Gale-force winds and driving rain have battered the city of Amsterdam, almost as if nature wanted to join in with the launch of a vehicle that may be the future of green mobility. Inside the cabin, it was quiet and calm with only the strongest wind gusts lifting the frameless glass off the rubber seals to create a hissing sound. The BMW i3 is conquering everything nature can throw at it, not to mention the city traffic and tight roads (you can watch a video here).

Taking a step back: the production electric vehicle (EV) is no longer only a pipe dream. Nissan launched the first high-volume production EV, the Leaf, which is now available in South Africa. Volkswagen has announced plans to bring in the e-Golf and other manufacturers are taking note.

BMW has taken the brave step of creating an all-new i-brand and rather than converting existing models to accept electric powertrains, it has decided to start with a clean sheet. Carbon-fibre was for the first time used as the material of choice for body-in-white structure in a high-production vehicle and assisted to reduce the vehicle weight, including batteries, to only 1 195 kg. The layout of a rear-mounted electric motor connected to the rear axle by a single-speed transmission and batteries under the floor, allowed the vehicle to be compact and agile (less than four metres and a turning circle of 9,86 metres) while still spacious inside.

Sci-fi styling

Styling-wise, the vehicle looks like it has driven straight off the set of a sci-fi movie. The design is striking and modern with the clever use of body colours showcasing the lines and creases of individual body panels. The 19-inch wheels of only 155-section (for lower rolling resistance) fills the wheel arches and LED lights round off the package. Journalists were divided on some design elements (especially the dipping shoulder line) but expect the i3 to draw as much attention as supercars once on our roads.

Spacious inside

Inside the futuristic theme continues. The i3 is proud to show off the use of recycled materials and raw earth constituents like the wood on the facia. Flowing lines meet a floating infotainment screen and the beautifully crafted steering wheel fell easily to hand (with the most reach adjustment I have ever encountered). The small, square instrument screen seams a little out of place considering all the styling drama inside but displayed the necessary information in a logical manner.

Suicide rear doors (that can only be opened when the front doors are open) with fixed windows give restricted access to the rear bench. Note that only two passengers can be accommodated in the rear as drinks holders occupy the central space. Legroom is limited but there is plenty of headroom. The boot area above the engine compartment can hold 280 dm3 of luggage space that can easily be increased by folding the rear seats. Displaying the electric motor to your neighbours is unfortunately not possible as bolts keep the base plate of the boot shut.

On the go

The vehicle is started by pushing the start button on the massive stalk to the right of the steering wheel. Turn the end of the stalk to the D-position and you are ready to move off. The i3 does not creep forward like a vehicle fitted with an automatic transmission but needs pressure on the accelerator before the journey can commence. The response of the electric motor is instantaneous. With 125 kW and 250 N.m on tap, acceleration is brisk, despite only having one fixed gear ratio. Kinetic energy is recuperated through regenerative braking when your foot is taken off the accelerator. Top speed is a claimed 150 km/h, which means that cruising at the national speed limit is effortless. This is not the vehicle’s forte, however, as the technology makes most sense in a city environment where the occupants enjoy their own quiet space in rush-hour traffic while the vehicle deals with every situation in a graceful manner.

A typical BMW

The steering was found to be quite meaty with excellent feel in true BMW tradition – yes, this is still a driver’s car. The suspension setup is on the soft side to promote a comfortable ride but, surprisingly, the grip levels are much higher than anticipated. The elevated driving position resembles more MPV than sedan but gives the driver an excellent vantage point.

EVs in general are pioneers of the connected-car capability and the i3 is no different. With a SIM card permanently installed in the vehicle, the owner only has to download the i3 application on his smartphone to gain access to a menu of features. This include remote state of charge monitoring, viewing historic driving performance, unlocking doors and even activating the horn which was amusing on the launch. Further capability in the vehicle comprise of a function to search for the closest charging station, viewing your available range on a map and even the option to switch to public transport which is available in Europe.

There are a few charging options available to the owner of an i3. Firstly, the normal household wall socket with a charging time of around eight hours, then a dedicated house charging system utilising three-phase electricity supply capable of charging the battery in three to five hours depending on charger specification. Lastly, a dedicated 50 kW DC public charger has been developed by BMW that can charge the pack in less than 30 minutes

On sale in SA

South Africa will only receive a limit number of i3s toward the end of 2014 and expect it to sell for just below the R500 000 mark. Yes it is expensive, but the energy cost is around one fifth of an equivalent petrol vehicle. Having experienced the technology first hand, I can truly say that this would make the perfect city or commuting vehicle, even in South Africa with no government buying incentives and a lack of public charging infrastructure (as most households that can afford the vehicle will have a garage with power socket). The main question is – are you willing to join the revolution?

*Specifications
Model: BMW i3
Engine: synchronous motor with integrated power electronics, charger and generator mode for recuperation
Power/Torque: 125 kW/250 N.m
Battery pack: 22 kWhr lithium-ion
0-100 km/h: 7,2 secs
Top speed: 150 km/h
Range: 130 km – 160 km depending on drive style
CO2 rating: 0 g/km
Price: Less than R500 000 (indicative)
*According to BMW