Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Breath Of Fresh Air: Driving the BMW i3.

 photo DSC03103.jpg After multiple teasers and an unveiling at the BMW Expo, the BMW i3 has finally touched down on our local roads and we were given the privilege of being one of the earliest to sample this revolutionary vehicle in Singapore.  photo DSC02774.jpg Let us first take a brief look at the philosophy behind BMW i. BMW's latest baby sub-division, kind of like like BMW M, but instead dedicated to innovative and ground breaking concepts for sustainable mobility. From the energy-intensive carbon fibre manufacturing factory set up in Moses Lake, USA, tapping power from the World's largest hydroelectric power plant to the assembly and manufacturing facilities in Leipzig that relies on 100% renewable energy sources. Their philosophy, Born Electric, starts true right from the very start. Presented by their two current offerings. The i3 and the i8. Both cars pave the way forward in sustainable mobility and at the same time, bring the future of motoring to our present day.  photo DSC02784.jpg Away from exhibition halls and showroom floors, the i3 stands out with its futuristic design accented by the use of dual-tone colors. Sitting rather wide and tall, it isn't as small as the press pictures might suggest. But having a short footprint and wheels positioned at each corner with minimal overhang, makes zipping about in town and maneuvering around tight spots a doddle. That unique shape doesn't just look bold, but underneath the plastic body panels sit one of the most important bits of the i3, its carbon fibre passenger body cell, dubbed the "LifeDrive Module". Marking a first in bringing this material to a mass production vehicle, what was once used only in aerospace and exotic machinery is around 50 % lighter than steel and around 30 % lighter than aluminum. As you can imagine, this keeps weight low, necessary to offset the weight of the batteries with the high-tensile material bringing the added benefits of increased safety, versatility in creating unconventional shapes, and allowing for dynamic driving characteristics.  photo DSC02810.jpg Having something so radical in construction and design, this can only mean that even though it's not a low-slung noisy supercar (quite the opposite really), it does get quite a bit of attention from fellow drivers and pedestrians alike. Heads turn and camera phones are whipped out either from amazement or sheer confusion seeing this strange car on our local roads.  photo DSC03255.jpg  photo DSC03281.jpg BMW has to be commended for bringing something so different and bold to production, looking like nothing else on the road, The i3 has created a new twist to traditional BMW design. Gone are the double halos and in their place are U-shaped DRL graphics, now a signature BMW i element. The kidney grilles remain but with no need for cooling air to flow through, are now enclosed and depending on choice of exterior color, are accentuated by an accent color in either BMW i Blue or Frozen Grey. The use of a dual-tone color scheme reinforces its futuristic design language, developing a flowing silhouette that runs from the bonnet, up the roof, through the side windows, and dipping slightly before tapering off after the rear quarter panels and finishing off at the tailgate. BMW call's this the "Black belt". I call it "Awesome".  photo DSC03294.jpg  photo DSC03297.jpg One of the reasons why the pictures might have given the impression of this being a smaller car is that, being conditioned to think of eco-cars having small wheels, we'd never have imagined that the i3 rolls on standard 19s. These are no ordinary bling bling 19s though, they have been specially developed for the i3. Coming with the skinniest tires ever fitted to a 4-wheeled BMW. This Reduces rolling resistance and together with aerodynamic details, ensure their highest efficiency.  photo DSC03150.jpg  photo DSC03209.jpg  photo DSC03167.jpg Opening the suicide doors, the CF tub frame is exposed for all to see on the door sills. As we all know, carbon fibre doesn't get its strength from material alone but mostly in the way it's weaved, and i was told the exposed CF tub is left exposed so that in the event of a scuff, technicians will be able to see the weave of the CF and work in the repairs as needed. The typical glossy resin was also left out to save the overall weight of the vehicle. And i thought it was done just to look "cool".  photo DSC03303.jpg Stepping over the CF frame and getting into the i3 presents a whole new take on interior surfacing and textures. BMW calls the interior design on the i3, "Next Premium", and presents a wonderfully beautiful combination of textures and surfaces that are rarely seen in production cars. All of which are made from either recyclable materials or from certified sustainable sources.  photo DSC03161.jpg  photo DSC03157.jpg  photo DSC03056.jpg Our car came equipped with the "Lodge" trim spec and looking like a Ray & Charles Eames homage, gives a very light, airy and almost scandinavian feel to the interior space. Having the energy storage systems located under the floor of the LifeDrive module and no conventional gearbox to house, this gives the entire interior space a flat floor and again, contributing to the lovely sense of space.  photo DSC03234.jpg I especially like the curved and flowing eucalyptus wood on the dash and the tanned leather accents on the seats and door cards. Lovely to look at and pleasantly tactile to the touch. Juxtapose these with the very high-tech gizmos on the dash and it becomes one of the most lovely interior spaces ever to grace an automobile. There are a couple of other trim options, but if you are ever in the privileged position of buying an i3, this is the interior to have.  photo DSC03237.jpg Interior space for four adults is good and the rear seats accommodate taller passengers readily, though the rear seating remains strictly for two with a cubby hole in the middle to eliminate any thoughts you might have of fitting in a third passenger. Rear passengers will also have a nice view out the sides as the rear glass sits lower than those up front. Boot space is not fantastic, but as it was designed to be a city-car first, should be sufficient for all trips to the malls and supermarkets.  photo P1170996.jpg Remember the first time you held an iPhone in your hand and thought to yourself that things are never going to be the same again? This is that moment the minute you thumb the starter button in the i3. Contrary to what you might have read or seen, it is not entirely silent. There is a faint sci-fi-ish startup sound as the electrics spin up to life as the auxiliaries light up. Same for shutting down the car, you get faint spinning down whine when you turn it off. This has strangely provided me with a nerdy sense of joy every time i get in the car. No, not a car, it's a Star Trek shuttlecraft!  photo DSC02790.jpg It might sound like i'm gushing but the i3 is one of the cars that i really enjoy making journeys in. From the moment the car starts to the end of the my commute. Without the need for a conventional gearbox, all the controls normally found on the center console have been repositioned to the steering column with only 3 basic drive modes selectable with a nicely sculpted knob. "Drive", "Neutral" and "Reverse". Park is a separate button located on the same chunky stalk or if you are lazy, auto-engages once the car is turned off.  photo DSC03242.jpg With only a single gear for forward propulsion and full power from rest, the i3 has one of the smoothest drive-trains on the market. Acceleration is quick yet so very silky smooth and with no gears to shift through, makes for the sort of progress i have never experienced before on any other car. Apart from the same science-fiction-esque electric ascending sound and the rumble of those skinny profile tires, you'd hardly hear anything else emanating from the i3.

It's quite surreal the first time you do it and subsequently still feels out of this World every time you put your foot to the floor. I enjoyed the serenity inside so much, most of the time i drove with the radio off. All you get with the hammer nailed is just a very smooth constant flow of propulsion, nothing more, nothing less. And nothing else on our local roads drives like this. 100km/h comes up in about 7.9 seconds and because there are not gears to shuffle though, feels slightly more brisk. Immediate getaway from rest usually startles most road users as the full gamut of 250Nm comes in from pretty much the moment you plant your foot down. Mid-range acceleration for overtaking maneuvers and slicing through city traffic is equally impressive as the i3 picks up speed at a pace you might not expect. You will have to keep your eyes on that speed readout if you value your license.  photo DSC03061.jpg Thankfully, the speed limit of each road you are on is displayed prominently on the main readout as keeping track of speed by ear is pretty much impossible. Most of time, you'll be traveling quicker than you think. Live traffic reports also popup once in a while to keep you informed of any oncoming road hazards. Steering though remains light and slightly devoid of feel on the straight ahead, the car still tracks well and with its wide stance, keeps the i3 stable throughout most road conditions.  photo DSC03128.jpg The BMW i3 also comes with regenerative braking. What this means is, when you lift your foot off the throttle, the car starts to regenerate energy back into its batteries and at the same time, produces a braking effect and slows the car to a halt eventually. It might seem slightly alien and maybe cumbersome at first but doesn't take very long to get used to and driving with just one pedal becomes a very intuitive thing to do. Step to go, release to slow down. It also eliminates the yo-yo effect of conventional brakes when coming to a stop.  photo DSC03174.jpg Now we come to the handling part which to be honest seems quite contradictory to the whole point of the i3. No one is going to buy this car to throw around the twisties, but surprisingly, the folks over at BMW have spent quite a bit of time tinkering and fiddling to make this car do things few would venture into. Though the steering still feels a tad light, the car rides and rotates very well. Don't be fooled by the height of the vehicle, most of it's weight is positioned below the passenger floor and coupled with BMW's slightly firm damper settings, gives the i3 pretty good road holding characteristics!

The regenerative braking effect of coming off throttle comes into play as lifting off the throttle immediately gives what normally we would consider engine braking to slow the car down, as you turn in and feed in the power, the rear squats under the electric torque and gracefully propels you forward with minimal fuss, minimal noise, maximum efficiency. It's no M3, but it holds true to BMW's commitment of developing cars for "Sheer driving pleasure".  photo DSC03305.jpg Let's now come to the topic of range. Of course this all depends on individual driving styles, if you hammer it down every road, i don't think you can expect to get very far. But i had it over a couple of days, and driving the i3 on "Comfort" mode and air-con on all the way with a mixture of frugal and frenetic throttle applications, i managed to get about 210km's before running out of petrol for the range extender, with 33km's left on the batteries. So overall, I'm guessing a full range of 240-250km's is easily within reach for most under normal driving conditions.  photo P1170979.jpg Just how does the range extender work? In a nutshell, it is a 2-cylinder motorcycle engine that acts as a backup electricity generator for the electric motor. You can either set it to come on manually (via the iDrive) once the batteries reach 70% capacity and below, or wait for it to come on by default once the batteries hit the 20% mark. The range extender will then kick in to hold the batteries at whatever percent the batteries are currently at. So if you manually activate it when the batteries are at 50%, it will hold the charge at 50% (give or take 1-2%) until it runs out of juice (The ancient dinosaur type).

Most drivers could of course just leave it on the default setting and let it come in at the 20% mark but i found a nice way of working it into my journeys. In town and around the neighborhood, i ran full electric e-Power, but once on the expressways, turn on the range extender to help with my highway commute. The range extender gives the car a slight bit of vibration but with more road and traffic noise on the e-ways, becomes hardly noticeable. Interestingly though, i found the car slightly livelier with the extender turned off.  photo DSC_2103_500.jpg  photo DSC_2101_500.jpg Once the range extender runs out of petrol, prepare for the cheapest fill up ever! An i3 in a petrol station, a rare sight.

Understandably there is a lack of infrastructure in Singapore for EV vehicles and although a chicken-egg situation with the charging stations, it would be nice if more companies and industrial players jumped onto the EV bandwagon. After all, Singapore's size and connectivity should by right, make it the perfect place to run electric. Makes you wonder why isn't the Government giving more incentives or putting in more effort to push for alternative energy vehicles. Of course, to the i3's benefit, when you do buy one, the local dealer will install a charging point in your home just for your i3.  photo P1170982.jpg Overall, i really really enjoyed my time driving the i3. It is probably one of the best cars I've driven this year and by far the most interesting and innovative, and at the same time, is able to make simple commutes and short journeys interesting.  photo P1170991.jpg Yes there is a contention over its price. At slightly over S$236,000, it isn't what one may call, affordable transport for the masses. Close to the price of a 328i, most people i talked to could not fathom the idea of going for the EV over something more conventional. But look at it this way, you could of course go for the 328i, an excellent car no doubt, but with the i3, you are no longer just getting a car, you are stepping into the future.


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