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Is there a car better suited to urban life than an i3 REx?  We’ve yet to encounter one...

It’s scarcely believable BMW launched the i3 six years ago already. In 2013, the EV landscape was a desolate one. Fast-forward to today, however, and nearly every carmaker has an EV on the global market, or is on the cusp of launching one (or five).
 
In South Africa, however, such innovative thinking has been painfully slow to reach our shores. The i3 is still the only electric vehicle available for less than a million rand (the sole other EV is the Jaguar I-Pace). Nissan SA hasn’t yet launched its new-generation Leaf – nor has it confirmed whether it will – and the Audi E-tron and Mercedes-Benz EQC will both cost substantially more than the compact BMW as they set chase to the Jaguar. It certainly doesn’t speed up EVs’ arrival that government appears unwilling to do much to boost charging infrastructure, nor offer tax cuts to those buyers keen to purchase an EV, despite the car market quite obviously moving towards electrification at an increasing pace.
 
Still, the i3 is available here and is selling steadily, so there clearly are enough well-to-do urban-bound consumers who are charmed either by its quirky looks and lovely driving manners, or simply can’t wait for the future to arrive … now.
 
Revised for the second time since 2013, the latest i3 boasts a number of enhancements to address range anxiety, plus features design updates outside and in to ensure it remains as contemporary visually as it is under the skin.
 
The biggest change, undoubtedly, is optimisation of the battery array installed in the floor of the i3. Without having grown in physical size, the batteries now have a capacity of 120 Ah (up from 60 Ah in 2013 and 94 Ah on 2016’s facelift) and a gross energy content of 42,2 kWh (which has nearly doubled in six years). What that effectively means is a boost in range of 60 km on the WLTP cycle. Combined with the safety net of the range extender engine – which acts as a generator for the battery pack and is sited above the driven rear axle – a range of at least 300 km is achievable. Sure, the i3 REx is no long-distance road tripper but, if your destination is three hours away and there’s a wall socket where you’re going, it’s a viable option.

You’ll unquestionably enjoy the trip there. Thanks to excellent noise, vibration and harshness control, the i3 rolls along serenely, the peace disturbed only when the two-cylinder engine comes to life and chugs away like a lawnmower following at a distance.
 
Back in town, the instant punch offered by the 125 kW/250 N.m electric motor is addictive. Up to 80 km/h, you’ll leave most cars behind (that sprint takes just 5,75 seconds), after which performance tapers off but remains strong. Overtaking punch is considerable – 40 to 80 km/h is shipped in just 3,05 seconds – making the i3 a fantastic cut-and-thrust commuter. So instantly responsive is the drivetrain to inputs that every gap is an opportunity to gain a few car lengths, aided in no small part by direct, perfectly weighted steering.
 
It’s also extremely easy to grow accustomed to an EV’s novel way of gaining and losing speed. Come off the throttle and the i3 slows at a rapid pace. It takes just a few minutes to acclimatise to the regenerative braking, which ramps up when the drivetrain-management system is switched to eco pro or its even more frugal “+” setting, and often the brakes aren’t needed at all.
 
We took the i3 REx on our 100 km fuel route, on which it used 16,1 kWh, losing 43,5% of its charge. At R1,07 per kWh, that’s R17,19 per 100 km. By comparison, the 320d we tested earlier in 2019 used 5,1 L/100 km, one of the lowest figures we’ve ever achieved on this standardised test. At a cost of R14,63 for a litre of diesel, the 320d would put its owner R74,61 out of pocket.
 
Elsewhere, design updates encapsulate more gloss-black trim, reprofiled bumpers, additional body colours and new LED headlamps. Our test unit looked striking in its Melbourne-Red-and-black combination, accentuated by 20-inch alloys wrapped in comically skinny tyres (for low rolling resistance).

The cockpit’s colour scheme drew praise. Dark Truffle leather stylishly contrasts eucalyptus wood trim as part of a R43 700 Suite design option. Thankfully, the wood trim is available separately for a more palatable R6 500.

Space all-round is more generous than you may imagine – although the front-seat occupants definitely have the preferred seating – and the boot is capable of swallowing a week’s worth of groceries.

TEST SUMMARY

How do you assess a car as enlightened as the i3 in an overtly conservative motoring market? Objectively, it offers poor value for money, boasting neither the practicality of premium SUVs available at its price, nor the balance of convenience, performance and driving pleasure you get with BMW’s own 3 Series.
 
Subjectively, however, the i3 is sublime. Hugely enjoyable to pilot in congested traffic, with a sky-high feel-good factor, if you can afford it and your commute is as clogged as our government’s thinking when it comes to EVs, the i3 is literally and figuratively in a class of its own.   

 

LIGHTNING does indeed strike the same place twice. This time, it’s the BMW i3 that wishes to prove to South Africans that electric vehicles (EV) are the future.

Standing alongside at the red traffic light, a boy-racer in his lowered hatchback stares repulsively at the i3 as if it is some kind of alien creation. Predictably, the green light is met with plenty of revs and wheelspin as the young gentleman needs to clearly state his case. In response, the i3 silently pulls away but builds momentum in an unexpectedly impressive manner – the fuel-burning dinosaur was dispatched in no uncertain terms. Perhaps the concept of an electric car is not such a bad idea?

Nissan clearly believes so. In 2010, it was first to the global market with the Leaf, which won the World Car of the Year title the following year. The firm has sold more than 100 000 units worldwide and in South Africa, a few examples have been sold since the Leaf was launched in the third quarter of 2014.

Its success is relative, however; 100 000 is still a comparatively low number on the absolute scale considering the vehicle’s been on sale for almost four years. So why has BMW (and a number of other brands) decided to join the electric race? Have EVs, as with any new technology, reached a tipping point of mass acceptance sooner than we expected?

DEVELOPMENT & DESIGN

There are two clear directions when engineers and designers envisage an electric car. The first uses a standard vehicle platform and conventional production techniques. The Leaf is such an example, and the electric engine and control module are fitted under the bonnet where an internal-combustion engine would normally be found. There are spatial and efficiency compromises when using this less-expensive option, but Nissan tried to minimise their impact by, for example, placing the 24 kWh battery pack under the floor between the wheels to keep the centre of gravity low. The exterior V-design focused on aerodynamics with the prominent headlamps directing away from the side mirrors to lower drag. The design is clean, albeit quirky in places, but the Leaf does resemble a normal hatchback on our roads. This was quite evident as the vehicle garnered few stares when out and about.

By contrast, the BMW i3’s design philosophy is at the opposite end of the spectrum and clearly defines the second direction: a clean-slate design. Engineers were seemingly given free rein to develop the most efficient electric city car using cutting-edge technology. This includes a carbon-fibre-reinforced-plastic body-in-white structure, thermo-plastic body panels, rear-mounted drivetrain, 22 kWh battery pack under the floor and thin section, large diameter wheels and so on. The i-range’s slogan, “born electric”, therefore stretches deeper than being mere marketing hype. This is a costly and risky alternative, but the end result is striking and a big departure from traditional BMW cues. The rear light arrangement behind a large panel of glass received many complimentary remarks, while the two-tone paint accentuates the futuristic lines of the i3. If you weren’t noticed on arrival, surely the opening of the clamshell doors would do the trick.

INSIDE

Climb into the i3 and you are greeted by more unconventional styling elements such as two floating LCD screens, a chunky gear-selector stalk featuring the starter button (that some found difficult to operate due to its awkward placement), curved dashboard and the use of various materials round the cabin, including recycled material sections in the door panels and far dashboard areas that meet with the vast windscreen. We did find that direct sunlight bounces off the individual fibres and reflects in the windscreen, hindering forward visibility. The seating position is more MPV than compact hatch, but it is easy to get comfortable thanks to plenty of reach-and-rake adjustment on the steering column.

Getting into the two rear seats requires the front doors to be opened first before opening the clamshell rears and their fixed windows (there are no B-pillars). In- and egress are bearable as long as there is enough space to open the doors to their maximum angle. It was almost impossible for one tester to get his children out from the rear seats when parked tightly against other vehicles in a car park.

The short overall length of less than four metres results in limited rear kneeroom (680 mm) and a small boot area (176 dm3) above the sealed drivetrain. At least headroom in the second row is good and the rear seats can fold flat to improve practicality.

The BMW i3 comes with all the mod-cons and our test vehicle was also fitted with an advanced adaptive cruise control with traffic assist that will not only follow the vehicle ahead, but also steer to keep the vehicle in the lane in a traffic-jam scenario on the motorway. Full connected-car ability to your smartphone is possible and you can monitor the state of charge, set the climate control or even unlock the car with the BMW i Remote App, to name a few.

The Leaf is a more conventional five-seater hatch that easily swallows four adults and their luggage. The interior is neat, but even the large infotainment screen and tiered instrument cluster seem ordinary after the i3’s concept-car ambience and the steering column lacks reach adjustment. Overall, the Nissan’s interior feels a bit more substantial than the i3’s, however, owing to the latter’s lightweight panels and frameless doors that tend to wobble when being operated.

THE DRIVING EXPERIENCE

The somewhat long initialising process when the start button in the Leaf is pressed means that patience is required before the transmission controller accepts “drive”. Lean on the accelerator and the Leaf wafts its occupants away in a linear wave of torque and only a slight whirr can be heard. Lift off the accelerator and the Nissan glides along with little regenerative braking taking place (when kinetic energy is used to charge the battery).

B-mode can be selected on the transmission controller to increase the regenerative braking effect. Stamp on the accelerator and the instant torque response can catch you by surprise, with torque steer a real possibility given the front-wheel-drive setup. Performance tapers off after about 80 km/h, although the Leaf easily cruises at the national speed limit. The steering is light and the suspension comfortable.

The BMW i3, by comparison, feels like it is powered by the flux capacitor found in the DeLorean from Back to the Future. Floor the accelerator and 125 kW moving 1,2 tonnes through the rear wheels was never going to be boring. The fact that there are no gear changes hides the rate of acceleration somewhat, but a zero-to-100 km/h test figure of 7,47 seconds is quick. To put it into perspective, the i3’s faster from zero to 100 km/h than a Ford Fiesta ST, but caning the BMW does drain the battery (and reduce the range) quickly.

Although the test vehicle was fitted with narrow 155 (front) and 175 section wheels, the braking performance was very impressive, with an average time of 2,84 seconds from 100 km/h to zero, which was better than the Leaf’s 3,05. Regenerative braking is so severe in the i3 that you rarely need to use the brakes in normal driving. This does take some getting used to and makes it difficult to drive smoothly.

The steering is very direct and there is quite a bit of body roll owing to the soft suspension. The turning circle of less than 10 metres is a boon in the city. Credit must go to BMW for still providing some driving fun in essentially a city vehicle. The one area where the i3 was found wanting was directional stability when cruising in crosswinds.

TEST SUMMARY

Each vehicle will appeal to a different EV audience. The Leaf is a practical vehicle for someone who does not want to stand out from the crowd. The BMW i3 is as much an engineering showcase as it is a styling statement. It should rather be seen as a two-plus-two configuration for confident individuals who want to be seen as eco warriors.

The BMW gets the nod from the team if you must drive an EV, but its margin of victory is small. Half-a-million rand is still a lot of money considering the niche appeal of electric vehicles, with the low running and servicing costs barely warranting the initial capital outlay and limited operating range. We predict a slow initial uptake locally until the technology becomes more affordable, the electric range increases and public charging infrastructure improves.

Location courtesy of Nothgate Park, Cape Town.

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