If you are a company as well known as BMW for innovative engineering, it only makes sense that you get a foot into the electric vehicle business as it begins to really take off. In August 2013 the Germans entered that market with its very first production vehicle, an new entrant into the very competitive hot hatch market, the BMW i3.
It should be made clear that this is not an all electric vehicle in the way that the Tesla vehicles are, or the likes of the Nissan Leaf. The BMW i8, the more high end offering that will debut in 2014 will not be completely all electric either. But as BMW are one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world most people in the green movement see both the i3 and the i8 as a step in the right direction, and given their long track record for making strides in technology it is difficult to imagine that a true EV to rival the Tesla Models S is not too far behind (especially since Tesla are outselling BMW in a number of markets.)
So what does the BMW i3 have to offer? It is a beautiful to behold ultra-lightweight hatchback car, but it is deliciously light. In fact, it is officially the very first mass-produced car that is complexly constructed from carbon fiber reinforced plastic, which means that it weighs in at just 2,700 pounds.
The BMW i3 really is a car designed for the urban driver, the everyday city commuter, unlike the i8 which will be a true performance machine in the classic BMW style. At the moment though, when it makes the move from Europe to the US in early 2014, it is priced a little out of the range of the current hot hatch market at $43,000. That is actually a full $23,000 less than a base level Tesla S but also $14,000 more than the rather lovely Nissan Leaf and $3,000 more than the snappy Chevy Volt.
In terms of range on electric power only the new Beemer is only barely average – managing 80-100 miles (depending on whose estimates you believe) but you can extend that range by allowing the gas powered range extender to kick in (although Mother Nature would really rather that you didn’t.) That little gizmo is a 34-horsepower, 650cc engine – about the size of that on a half decent motorbike – and it will pick up the slack as soon as your battery depletes to a preset level and then double the range if you really need it too. However, it never does directly send any power to the wheels, so that is what the makes the BMW 3i unique. It’s not a hybrid because of that fact, but it is also not a true EV because a stop at a gas pump is a possible necessity.
In terms of speed (which is still important to most drivers if they tell the truth) the i3 can manage 0 to 60 mph in a little under 7 seconds and has a top speed of 93 mph. If the owner opts for the fast charge accessory it can recharge its battery in 30 minutes and without the extra gadget the average is 3 hours on a 240 volt outlet.
As any BMW fan would imagine its features and tech in cabin are nothing short of beautiful though. And in order to create the kind of super luxe interior the company wanted they still managed to be green, as 25% of the plastics in the interior are sourced from recycled materials and there is no leather in sight.
It is kind of hard top see the BMW i3 making a huge impact in the EV market early on because it is very much targeted at an urban market. But BMW is savvy in that it knows that is the market to crack in order to make the idea of an EV mainstream. The green people and those who live in suburban and rural areas are an easier sell. Urban drivers tend to want a classic, reliable vehicle that also has a lot of ‘street cred’. The kind of driver who would probably rather walk than ever get into a SMART but does not quite want to move up to the Tesla S price range just yet in order to go green with dignity. And the BMW i3 may just be the right car for them.
It is also a very positive development for the EV market in general. It is, relatively speaking, a great time for the EV industry. In the first half of 2013 there were 440,000 EVs sold, according to data from research firm Mintel and the fact that a huge hitter like BMW seems committed to pushing forward with the idea of developing low-carbon transportation that is also an acceptable choice in the eyes of the petrol-head can only be a good sign that even better is yet to come.