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BMW goes electric - i3 launched in SA

2015-02-26 06:09

SAVING WEIGHT, MAKING SPACE: Contra-opening doors on the BMW i3 save on B pillars and make access easy. Image: Les Stephenson

  Gallery

Three drivers took on the Hannibal Tour 2014 to follow the infamous ancient general's route over the Alps to Rome. He was on an elephant - these guys were in BMW electric cars...

LES STEPHENSON

Here’s a couple of numbers to keep in the back of your mind while you read about the new-to-South Africa BMW i3 which I drove this week during its Cape Town launch – it’s the upmarket answer to “going green” with your city commuting.

R15.00 and R56.00. Sorry, three numbers: the pure electric i3 is price-tagged at R525 000. Hmmm…

Anyway, the first is the electricity bill you’ll get at home if you charge to ‘full’ the lithium-ion battery pack in a BMW i3, the second is what you’ll pay for fuel (inland) to travel about same distance in a similar-sized conventional car.

RANGE EXTENDER

Which, the sexy little i3 I was about to drive, told me was its range for the day - 113km. You can do your own money-saving computations according to your lifestyle/daily commute to see how much you’ll save a year on fuel at today’s prices (Feb 2015) but if you live in Jozi you’re probably racking up 20 000km a year so at R41 per 100km you’ll be R8 200 richer.

Nissan’s Leaf electric car is R50 000 less expensive at R475 000 and claims a nearly 200km range from one charge. But, frankly, it isn’t a BMW.

There’s another option: add R70 000 to the price of the basic i3 and you get the REX model: Range Extender. Which should ease the range-anxiety with which afflicts many battery-car drivers by adding a 650cc, 28kW, two-cylinder engine also used in the BMW C650 GT motorcycle which cuts in like a quiet lawn-mower as your battery pack dies to keep the ions flowing to the battery to drive thecar.

The i3 is no slouch, either – 0-100km/h in 7.2sec and a top speed of 150km/h – though driving that way is going to do your range not a lot of good, even if it is fun. The car also makes uses of regenerative braking and coasting to replenish/avoid using battery power. Lift you right foot and the electric motor becomes a generator so smart, looking-ahead, city driving will considerably extend the i3’s range.

CLEVER WITH THE DOORS

Lacking a bulky engine up front and a big fuel tank at the rear means the i3 has way more cabin space than a conventional car of similar size and the (guaranteed for eight years) battery pack lives beneath the floor. The result is a pleasantly airy cabin, helped by thin but supportive front seat-backs, the lack of a transmission tunnel, no gearshifter and a skyroof over each front seat.

IMAGE GALLERY: 2015 BMW i3 battery car

BMW has also been clever with the doors: the i3’s designers opted for what are, unkindly, called “suicide” rear doors which open rearwards and so require no B pillar (the ones next to the front occupants’ shoulders) so the whole side of the car opens up for access – particularly nice for moms and older, less limber, folk.

The whole body is made of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (much the same super-strong stuff as Formula 1 cars), the chassis is aluminium and much of the cabin panelling is made of recycled plastic fibres. The facia support is magnesium, the wheel-rims aluminium alloy.

BMW reckons its i3 bodyshell is so strong it’s safer than steel and can withstand fairly hard impacts without permanent deformation. So, it seems your BMW i3 should last for, ever…

SO LET’S GET ON THE ROAD…

Frankly, I loved driving the i3. No gears, little braking (energy regeneration, remember!) and some serious voomah through the traffic as we headed from Cape Town airport out towards the mountains. Seems the i3 liked it too because while going up the hills use power, zooming down again puts it back, and the weight of the battery pack beneath the floor makes this small car super-stable, even on its low rolling-resistance skinny tyres 19 or 20” tyres.

The i3 also claims to be the world’s first electric car with complete connectivity through BMW Connected Drive: everything from a car-activate emergency call after a crash to full-colour satnav and sound system. The connecting SIM card comes with the car as standard.

The BMW i Remote app also makes available all the data of a modern cellphone; BMW says the satnav “guides customers to any destination accurately  and efficiently”, the lady telling me where to turn just got the whole darn thing totally wrong so we ignored her. Nevertheless, BMW says the system comes with a “range map” which scans your route for hills and takes note of air temperature and other variables to give “remarkably accurate” range predictions.

Auto cruise-control uses radar to maintain following distance and identify warm-blooded bipeds threatening the integrity of what would otherwise be called a bonnet and buyers have the option of vehicle self-parking.

PORTABLE DRINK HOLDERS

The standard Comfort Package includes cruise-control with braking function, auto aircon, auto-dimming rear-view and exterior mirrors, an armrest with storage compartment between the front seats, multifunction steering-wheel buttons, auto lights and wipers.

There’s also a sub-compartment in the glove box, rubber mats for the door pockets and extra portable rear and centre-console drink holders.

Optional is a high-capacity home charging system: you might, however, baulk at the R25 000 price-tag.

So, does BMW have a winner with its good-looking, robust and comfortable i3? With the promise of a long life, probably re-rising fuel prices, non-corroding bodywork and chassis, a long warranty and some serious street cred, might I bid a tremulous ‘yes’?

CHUNKY, BIG WHEELS, INSTANTLY IDENTIFIABLE: BMW's i3 battery car is built for the city but doesn't really mind the open road sometimes - so long as it doesn't go too far from home! Image: LES STEPHENSON

Click here for full BMW i3 specifications.

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