We tend to think of electric cars as highly utilitarian and basic, and this isn't wrong. Only used as golf carts or milk carts, electric cars have for years been ultra basic. And so too has been the way they drive. BMW, however, has taken it upon itself to launch a compact city car, the electric BMW i3, with all the virtues of a 'driver’s car'. Its objectives are clear. The car should be stylish, well crafted, fun-to-drive and clean.
It looks stunning to begin with; BMW’s new language of curved panel-like surfaces and multiple layers work wonders. It looks edgy, modern and stays away from being whacky; which is a lot. And it isn't long either, at 3999mm.
You step into a slightly alien environment, a blend of techy modern shapes and unfamiliar controls. There's a modern BMW steering wheel and familiar i-drive and HVAC controls, but there are no instruments up front, just a screen. And you select drive modes via a rotary dial-like stalk near the steering. Accommodation up front is excellent, with the BMW i3 imparting an airy and upbeat ambience. The rear suicide doors allow you easy access, and space is decent here too. The seats are very comfortable and the pillar-less rear section gives you a good view outside.
Under the floor sits a 230kg battery pack. The BMW i3 uses a very expensive combination of aluminium, carbonfibre and steel construction for the chassis. But this means it weighs just 1195kg, offsetting the heavy batteries. By comparison, the Nissan Leaf hits the scales at 1525kg. Further weight-saving measures are evident throughout; the outer body is a combination of thermoplastic panels, the windows use thinner glass than you find in more traditional BMW models and interior trim is especially light too.
The advanced carbon monocoque shell also helps endow it with what BMW describes as class leading rigidity. This inherent structural strength has, in fact, allowed designers to do away with traditional B-pillars. Drive is sent to the rear wheels with the choice of three modes: Comfort, Eco Pro and Eco Pro +.
The electric motor puts out the equivalent of 168bhp, and that and the electric motor's instant torque mean the car takes off the moment you brush the throttle. In fact, performance is good enough to out-sprint many hot hatches with 0-100kph taking 7.2sec. The sporting performance is complemented by a light but direct steering. In combination with a low centre of gravity, this allows the i3 to dart in and out of corners. There's no doubt, this new BMW is extraordinarily agile and fun to drive.
There is a bit of roll at the back but the tall, narrow tyres provide relatively strong adhesion. Still, with so much performance on hand it doesn’t take much to get the traction and stability control systems working. One thing you have to get used to however is the dramatic driveline braking. Strong regenerative braking starts the moment you step off the throttle, and this takes a bit of getting used to, because you can't cruise comfortably with a light foot on the throttle. And like a lot of BMWs, ride is a bit thumpy too. The bigger issues however are the limited range, around 130km in the real world (there is a range extender R EX version with a two cylinder BMW bike engine on the cards as well) and the fact that it will cost as much as a 3-series. It will also take six to eight hours to charge it on a regular low voltage mains socket.
BMW has made a real fun-to-drive electric car, there is no doubt; mission accomplished. However, It is unlikely that the unique i3 will make it to the Indian market. It's too expensive for its size and there are no real sops for electric cars in our market. And that's a shame, because it's quite a brilliant little car; and a real BMW on top of it.