John Floyd
Motorsport columnist
6 minute read
5 Mar 2015
11:00 am

BMW’s new i3 is ideal car for city driving

John Floyd

You have to admire both the confidence and courage of any company that endeavours to introduce a product that appears to be more suited to the lifestyle of a future generation that offers a reliable and sustainable infrastructure, rather than the uncertainty of the present.

The new BMW i3. Picture: Supplied

BMW certainly believes in future developments and the need for a far more sustainable method of moving people – this is demonstrated by the new i Series in both an all-electric and hybrid versions. What is impressive, is that the company has chosen to launch the range in South Africa despite the uncertainty of our electricity generating capacity and reliability.

Last week the i3 joined the awesome i8 as part of the company’s new range in SA.

The i3 is without a doubt the most significant vehicle of the two, being the more practical solution for everyday motoring and is set to spearhead the company’s extended Efficient Dynamics philosophy.

It differs from many other electric cars, having been designed as exactly that and not a converted model from an existing range. This is no 1 Series with an electric motor dropped under the bonnet, but a purpose-built step towards offering a premium segment alternative for the urban commute.

The i3 utilises the LifeDrive concept in construction, a combination of aluminium and carbon fibre glass reinforced plastic (CFRP) giving the car a very light and structurally strong platform.

The new BMW i3. Picture: Supplied

The new BMW i3. Picture: Supplied

The Life module is basically a CFRP passenger compartment which is then bonded to the Drive section, which comprises an aluminium structure and effectively becomes the car’s chassis carrying the batteries, motor unit and transmission unit. The outer panels of the i3 are manufactured from thermo plastics, providing a lightweight flexible skin.

Weight is a major enemy of electric cars as it takes energy to move mass. Consequently the i3’s construction reflects the best possible combination of materials and design, with the battery pack housed within the Drive platform to provide a low centre of gravity. The weight of the battery pack is 230kg out of the vehicles total weight of 1 195kg.

BMW have ensured that every aspect of the i3 reflects an environmentally friendly car. The plants that produce the components all utilize, wherever possible, renewable energy sources and a large amount of recycled materials are also used in the construction of the car.

There is no doubt that the i3 is a technical revelation. Styling is another issue but the design certainly works from an ergonomic point of view. This city car is built for four occupants with a reasonable amount of cargo space – after all, a briefcase and laptop really do not require major volume – and with the rear seat backed down, it increases from 260 to 1 100 litres.

The interior is spacious and airy and once again features plenty of recycled material. The centre dash is dominated by a large information display panel, with a second panel mounted atop the adjustable steering column. This provides the virtual instrumentation, speedometer and various other dials depending on the driving mode selected and you have a choice of three: Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro+.

The new BMW i3. Picture: Supplied

The new BMW i3. Picture: Supplied

Back seat passengers enter via the two rear-opening “coach doors”, as BMW calls them, which can only be operated when the front doors are open. Access is good as the CFRP body shell’s inherent strength obviates the need for a B pillar.

Seating is high, almost at the so-called command position, and all round visibility is good – a vital factor for a car that will spend most of its life squeezing in and out of small spaces.

On the energy side the i3 can be charged via a conventional household wall outlet, which requires eight hours for an 80% charge, or you have the option to install a specialized charger unit which will deliver a much greater charge current and top up the batteries to 80% in just 30 minutes, but that will set you back another R25 000.

The status of the i3 can be relayed to you via a series of apps, on your smartphone or a wrist-worn communicator – wearing that, I felt a little like Bruce Wayne, just minus the bat cave.

Apart from the cynicism this is truly a leap into the future, not one I relish, being a petrol head, but perhaps a reality one must face.

Motive power is provided by a synchronous electric motor developing 125kW with 250Nm of torque driving through a single speed, fixed ratio automatic transmission to the rear wheels. Tyres are a special 155/70 R19 low rolling resistance item and will be available from the BMW i Series network.

As with any electric vehicle the instant delivery of maximum torque means that the i3 hits 100km/h in just 7.2 seconds and can reach a top speed of 150km/h. Range is claimed to be between 130km and 160km for everyday driving in Comfort mode.

The new BMW i3. Picture: Supplied

The new BMW i3. Picture: Supplied

If that range worries you then perhaps the i3 REX (Range Extender) version would make you happier. The REX derivative provides a 647cc twin cylinder engine that drives a generator to charge the lithium-ion power pack when battery range is down to approximately 5km and increases the range to a claimed 300km.

When the engine starts it can be heard as a soft rumble in the cabin, but to those outside it tends to sound like you’ve got your lawn mower in the boot.

Regenerative braking pumps up to 50kW of energy back into the system and the effect is very noticeable. When you take your foot off the accelerator pedal the i3 starts to slow very significantly.

You do not coast as you would in a conventional car and the regenerative braking system is so effective that initially you will find yourself coming to a halt a long way from your intended stopping point. It took me about 10 minutes to get used to this and thereafter I probably only used the brake pedal a dozen times. It sounds crazy but is a fact. A look at the size and thickness of the brake discs indicates that stopping power is more electrical than mechanical.

Driving the i3 is a pleasure – it’s quiet, has lively performance, a high level of comfort, a very high specification level as reflected by the very short options list and is very easy to manoeuvre. In fact, it’s the ideal town car. But with our current load shedding situation many will be wondering if this is the right way to go for their future motoring needs. BMW are investigating the possibility of solar energy to overcome this problem, but it is not yet available.

It’s a sad situation when an excellent example of technology such as the BMW i3, which offers a way to a more sustainable way of city transport, is overshadowed by the lack of sustainability of our electricity supply.