Without the support of government incentives and widespread charging infrastructure, electric vehicles have failed to ignite sales charts in Australia - a trend that’s likely to continue with petrol remaining relatively cheap and a pricing premium typically applied to EVs.
Then there’s that ever-present concern that an EV might leave you stranded on the roadside if it runs out of charge, or that long-distance trips are off the agenda. But with the BMW i3 REx - which carries a petrol-powered generator with it - that worry is reduced.
For 2017 the BMW i3 also arrives with a new larger battery, a 94 Amp hours (Ah) unit in place of the previous 60Ah version which is still on sale, resulting in a longer electric range and furthering the i3’s zero emissions potential.
Vehicle Style: Prestige small hatch
Price: $71,900 (plus on-roads) $80,880 (as tested)
Engine/trans: 125kW/250Nm electric motor, plus 0.6 litre 2cyl petrol | single-speed transmission
Fuel Economy Claimed: 12.9 kWh/100km, 0.6 l/100km | Tested: 13.8 kWh/100km, 0.43 l/100km
Having launched in Australia in 2014, the BMW i3 is still a fairly recent addition to the Australian new car market.
Initially offered as pure EV or range-extender models, both with a 60Ah battery the updated 2017 range includes those two original variants, plus a larger 94Ah battery version of each, promising additional usable touring range.
Although not slated as a high volume seller here, the i3 serves to demonstrate what’s technically possible for green transport, taking concept-car like construction and engine technology and making it available to consumers.
Starting at $71,900, the i3 94Ah REx isn’t within the reach of average motorists, and it’s the most expensive variant in the range and represents something of a toe in the water for BMW’s future mobility-minded i sub-brand.
- Standard Equipment: Partial leather seats, climate control, cruise control, push-button start, automatic headlights and windscreen wipers, automated self-parking, multi-function trip computer with energy monitor, 19-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: Four-speaker audio, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, internet connectivity (BMW ConnectedDrive with Remote Services), satellite navigation, CD/DVD player, iDrive interface, 10.25-inch display, USB and Aux inputs
- Options Fitted: 20-inch alloy wheels ($1000), Electric glass sunroof ($2920), Harman/Kardon audio upgrade ($1550), Innovations Package with keyless entry, LED headlights, Driving Assistant Plus ($3510)
- Cargo Volume: 260 litres minimum, 1100 litres with 50:50 split rear seats folded
By taking a gamble on the i3’s cabin BMW has ended up with a different take on vehicle interiors, though oddly not one that looks impossibly futuristic - rather there’s an ironic simplistic flavour to the i3 which manages to look more Scandinavian than German.
Timber panelling across the dash, retro-inspired tweed fabric on the doors and seats, and tan leather highlights combine with off-white plastics and an interesting pressed fibre finish across the top of the dash and doors give the i3 a unique look.
Entry to the cabin is also somewhat unique, with conventional front doors, and rear-hinged rear doors with no B-pillar in between, possible in part thanks to the i3’s strong but light carbon fibre construction.
The driving position feels a little like that of an SUV with a high-mounted seat, boosted up by the battery packs mounted within the chassis, and tall windows bringing refreshing amounts of outward visibility in an era when most cars seem to be turning their backs on window real estate.
The rear seat isn’t as accommodating as looks might suggest. There’s enough headroom to comfortably accommodate tall passengers and their favourite sombrero, but crucial knee room is tighter than you might find in an average small hatch - and there’s only four seats on offer, not five.
At the rear, the boot also features a high floor, with both the electric motor and petrol range extender mounted underneath and storage space up front is about backpack sized, or if you elect to carry the i3’s emergency charger with you the bulky unit eats up most of that available space.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 125kW/250Nm electric motor, 28kW/56Nm 0.6 litre two-cylinder petrol range extender
- Transmission: single-speed automatic, rear wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, five-link independent rear
- Brakes: Four-wheel disc brakes, vented front rotors
- Steering: Electric power steering
The i3 is different to drive, but by no means difficult. In fact, as is the case with most electric vehicles, it’s the lack of noise that’s the most strange, rather than any other aspect of the vehicle.
That’s not to say that the i3 isn’t without its quirks. The gear selector, a twist-style knob to the right of the steering wheel defies convention, but it’s easy enough to adapt to with time.
Lifting the accelerator is also a little different to usual - instead of coasting the i3 slows as if the brake was applied lightly as the energy recuperation system tops up the batteries via regenerative braking.
The side-effect is that it’s almost possible to drive the i3 without ever touching the brake pedal except to hold the car still when stationary. In no time at all you can work out how much to lift off the pedal and when the car will come to a halt in moving traffic.
With a single speed transmission and a big shove of torque from standstill the i3 feels nimble during city drives, faster off the line than most other small cars, though not quite as accelerative as the much-lauded (and more expensive) Tesla range.
Keeping the battery topped up isn’t any real chore either. Like the gear selector, it requires a little bit of re-thinking to get in the habit of plugging the i3 in overnight, but remembering to do so, and setting the charge to start at off-peak rates means waking up to a full battery and a usable 200km of electric driving (BMW claims 370km maximum).
Charge times with the included cable and a standard powerpoint are claimed to be 11 hours for an 80 percent charge, or around half the time with the optional iWallbox charger (unit $1750, plus $662 installation, minimum) - the trick being to top up at avery available opportunity rather than letting the battery run flat.
An average daily commute saw the trip to and from work, plus an odd trip to the shops or a visit to friends covered with range to spare, and after three days without charge the i3 still showed plenty of range remaining.
One trip out of town pushed the i3 beyond its electric range, but instead of the gnawing anxiously at not being able to continue if the battery dropped below a certain charge rate the petrol engine chimed in to keep battery charge to a useable level. When it does, its operation is barely perceptible.
The optional 20-inch alloy wheels don’t do the ride any favours, and unlike BMW’s conventional offerings, the lumpy ride and roly-poly handling make the i3 feel less agile and secure than the benchmark handling the brand has built its reputation on.
But in a vehicle that’s designed to rarely venture beyond the city limits handling may not be such a big sticking point, though a little more ride comfort over cobbles and speed humps would be welcomed.
ANCAP Rating: 5 Stars - The BMW i3 range scored 33.57 out of 37 possible points When tested in 2015.
Safety Features: Six airbags (dual front, front side, curtain), ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, electronic stability and traction control, reversing collision avoidance, rear seat Isofix child seat mounts, tyre pressure monitoring and a rear view camera are all standard.
Driving Assistant Plus (part of the optional Innovations Package) includes forward collision warning, lane departure warning, and distance-keeping cruise control.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/unlimited kilometres (vehicle), eight years/100,000km (high-voltage battery)
Servicing: BMW offers Service Inclusive Basic pre-paid service packages covering five years or 80,000km of standard servicing priced from $920 for the i3 with service intervals set at 12 months/20,000km (whichever comes first). Service Inclusive Plus packages are also available adding brake pad and disc replacement, and wiper blades.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
When it comes to direct competitors the BMW i3 doesn’t really cross swords with anything on the Australian market. Both the PHEV Mitsubishi Outlander and EV Nissan Leaf are far less expensive, while the Tesla Model S is larger and more expensive.
In fact, now that BMW has its 330e plug-in hybrid on sale, buyers may be more inclined to lean toward the roomier, better equipped, but more petrol reliant 3 Series, not to mention the similar Mercedes-Benz C 350 e.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Charging away from home can still be an issue at times. I checked into two ChargePoint locations, each offering two EV-only charge bays, but at the first one of the bays was occupied by a 15 year old Holden Statesman - certainly not an EV, and as it turns out the car park manager’s car.
The other featured two full bays, and despite showing as available on the ChargePoint website, the cars (both Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV’s) were parked, but not plugged in. No real sweat with a range extending petrol engine on board, but ultimately infuriating for buyers that opt for the cheaper pure EV variant.
Aside from that though, the i3 does actually shine as an urban transport solution. Did BMW really need to build it on a carbon fibre frame and make it look like nothing else on the road? Probably not, but as a technological showcase it gets attention.
Not only that but as the first example of this kind of technology from BMW the i3 shows real promise, and further potential for a technology that’s yet to hit the mainstream.
No, the i3 won’t suit all buyers, but no car does. What it shows is that electric vehicles can be a liveable solution, and with the added peace of mind of a petrol generator in the boot, furthering potential range, the i3 becomes no less practical than an average commuter hatchback.