high) is also as nimble as one would expect a BMW to be. This means nipping in and out of traffic is easy. That’s about all it can do, though … with its height and skinny 155-width tyres, it’s stable but not meant to be tossed around.
Not that that matters, because I soon found that the i3 changed the way I drove. Sure, the power’s there when needed, but more often than not I found myself driving economically. Thanks to the electric motor’s regenerative braking ability, one hardly needs to use the brakes to slow the car. I found myself naturally adapting to driving like this, which meant I drove gently and economically.
Yes, driving the i3 can be an exceptionally serene experience. This is aided by surprisingly good Noise, Vibration and Harshness (NVH) levels: the cabin is very quiet, the ride is comfortable, all passengers have a surprising amount of space.
I loved the design of the i3’s cabin (which, by the way, is made as sustainably as possible using exposed hemp fibres, environmentally refined wood trim and leather seats tanned with olive-leaf extract) and it features all the bells and whistles one needs in such a modern mode of transport. The car I drove was fitted with R115 700 worth of options, however.
So, are there any real-world drawbacks? Yes. The first and most obvious is the base purchase price, which is R637 300. Add those options and one could buy any number of other nice, conventional BMWs… Also, the boot capacity measures just 260 litres.
But what about the whole charging/range anxiety conundrum? BMW claims it takes 15 hours to fully charge the i3 from a domestic wall socket, which would mean having to plug it in at work and every evening at home to keep the battery full. (You can get a more efficient home charging box that cuts charging time drastically.) I found that simply plugging it in every second evening ensured the battery remained topped up enough for the daily commute, and easily managed a trip from Johannesburg to Centurion and back.
BMW claims power consumption of 13,1 kWh/100 km, and I managed 14,7. Assuming an average electricity cost of 143 c/kWh in Johannesburg, this would mean it should have cost me about R42 to charge the i3 back to its original +-200 km range from empty. Assuming that one travels 200 km a week and only charges at home, it would cost less than R180 a month in electricity! One should bear in mind the savings on brakes and service costs, too…
Does this lower running cost make up for the i3’s high purchase price? I think it depends on what you buy the car for. If you have the means to buy it, want to be able to transport a family of four around town and want to drive without any emissions coming directly from your vehicle, then it just might.
Personally, if I could, I would buy one… My week revealed that cars like the i3 make so much sense as daily transport. Driving it makes the daily commute feel the way it should; enjoyable and relaxing. That’s exactly what the i3 is.
CyberStoep rating: 7,5/10