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BMW i3 preview

Lem Bingley pores over the new BMW i3 electric car with a fine tooth comb ahead of our full review.

BMW’s i3 electric car was finally unveiled this week, drawing a line under its bid for worst-kept secret of 2013. Leaked photographs weren’t hard to find several days before the reveal, following months of official images that took a lads-mag approach to covering up.

So there were no surprises when the silk sheet was whipped away simultaneously in London, New York and Beijing, in a wince-worthy satellite broadcast reminiscent of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Design

Some of the design details may jar. The familiar double-oval kidney grille is purely for show, for example.Up close, the BMW i3 seems about the size of a Mini Countryman, with a similar raised stance and chunky demeanour. It’s actually about a centimetre taller than the Countryman, fractionally narrower and – at four metres long – about 10cm shorter. That’s closer to the length of supermini like the VW Polo, but the i3 has much greater presence due to its height and arresting style.

Some of the design details may jar, however. The familiar double-oval kidney grille is purely for show, for example, fashioned from smooth and shiny plastic and looking a little fake as a result. And the car’s shoulder line takes an awkward dip in the middle, as if rear window glass was ordered a size too large.

The i3’s overhangs are exceptionally small front and rear, the snub-nosed bonnet is Fiat 500-short, and by contrast the wheels are strikingly large. The forged aluminium rims are 19 inches in diameter as standard, shod with narrow-looking 155/70 tyres. Twenty-inch alloys are an option, while either choice of wheel provides a long contact patch, offering reasonable grip, combined with a slim frontal area for reduced drag.

The narrow rear side doors are hinged at the back, coach-style, and can be opened only after the front doors have been swung out of the way, as with a Mazda RX-8. The front doors feature coupé-style frameless glazing, while the rear-door glass is framed and fixed in place.

The rear side doors are hinged at the back and can be opened only after the front doors have been swung out of the way.The minimalist interior looks fabulous and fresh, with many surfaces clad in materials not normally found in cars – there’s naturally treated leather, pale eucalyptus wood, felt made from wool, plus various other tactile surfaces alongside the more usual pieces of moulded plastic.

Four trim levels will be offered, though BMW hasn’t yet clarified what each will entail. They’re called Standard, Loft, Lodge and Suite.

Power

The extended-range edition is apparently intended as a get-you-home rather than a take-you-on-holiday option.BMW will offer two editions of the i3, a purely battery-powered electric car starting at £25,680 (after a £5,000 contribution from the government’s plug-in car grant), as well as a hybrid edition called the i3 Range Extender, costing £3,150 more.

Both versions are entirely electrically propelled, with a 125kw (170bhp) electric motor mounted at the back of the car, driving the rear wheels. The Range Extender squeezes a 650cc two-cylinder petrol engine alongside the motor, which has the sole task of generating electricity when the battery charge runs low.

The battery itself is housed at floor level between the axles. Capacity is 22kWh – about 8 per cent less than a Nissan Leaf – and typical driving range is quoted as 80 to 100 miles.

The extended-range edition is apparently intended as a get-you-home rather than a take-you-on-holiday option. The fuel tank, squeezed into the nose of the car, carries just nine litres of petrol and the car will squawk for a refill after 60 to 80 miles of running on its generator.

The other option is to recharge the battery, of course. As standard, UK cars will accept 7.4kW charging, via an optional BMW i Wallbox (currently £315 installed at home) or a public fast-charger. This should take the battery to 80 per cent capacity within three hours. Rely on a three-pin plug and you’re looking at eight to 10 hours from empty to full, best done overnight.

Optionally, DC rapid charging can provide an 80% fill-up in half an hour or so – though this variety of charging post is currently as common as a kindly loan shark.

Interestingly, customers opting to lease an i3 from BMW can also sign up for access to an alternative vehicle – an X5, say – for a specified number of weeks per year. A three-year lease costs from £369 per month after an initial £2,995 payment, capped at 8,000 miles per year. The Range Extender model in top Suite trim will cost £480 per month.

Performance

It’s exceptionally light for an electric car saddled with a quarter-tonne battery. A Nissan Leaf, built conventionally from sheet steel, weighs 30 per cent more at 1,567kg.The i3 is built like no other car on the road, with a low-slung aluminium chassis carrying the battery, suspension and motor, topped with a carbon-fibre shell providing the body strength and structure, decorated with plastic panels to give the external shape and style.

As a result, weight is about the norm for a car of the i3’s size at 1,195kg, which means it’s exceptionally light for an electric car saddled with a quarter-tonne battery. A Nissan Leaf, built conventionally from sheet steel, weighs 30 per cent more at 1,567kg.

With much of its weight concentrated at axle height, coupled with rear-wheel drive, the i3 ought to handle like a proper BMW.

Zipping from rest to 62mph requires just 7.2 seconds (or 7.9 seconds for the heavier Range Extended version), while the 50-75mph caravan hurdle takes 4.9 seconds. The instant torque of an electric motor means the i3 can even outdrag an M3 – for the first half-second, after which the i3’s challenge will tend to wilt like a limp lettuce. Top speed is capped at 93mph.

Most potential owners are unlikely to choose an i3 for its power output, and indeed the car’s drive controller offers no sports mode, only Comfort, Eco Pro or Eco Pro+. Driving in Eco Pro mode softens responses and dials back power usage to provide an extra 12 miles of range. Eco Pro+ does more of the same to add another 12 miles on top.

Practicality

Flip open the glazed hatch at the back and the luggage compartment looks small. At just 260 litres it swallows 16 litres less than a Ford Fiesta. The boot floor is fairly high off the ground too, and under the carpet there’s a sheet of aluminium decorated with warning labels rather than a handy storage well or a spare wheel.

The space under the rear deck is home to the electric drive motor and power electronics. Flop the rear seats forward and the luggage volume increases to 1,100 litres, or about average for a supermini.

Up front there’s no engine, of course, but there is a breadbin-sized compartment for carrying the car’s charging cable plus other odds and ends.

With the battery built into the floor, the interior has the slightly raised feel of a crossover. The half-width rear doors give reasonable access to the back seats, though the i3 is made to carry four rather than five people.

Outlook

Sales should be strong for an electric car, though it is too soon to tell if the i3 will ever become a mainstream choice in the style of the Toyota Prius.At the BMW i3’s launch, BMW compared its new car to the arrival of the mobile phone after 100 years of landlines – a breakthrough poised to unlock previously unimaginable possibilities. We wouldn’t go quite that far, but the i3 certainly has more going for it than most electric cars. The BMW brand has huge appeal, while the price is in 3-Series territory, squarely in the company’s heartland.

However, the electric car market remains a tiny niche, with BMW estimating global uptake of only 150,000 units this year. The company hasn’t revealed any sales targets of its own, confirming only that it is geared up to produce the i3 in volume. Sales should be strong for an electric car, though it is too soon to tell if the i3 will ever become a mainstream choice in the style of the Toyota Prius.

Orders for the i3 open in August, with the first UK cars due to arrive on 16 November.

Key Specs

Engine: Synchronous electric motor
Battery: 22kWh, 360V liquid-cooled lithium-ion
Power: 125kW/170bhp
Torque: 250Nm
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 7.2 seconds
Top speed: capped at 93mph
Driving range: 80 to 100 miles per charge
Emissions: 0g/km
Price: from £25,680 after government grant (£30,680 before grant)

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