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BMW i3 points at the future


My expectations were low. I'd heard criticisms of the BMW i3, mainly relating to the short range before the batteries needed to be recharged, and I couldn't see myself having much fun in a car with no gears and no aural delight on offer.

The various hybrid cars I've previously had on review also haven't excited me because real-world fuel consumption didn't come near matching manufacturers' claims, and the added complexity and cost didn't seem worthwhile. Still, every such car on the road serves as a test-bed in ongoing research.

That was then and this is now. After a few minutes with the i3, I was surprised to discover that I liked it, and after a week, I loved it. It has one big problem though, the short charging range of 120 km, which goes up by about another 100 km before the optional  auxiliary 650 cc engine completely empties its tiny nine-litre fuel tank.

The i3 is not a hybrid. The standard model has no petrol engine at all, while the Range Extender (REx) version tested here, benefits from the aforementioned  twin-cylinder engine pinched from BMW's two-wheel division. This engine doesn't drive the wheels, though. It runs a generator to help recharge the batteries powering the 125 kW / 56 Nm electric motor.

That concept isn't new - it dates back to 1900 when Dr Ferdinand Porsche unveiled his Lohner-Porsche with wheel-hub electric motors driving the front wheels using electricity produced by a pair of generators powered by two small petrol engines. He spent years on the project and ended up with a 5.5-litre four-cylinder Daimler engine running the generator, and the car could travel a few km on battery power alone.

As petrol engines became cheaper and more reliable, the complex electric cars that were fashionable at the time fell by the wayside until fairly recently. If they'd stayed in favour for a few more decades, fossil fuels would possibly have played little part in our history, but Eskom would be in a lot more trouble than it is today.  

Batteries are heavy and weight is an important factor when you're trying to extend fuel range, so the i3 uses carbon-fibre reinforced plastics for most of the body structure, and interior panels are made from hemp. That's not entirely revolutionary either - in the '30s Henry Ford made many of the "plastic" components of his cars from soya, after first trying marijuana and dandelion seeds.

The i3 is futuristic and surprisingly enjoyable to drive because there's so much torque on hand from zero revs. Put your foot down and it feels like a Boeing when the pilot dumps the clutch for take-off. There are no gear changes along the way because there's only one gear and the claimed 0-100 time of around 7.5 seconds rivals that of the Ford Fiesta ST.

Despite the skinny 155/60 front and 175/55 rear tyres mounted on 20-inch rims, the handling is surprisingly good, the steering is very direct and the turning circle extremely tight, as it should be in a city car.

The brakes are excellent but you rarely need use them in normal driving, as regenerative braking is initially disconcertingly effective when the motor works as a generator to dump energy back into the battery every time you lift your foot.

Recharging the car's batteries can be a bit of a mission. You can plug it into a wall outlet wherever you are and wait for perhaps eight hours for a full charge, or you can invest R25 000 in having a BMW-appointed technician install a DC charge point in your home that will do the job in two hours or give an 80 percent charge in around 30 minutes. 

BMW says that each charge will add about R30 to your electricity bill, so if you manage to get 120 km on a full battery, you'll have spent the equivalent cost of about two litres of fuel on charging per 100k m.

Good news is that BMW says the 2017 model year i3 will come with a 33 kWh battery pack, up from 22 kWh hour in the current model. This should increase the range - without the Range Extender engine - to 183 km and the new batteries can be retro-fitted to earlier models in Europe but not in the USA. I suspect that we will have the UK spec car so things look promising, but there's no mention of the costs involved.

The i3 costs R556 500 without and R630 000 with the Range Extender.

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