As more and more electric cars enter the marketplace, Siliconrepublic.com managed to get its hands on BMW’s first all-electric car, the i3, heralding a future series of BMW electric vehicles (EVs).
With this in mind, and a limited number of pure electric models in Ireland, BMW is now breaking into the market as arguably the first luxury brand to sell EVs.
However, the notion that the car is entirely electric is not technically true depending on which model you go for. There is the standard i3 all-electric vehicle, but if you want to spend a little bit more money and have the peace of mind that you won’t be stuck with a flat battery, there is the Range Extender (RE) version, which comes with a two-cylinder 0.9-litre engine used in BMW's range of motorbikes.
This engine doesn’t directly power the car but rather powers a generator that adds charge to the battery once you reach a percentage of 25pc of the battery remaining.
Just by looking at the car you can certainly call it ‘striking’. The pure white angular features of the body make it stand out from its more round-shaped petrol alternatives, and yet the engineers behind its construction will tell you that it has spent thousands of hours in wind tunnels to make the car as aerodynamic, and more importantly efficient, as possible.
And that’s the key word here, efficient. As an electric car, early adapters of the technology, at least in its first years of reaching the commercial market, will be anxious as to the range of the car’s battery and the fear of being left stranded in the middle of nowhere without a power source, as the i3 is specifically designed to be as sleek and as light as possible.
With regard to weight, the car’s body is made entirely of carbon fibre for that lightweight design, coming in at 1,270kg and 1,390kg for the RE.
Because of carbon fibre’s sturdiness, the most noticeable aspect of the car’s five doors are the side rear-hinged doors, more commonly known as ‘suicide doors’, which have no central pillar, making it easier for rear passengers to get in and out of the car.
However, this does include a noticeable omission for rear passengers: a lack of control over windows, which leaves them with just solid glass to look through and no air-conditioning in the back.
The iconic BMW propeller badge now as an electric blue rim
The key component of the i3 is its BMW-designed lithium-ion 18.8kWh engine, which when driving has an acceleration rate comparable to some of the higher-powered cars.
As an EV, the car is obviously designed more with city comforts in mind but having been for a spin on the motorway it can compete with its noisier petrol neighbours with a top speed of 150km/h and can go 0-100km/h in 7.2 seconds.
In terms of how far the car can go on a single charge, it follows the same concept as a combustion engine in that the faster you go, the faster your battery will drain.
According to documentation from BMW, the car’s range at its most efficient speed can be as high as 200km or as high as 340km for the RE version, given its extra generator.
In ‘comfort mode’ acceleration is not as limited as it is in the eco-friendly mode, as range drops considerably to between 130-160km on a full charge.
From my experience at speeds of 120km/h, the battery indicator in the dashboard was decreasing 1km in range about every four minutes as opposed to every 10km during regular driving.
So to keep this fast EV on the road, what does it take to charge the i3 to full capacity?
With just over 1,500 ESB public charging points across Ireland, the long distances between charging points is thankfully narrowing as time goes on.
However, the slow times needed to charge an EV to full capacity still exist.
This isn’t a criticism of the i3, by the way, as the infrastructure in Ireland is still catching up to what it needs to be – that is, with numerous fast-charging points available which could fill the car’s battery in a little over half an hour.
At the standard and more common charging points, BMW’s official estimate is that it should take between three and six hours at a rate of 7.4kW, similar to what I experienced.
For the home user, there is also the option to use a standard electric three-pin plug that connects to the car’s charger.
Given the lower rate of voltage however, BMW advises the car be left to charge overnight if possible, as it will take more than eight hours to bring it to over an 80pc charge and will also ensure a lower electricity bill.
The least you expect from a BMW is that it should drive like a BMW and with the i3, there appears to be little difference in comparison with its petrol cousins.
Putting the car into corners with a turning circle of 9.86 metres is a doddle and handles very well, even at the higher speeds.
Likewise, the ride is impressively smooth, which is only helped by the noiseless electric engine but mind going over those speed ramps as the suspension is quite firm.
Turning on the car feels very much like starting some sort of aircraft as you press a variety of buttons to hear what sounds like a computer starting up, which is oddly satisfying.
The central screen houses the Bluetooth-connected phone system, navigation, radio and music player, but for those of you who find the rigmarole of setting up a Bluetooth connection too frustrating, there are also USB and aux connections.
It also includes BMW’s impressive Connected Drive, giving you a direct line to BMW’s online monitoring and customer service, which can let you ring a physical human being and ask for nearby points of interest, which is a very nice touch.
In terms of controlling what’s on screen, the scroll wheel that has been in place in many cars throughout the last number of years has been given an upgrade, as the i3 also has voice activation for its phone and navigation, with destinations and contacts being available at the click of the wheel and your voice.
If you’re feeling a little hoarse, however, the top of the wheel also acts as a touch pad so you can write out the letters to find the contact or destination you’re looking for.
The BMW i3's interior
Pricing and verdict
As an electric car, anyone looking to buy the i3 can expect to receive some significant financial incentives in the form of tax relief and grants to the tune of thousands of euro.
For example, the standard BMW i3 has an on the road (OTR) price of €44,010.
However, for simply owning an electric car you can expect to get back €5,000 in vehicle registration tax (VRT) relief and €5,000 as part of a grant with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), which is certainly enough to consider being one of Ireland’s early adapters.
For the RE version, however, you receive half the amount of VRT relief as its pure-electric brother, coming in at €48,540 minus €2,500 VRT relief and €5,000 SEAI grant, bringing the total to €41,040.
So is it worth it and who is this car suited for? With the current state of the electric charging infrastructure in Ireland, living in a large apartment block with no access to wall sockets effectively rules you out. You might be 20 minutes away from your nearest charging point, meaning you have to leave your car alone on a street as it charges overnight.
If you’re a suburbanite, you can simply plug your car into a wall socket in, say, a garage, and leave it overnight.
It’s certainly not the cheapest car on the market, however, as Ireland’s most numerous EV, the Nissan Leaf, starts out from €20,990. But as the i3 is from BMW, a luxury brand, it certainly is hard to draw comparisons with its less expensive Japanese rival.
In essence, it’s very fun, smooth and easy to drive and if you fancy yourself as an early clean-energy adapter with some extra money lying around, this could be the luxury car for you … with a conscience.