EV about town

It’s no sports car, but BMW’s all-electric i3 is quick as well as quirky about town, and it has some distinct advantages over gasoline-powered cars under the right circumstances.

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September 1, 2016

It does make you smile, this cute BMW with the cartoon face. People look but do not point; it is still an infrequent sight in the ’burbs that satellite the Big Apple. Even Teslas are spotted more frequently than the i3 in my New Jersey town of Montclair. If you desire green cred, rarity and a high-tech chassis, this could be your automotive answer.

It is not, however, the answer to a driving enthusiast’s automotive quest: When I picked up my press i3 at BMW NA for the 15-mile ride home, I barely made it due to a solid case of carsickness. It took a few days to learn how to engage the regenerative braking mode smoothly. It takes effect as soon as the go-pedal is lifted, and proper modulation takes practice. Deceleration is rather abrupt, and one can coast to a stop without touching the brake. Interestingly, the brake lights are activated when one lifts suddenly (as measured by the accelerometer; deceleration has to exceed 0.13 g), but they won’t come on at all if you roll to a gentle stop, which might surprise the car behind you.

In addition to adapting to the i3’s quirky deceleration, I also had to come to terms with its handling, which has little of the Ultimate Driving Machine’s DNA once you leave the urban environment for which it’s designed.

At village speeds, the i3 feels composed and eager. Go faster, however, and the expected BMW aplomb and handling prowess is felt wanting. At highway speeds, this tall, skinny-tired conveyance is easily pushed around by winds of the natural kind or those produced by big semis. Most passengers would be digging their fingernails into the open-pore eucalyptus wood dash if we took them on a test ride.

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While the center of gravity is low thanks to the skateboard-like placement of heavy parts like the battery and motors, the seating position is paradoxically high, turning one’s head into a pendulum during spirited driving. The i3 leans too much, the skinny tires (155/70R-19s) protest too much and too early and it doesn’t feel connected to the tarmac. The steering is rather fast and a bit nervous at 2.6 turns, lock to lock, requiring a firm hand at the tiller—as well as a bit of imagination given the lack of texture to the steering feedback.

Display an irrationally exuberant driving style and the undefeatable stability control will curtail your fun. With about 45% of its weight on the front axle, the default mode is a mild and benign understeer. The front suspension is the conventional (and simple) MacPherson strut-type, while the rear has a more sophisticated multi-link set up.

The acceleration is the best part: This cute box has plenty of zip, and it can embarrass quite a number of cars at a stoplight. Car and Driver has measured its performance in the 0-60 sprint at 7.0 seconds, but the electric motor’s high torque and instant response make it feel even quicker, especially to 30 mph.

Green grocery getter

All this makes very little difference to the i3’s target audience, who generally don’t care about exploring high g forces like Bimmer readers do, and who probably won’t use these cars as electrified M3s—or upright i8s.

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Instead, they’ll use the i3 for what it’s really good at: as an around-town grocery getter, classy soccer mom/dad vehicle, economical short-distance hauler. It is very peppy, has excellent outward visibility and plenty of space. The tall front seats are quite comfortable, while the rears are a bit tight and hard, but nobody is going to spend much time back here: The useful range is about 70 miles per charge given judicious use of the right foot.

Over a week with the i3, my driving style rewarded me with a personal best of only 60 miles of battery capability. With no fast charger available, I had to charge the i3’s 22 kWh battery from a basic 120-volt, 15-amp outlet in my garage, which took almost 12 hours for a full recovery from empty. The higher-amperage BMW i Wallbox Pure (who thinks of these names?) can charge from 0 to 80% in three hours, and fast DC charging from a public station is said to do the same thing in 30 minutes.

With an electric car, distance management and planning go hand in hand. An i3’s active radius is about 30 miles, assuming you have to get back to base without plugging in at your destination, or without using the range extender that was fitted to my press car.

This summer, BMW is launching i3 v2.0, which will have 50% more battery capacity (33 kW instead of 22 kW) and thus more range (an estimated 114 instead of about 80), yet the battery weighs the same 450 lbs. to keep the i3’s weight at around 2,700 lbs. That might not sound like much, but the added range will certainly make a difference, enough to render the range extender unnecessary.

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The range extender consists of a 647cc twin-cylinder engine sourced from the C650 GT maxi scooter. It doesn’t propel the vehicle but burns gasoline from the 1.98-gallon tank if the i3 needs a charge before it can be plugged in. That crucial regulatory distinction allows the i3 to be classified as a zero-emissions vehicle in California and other states with similar rules.

It may come in handy, but the single-cylinder motor sounds like an out-of tune lawnmower with a grass allergy, making the i3 a good candidate for BMW’s augmented exhaust sounds. Moreover, an i3 running its range extender doesn’t have enough juice to run at full speed, so performance is limited in this mode, too.

Performance is equally neutered in EcoPro driving mode, which increases range by approximately 12% by reducing power to the motor as well as the air conditioning or heater. Needless to say, I didn’t have the patience to test EcoPro for long, preferring to experience the full 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque from the i3’s hybrid-synchronous electric motor. The transmission is of the one-speed type and does not feature a clutch, which I guess would be a deal breaker for Herr Miller.

A generational thing?

The i3’s most impressive technical attributes are undoubtedly its carbon fiber passenger cell and the intricately arranged aluminum castings that shield the 96 liquid-cooled Samsung lithium-ion battery cells. All of that is concealed behind corrosion- and ding-proof plastic body panels that recall the Z1. The rear-window kink looks awkward to my eye, but it aids visibility. The rear doors—which BMW calls “coach doors,” but which will forever

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be known as “suicide doors” to those of

us who remember the old Lincoln Continental—make for a generous opening, but they can’t be opened independently of the fronts. Retrieving items from the back seat involves a tedious opening and closing procedure, not to mention a certain amount of choreography in a tight garage.

BMW has made a big deal about the eco friendliness of the i3’s interior, and while the concept is admirable, the execution felt lacking, at least to me. It has the look of Scandinavian modern as sourced from the remainder section at Ikea, especially in the lighter colors. The substances that cover part of the dash and doors remind me of a budget suitcase lining. Considering that a fully loaded i3 can approach $60,000, the interior could definitely use an upgrade.

Of course, that’s just my (admittedly conventional) opinion. My 17-year-old kids liked the look of the i3 and the feel of its interior a lot more than I did, and they were eager to be seen going to and from school in it. I find it too self-consciously clever, but perhaps my styling excoriations are generational.

All agreed that the lack of a storage console between and ahead of the front seats is aggravating. Why are the designers wasting precious real estate just so we can slide all the way across the front seat? Elsewhere in the cabin, the i3 has plenty of room for groceries, but no way to keep stuff in place.

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Justifying its existence

Unlike gasoline-powered vehicles, electric cars like the i3 are asked to justify their existence as more than just personal transportation. They’re required to make economic and environmental sense, too—something that’s rarely asked of conventional automobiles even though the same considerations can and should apply. Nonetheless, we’ll give the devil his due and look at the background in which the i3 operates, to see where and when BMW’s firstborn electric car makes sense as a substitute for gasoline-powered personal transportation. (We’ll leave diesel out of the picture, my faith having taken a hit in the wake of the Volkswagen scandal.)

The i3 is the product of long-range thinking at BMW, which proceeds on the assumption that our current transportation models will soon become untenable due to pollution (already a problem in most big cities, especially where regulation is lax or nonexistent), congestion or the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels. BMW’s first solution to this scenario relied on liquid hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, but the creation of a new fueling infrastructure was too slow in coming to make hydrogen-powered cars viable, while producing, liquefying and storing hydrogen for fuel used a lot of energy in itself.

Hence electricity, which is readily available but is hampered by the storage limitations of existing batteries, above all, and by its own infrastructure requirements. And not all electricity is created equal, at least where emissions are concerned. Electricity produced by solar, wind or hydro power is carbon emissions-free but not without other environmental concerns, particularly to wildlife. Burning coal, on the other hand, is disastrous at virtually every stage of the process, yet many states in the U.S. get most of their energy from coal—more than 90% in the case of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Even there, driving an electric car still results in an overall reduction of carbon emissions, according to a recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Despite the argument put forward by the fossil fuels lobby and others with a similar investment in the transportation status quo, a two-year study by the UCS analyzed emissions from vehicle production, operation and disposal and found that “battery electric cars generate half the emissions of the average comparable gasoline car, even when pollution from battery manufacturing is accounted for.”

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“In some of the country’s cleanest regions (including parts of California, New York, and the Pacific Northwest), driving an electric car is equivalent to getting 85 miles per gallon,” the UCS reported. In even the dirtiest energy regions—Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and parts of Indiana—driving electric was equivalent to at least 35 mpg, a hard figure for most cars to match.

Here in the U.S., some 363,000 of the nation’s 253 million automobiles are plug-in electrics, and it’s growing all the time. Among pure electrics, the Nissan Leaf has been the top seller with 89,000 over four years, followed by the Chevy Volt with 82,600 and the Tesla Model S with 55,520. The i3 is a niche player, with U.S. sales in 2015 totalling 11,024 on top of the 6,094 delivered in 2014 after going on sale in May that year. (Even BMW’s mainstream models constituted just 346,023 of the 17 million cars sold in the U.S. last year.) The U.S. makes up 45% of BMW’s global market for i3, sales of which totalled 24,057 in 2015.

A tough sell, to some

Falling gasoline prices are making electrics a tougher sell against their internal combustion counterparts, and so is the reluctance of dealers to sell these largely maintenance-free automobiles. Service generates most of a dealership’s profit, and electrics don’t need much maintenance.

For the consumer, that lack of maintenance translates into low operating costs, especially in areas that also have low electricity rates. Even if you pay relatively high rates for electric power, an electric car will at least put it to good use. Electricity far outpaces other fuels for sheer efficiency, i.e. the percentage of energy used to produce forward motion. Modern gasoline motors can approach an efficiency of 30%, while diesels get close to 50%, but the electric does much better at over 80%, losing only 20% of its power in the charging/discharging cycle.

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The batteries themselves are made of lithium, a chemical element that exists almost everywhere (even in seawater) but is extracted primarily in Australia, China and Chile. Although lithium mining entails its own environmental costs and takes copious amounts of energy, at least the batteries can be recycled once they’re no longer effective at powering automobiles. Old batteries can retain up to 80% of their storage capacity, making them useful for backup and storage. Decommissioned MINI E batteries get a “second life” at BMW’s Technology Office in Mountain View, California; with 70% of their storage remaining, eight batteries provide 240 kilowatt-hours of stationary power via solar energy, which can be used by the Tech Office or returned to the grid. A similar setup will soon be available to consumers, allowing them to store and use energy produced by rooftop solar panels or wind generators rather than feeding it back to the grid; GM and Nissan are reusing Volt and Leaf batteries similarly.

The pricing of electricity is largely based on demand, and most demand occurs during the work day. By contrast, most electric cars get charged in home garages overnight, when demand is lowest. With that in mind, BMW has announced a pilot program known as ChargeForward for i3 owners in the San Francisco Bay Area to co-ordinate charging strategy with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. During high-demand periods, charging your i3 can be delayed by one hour to free up energy for the grid. The pilot program selected 100 i3 owners from 400 applicants, and they’ll be notified via smartphone app that charging will be interrupted for up to one hour. Savings from PG&E are passed on to the participants, who received a signing bonus of $1,000 followed by $540 at the program’s conclusion.

Even if it won’t save the environment, I would love to buy an electric car that is engaging to drive, offers the acceleration of a regular BMW (or better) and has the electric drivetrain’s much lower maintenance requirements. The i3 meets some of those criteria, but it’s not the enthusiast car I ultimately crave. Still, electricity promises a brighter, more efficient future, and with that in mind I’m placing my order for an M2e. At the current pace of development, BMW should be able to offer an affordable sports car powered by lightweight, high-capacity batteries in about five years.

I anticipate its arrival eagerly.

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