With BMWís i3, the switching hour has struck. This innovative and compact electric car combines expressive design, impressive engineering, exceptional efficiency and persuasive practicality with a good deal of driver appeal.
Both admirable and desirable, the i3 is the car that signals, loud and clear, electric propulsionís readiness for the road ahead.
For its far-sighted clarity of vision and unswerving execution, the i3 is Wheels Car of the Year 2014. It is the first electric car and the first BMW ever to win our award.
While not nearly as drawn out as the Bavarian brandís half-century-plus wait for a Wheels COTY victory, the i3ís gestation period was a lengthy affair. The car is a product of Project i, an initiative launched in 2007 to spearhead development within the BMW Group of what it drily described as ďsustainable and future-oriented mobility conceptsĒ. This phrase doesnít read like a blueprint for automotive entertainment. But the i3 is a car with a lively and engaging character, as well as peerless eco-cred.
Efficiency is the obvious strong suit of the i3. Its underfloor lithium-ion battery pack stores almost 19kWh of usable energy. Translated into liquid fuel terms, this is the equivalent of just two litres of unleaded, but itís enough to endow the i3 with a 100km-plus electric driving range.
This is a stark reminder how much of the chemical energy stored in liquid fuels escapes uselessly through the radiator and tailpipe of an internal combustion engine.
Electricityís other advantage is that its production neednít involve burning anything at all. Recharged using renewable energy Ė and itís hard to imagine anyone who buys an i3 wanting to use anything else Ė the BMW delivers practically emission-free mobility.
The i3 doesnít only shine in comparison with fossil fuel power. Itís also more efficient than other electric cars. According to the official energy consumption test mandated by the federal government, the battery BMW uses less energy than any other electric car sold in Australia, including the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S.
Such data, gathered in the controlled environment of an automotive emissions lab, is useful for making comparisons. As with a conventional carís ADR81 sticker fuel consumption, itís difficult to match official numbers in the real world.
BMW acknowledges this reality.
While the i3ís range is officially 190km, the company says 130-160km is more realistic. As we found during the COTY test program, it can be less than this. A long, mainly motorway drive emptied the battery of our pure electric i3 after 115km, leaving Wheels staffer Alex Inwood high and dry, so to speak (see page 70).
Sustained high speed obviously isnít what this electric car is good at.
As with a conventional vehicle, consumption and range vary greatly according to driving style and circumstances. In markets where the i3 has been on sale longer than Australia, owners and credible testers report real-world ranges from 110km (Autocar magazine, UK) to more than 180km (a Dutch owner).
Even at the lower end of the driving range scale, the i3 is obviously capable of satisfying the daily driving needs of many between recharges. According to the latest information compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average distance driven by a passenger car in our country is 14,000km a year, or 40km a day, with 53 percent driven in capital cities, the environment for which the i3 was designed.
Range anxiety, however, remains an electric car reality. BMW offers a cure for the condition. The Range Extender version costs $6000 more than the basic $63,900 battery version of the i3, but adds immensely to the BMWís flexibility. It brings the freedom to make unplanned trips as well as longer journeys.
The i3 Range Extender employs a tuned-for-efficiency version of the 650cc two-cylinder engine used by BMW Motorrad in its classy maxi-scooters, teamed with a generator.
Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, this range-extender engine doesnít recharge the i3ís battery pack.
Instead, it supplies electricity direct
WEíRE used to measuring fuel consumption in litres per 100km. And we pay for electricity by the kilowatt-hour. So why does the government think the energy consumption of electric cars should be in Wat t-hours per km, as it is on t he windscreen labels of new electr ic cars and on the Green Vehicle Guide website?
For consistency and cost clarity, kWh/100km makes better sense. Conversion isnít difficult.
The official 129Wh/km energy consumption of the pure electric i3 is 12.9kWh /100km. The only danger is t hat consumers w ill find it more relevant and easier to understand.
Címon Canberra, you can do it.
BMW waited until the latest version of ĎConnecteDriveí was available in Australia before launching the i3 here. Specific i-Navigat ion software improves the accuracy of range estimation and includes charge-point infor mation, which should reduce range anxiety to an extent. And an iOS- and Android-compatible app means t he i3 owner can monitor the carís recharging, exercise a degree of remote cont rol over the car, and send navigation info direct to it.
DURING COTY we relied on the Ďoccasional useí chargers supplied with ever y i3 to replenish the two cars tested.
This device plugs into an ordinary domestic power socket, but using the five-metre cable is like filling a fuel tank through a drinking straw. Maximum power delivery is 1.8kW, so the 19kWh required to recharge an empty i3 takes at least 11 hours.
This means BMWís iWallbox Pure home recharger is a musthave for the i3 owner. Costing $1750, plus fitting, itís sold as an accessory. One should be included in the i3 price in our view. The wall charger recharges at up to 3.7kW, enough to guarantee a full recharge overnight, even after a late night out. Itís the charger required to make the i3 properly practical, in other words.
Austral ian i3 owners also have access to ChargePoint public rechargers. While the network is small Ė about 80, mainly in Sydney and Melbourne Ė recharg ing is free for i3 owners.
Most of these AC rapid rechargers can deliver 7.4kW.
Finally, thereís a $1000 upgrade to allow the i3 to be plugged into a 50kW DC rapid charger Ė 80 percent capacity in 30 minutes Ė but there are only a handful of these in Australia.
to the electric motor. As the range extenderís maximum output is much less than the electric drive motorís maximum consumption, the battery can still be fully depleted by, for example, sustained high speed or a long climb. If this occurs, and it did once during the hard-driving first phase of COTY testing at Fordís You Yangs Proving Ground, the carís performance is dramatically reduced.
BMW could and should do a better job of explaining how the range extender functions and the importance of avoiding battery depletion slowdown.
For example, one of the carís menu screens permits the selection of an option to run the range extender once the battery pack is below 75 percent charge (rather than waiting until itís almost fully depleted). In a situation where a journey ended with a lengthy ascent, it would be wise to use this feature to preserve charge for the final climb. The problem is less likely to occur in stop-start city traffic because the i3ís regenerative braking system will return some charge to the battery each time the car slows.
With a charged battery, both versions of the i3 provide an immediate surge of smooth and almost silent acceleration.
Unburdened by the 120kg added by the range extender, the pure electric i3 is noticeably quicker; 0-100km/h in a claimed 7.2 seconds compared to 7.9. The vivid initial thrust makes them seem, if anything, faster than these figures suggest.
The i3 reacts with almost equal authority when the accelerator pedal is released.
BMW deliberately engineered the i3 to have strong regenerative braking. This enhances the energy-recycling effect, which is one of the keys to the efficiency of any electric car. BMW says regenerative braking alone adds about 20 percent to the i3ís driving range in typical conditions.
It also contributes to a real sense of driver involvement. The regenerative braking system can send a maximum 50kW energy stream back to the battery, delivering strong retardation and showing its brake lights to following cars as it does so. The speed-sensitive regenerative braking system can, in fact, bring the car to a rapid halt.
Partially release the accelerator pedal to centre the energy flow indicator gauge beneath the i3ís digital speedometer and the car will coast, neither consuming nor regenerating energy. It takes only a little time to master the techniques of one-pedal driving, but itís possible, with a little practice, to drive the i3 mostly without touching the brake pedal. Obviously the BMWís friction brake discs and pads will last a very long time.
The i3 also entertains in other ways. This is a genuinely agile car, with sharp steering and, thanks to its rear-drive/rear-motor layout, a super-tight sub-10-metre turning circle. These attributes, along with the instant urge of its electric motor, make the i3 a very adept city car.
While the BMWís suspension delivers a quite firm ride at low speed, the quality of its suspension design is evident in the i3ís eagerness to change direction and its cornering stability. Donít be fooled by the skinny tyres, specifically chosen to reduce the BMWís aerodynamic frontal area; the i3 doesnít lack for grip. It understeers a little before its well calibrated chassis stability system intervenes, but it is unmistakably a well-balanced car.
The pure battery i3 rides a little more smoothly than the Range Extender version.
The Range Extenderís scooter engine is remarkably quiet when running; itís almost inaudible above 70km/h and doesnít sound
BODY Type 5-door hatchback, 4 seats L/W/H 3999/1775/1578mm Wheelbase 2570mm Track (f/r) 1571/1576mm Boot capacity 260 litres Weight 1270-1390kg DRIVETRAIN Layout rear motor (east-west), RWD Propulsion hybrid synchronous electric motor (125kW/250Nm) Range extender 647cc 2cyl (28kW/56Nm) + 23kW generator Transmission single-speed CHASSIS Brakes ventilated discs (f), solid discs (r) Tyres 155/70R19 Ė 175/50R20 Spare none (inflation kit) ADR81 electrical energy consumption 12.9-13.5kWh/100km ADR81 fuel consumption 0-0.6L/100km Greenhouse emissions 0-13g/km Front airbags Side airbags Curtain airbags Knee airbag Collision mitigation OPT Crash rating 4-star (Euro NCAP) Price $63,900 Ė $69,900 3-year retained value 45-46% Service interval variable
Optional Ďrange extenderí is a 647cc in-line petrol twin, fed by a tiny nine-litre tank. Itís impressively quiet, unless youíre driving on a perfectly smooth road. From outside, though, you can hear it whirring. 7cc ess d.
Mounted low in the i3ís carbonfibrereinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger cell is a 360-volt, lithium-ion battery pack that generates 22kWh of energy to power the electric motor. A 200km range is possible. reer k wer ossible.
Super-direct electric steering aids the i3ís agility. With just 2.5 turns lock-to-lock and a tight 9.86m turning circle, i3 is brilliantly manoeuvrable in the inner-city. s o-3 nner- unpleasant at lower speeds. But both versions should isolate road noise more effectively. Thereís a resonant rumble at high speeds, worse on coarse-chip surfaces, thatís out of place in a car wearing such a high price-tag.
Even more than its striking but far from beautiful plastic-panel-clad exterior, the i3ís interior emphasises this carís difference from the rest. This is a properly premium environment, a brilliantly successful mix of eco and electronic. Natural-fibrereinforced plastic and sustainably forested eucalyptus co-exist harmoniously with the i3ís smartphone-on-its-side speedometer, large central screen and odd-looking but intuitive-to-use drive selector sprouting from the steering column. Itís an unusual environment, but clearly communicates that the i3 is unusual in less visible ways.
Structurally, the i3 is a two-piece car, with a carbonfibre-reinforced-plastic body topping a separate all-aluminium, battery-protecting chassis. This choice of materials makes the BMW much lighter than any comparable electric car, with the pure battery and Range Extender versions respectively weighing about the same as the bottom and top models of the
Toyota Corolla range. The i3ís handling, performance and driving range all benefit from its innovative construction.
Thereís a genuine sense of spaciousness when seated up front, thanks to the i3ís flat floor and delightfully low instrument panel. Except for the thick A-pillars, visibility is good.
The BMWís overlapping Ďcoachí doors provide a wide opening to access the pair of adult-size rear seats, but there was criticism by some judges of the inflexibility inherent in this body design; the front doors overlap the rears, which canít be opened independently.
Behind the rear seat backrest is a 260-litre cargo compartment. The i3ís rear-mounted motor means the floor is relatively high, but capacity is not affected by the addition of the Range Extender.
Folding the 50/50 split rear backrest creates a perfectly flat 1100-litre space behind the front seats. Additionally, thereís a 35-litre storage compartment beneath the i3ís bonnet, providing a home for its backup household-socket charger cable and other seldom-needed stuff.
Soon after it went on sale in Germany in late 2013, the i3 was awarded a controversial four-star score by Euro NCAP.
The result, a scorching embarrassment for BMW, was the consequence of a Poor rating for the leading edge of the carís bonnet in pedestrian protection tests and the absence of a rear seatbelt-reminder system. In the most important section of Euro NCAPís test regime, Adult Occupant Protection, the i3 scored 86 percent. This is a higher number than that scored by several cars recently awarded a five-star result by the organisation.
Thereís no doubt that the BMW i3 does a good job of protecting its occupants in a crash. And this is the central requirement of the Wheels COTY Safety criterion. Our thorough dynamic testing also proved the effectiveness of the i3ís key driver-aid systems. Like almost any other car in production, it could be made a little safer again, but the i3 isnít significantly sub-standard in the areas we rate most important.
If the i3 has an obvious weakness, itís value, not safety. There are nations that have incentives to encourage the adoption of electric cars, for a variety of very good reasons, but Australia is not one of them.
As a result, BMWís battery brainchild is more expensive here than in North America, most of Europe and much of Asia.
The i3ís exotic construction, brilliant interior design, pleasing performance and satisfying driving dynamics make it uniquely appealing among electric cars.
These attributes, for some, will add up to value. But while the i3 is surely a more enticing car than the Leaf, its most obvious direct competitor, the BMW is also more than 50 percent more expensive than the $40,000 Nissan.
Outstanding value for money is something it clearly does not offer, but the BMW i3 shines super-nova bright when measured against COTYís Efficiency and Technology criteria. Crucially, itís also an involving drive and well adapted to its city streets role, admirably satisfying our Function criterion.
The i3 is a car both courageous and convincing. Other brands surely possess the know-how to have created something equally visionary; all they lacked was BMWís bravery. Itís been a long time coming, but Munich has well and truly earned its first-ever Wheels Car of the Year award with the i3.