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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.
Long-term test (Introduction): BMW i3 REx

“May I please borrow the i3 over lunch?” “Are you taking the i3 tonight?” “Who will be using the i3 this weekend?” I’ve been bombarded with these clamouring questions since the day the i3 arrived in our test fleet.

Never before has a long-term car been so popular for commuter duties. The fact that CAR’s offices are about 10 km from Cape Town’s CBD, and that most of us head out over lunch time to run errands and grab a bite somewhere, contributes to the car’s current popularity. However, there are further reasons why the team enjoys BMW’s i3.

Our model is the range-extender (REx) i3, which means that, unlike the i3 we tested in the January 2015 issue, in addition to the electric powertrain, it’s equipped with a 647 cm3 petrol-powered engine taken from BMW Motorrad bike division that functions as a generator when the battery is depleted (it kicks in when there are a few kilometres of charge left).

When the batteries are fully charged and the petrol tank is topped up, the i3’s total range is about 220 km (split 120 km to the electric powertrain and 100 km on the bike engine when its nine-litre fuel tank is filled to the brim). This means that we rarely, if ever, use the latter when heading into town. My daily home-and-back journey of just more than 50 km is also done solely on electric power.
What that means is that the i3 is a relaxing compatriot on stressful, traffic-clogged routes because the instant response in electric mode is a joy to use and ride comfort over the Mother City’s rutted inner-city roads is commendable.

Owing to the nature of the drivetrain, the torque is immediately available the moment you press the throttle pedal. The result is that you take gaps in the traffic that you wouldn’t with any other type of vehicle, and harassing a few VW Golf GTI drivers in the process…

From the driver’s seat, there’s a real sense of having driven the vehicle straight off an international motor show stand. It’s hard to believe the i3 is already three years old, as it feels extremely modern and advanced inside thanks to such materials as real carbon-fibre and recycled plastics, and two floating information screens.

That said, it’s also practical – four adults can fit in acceptable comfort and the boot is well sized – well equipped and beautifully finished.

Perhaps this model’s biggest triumph is the fact that range anxiety, so often a concern with electric vehicles, becomes a lesser consideration thanks to the range-extender engine. Deputy ed Terence Steenkamp will soon test whether the i3 has the chops to take on the open road when he visits the Garden Route. Yes, he’ll have to stop at almost every town along the N2 to refuel the small petrol tank, but this journey should prove how multi-talented the little i3 is … or may just show how far electric vehicles still have to go.

After 1 month
Mileage now:
1 086 km
Energy consumption: 18,76 kW/h/100 km
We like: immediacy of power delivery
We don’t like: divisive exterior design

2019 BMW i3 (120Ah)

R719,900
Ref No: 1671517

Manufacturer Specifications

Standard - standard Optional - optional
  • Cloth upholstery: Standard
  • Leather bolster spartial leather: Optional
  • Leather upholstery: Optional
  • Seats quantity: 4
  • Split rear seat: Standard
  • Folding rear seat: Standard
  • Air conditioning: Standard
  • Climate control automatic air conditioning: Standard
  • Cup bottle holders: front + rear
  • Front armrests: Standard
  • Heated ventilated seats: opt front heated
  • Antilock braking system (ABS): Standard
  • Electronic brake distribution (EBD): Standard
  • Brake assist (BAS/EBA): Standard
  • Traction control: Standard
  • Stability control: Standard
  • Tyre pressure sensor monitor deflation detection system: Standard
  • Driver airbag: Standard
  • Front passenger airbag: Standard
  • Front side airbags: Standard
  • Curtain airbags: Standard
  • Airbag quantity: 6
  • Automatic drive away locking: Standard
  • ISOFIX child seat mountings: rear
  • Directional turning headlights: opt LED
  • Adaptive headlights varying light distribution: opt LED
  • Emergency brake hazardlights: emergency-brake flashing brake lights
  • Start stop button: Standard
  • Hillstart assist hillholder: Standard
  • Alloy wheelsrims: Standard
  • Driving mode switch eg sport comfort: eco
  • Power steering: Standard
  • Multifunction steering wheel controls: Standard
  • On board computer multi information display: Standard
  • Navigation: Standard
  • Cruise control: std + brake (opt adaptive)
  • Active adaptive cruise control: Optional
  • Bluetooth connectivity: Standard
  • Voice control: Standard
  • Aux in auxiliary input: Standard
  • USB port: Standard
  • Powersocket 12V: front + boot
  • Central locking: remote (opt keyless)
  • Remote central locking: Standard
  • Key less access start hands free key: Optional
  • Electric windows: front (rear fixed)
  • Rain sensor auto wipers: Standard
  • Auto dim interior mirror: Standard
  • Electric adjust mirrors: Standard
  • Heated exterior mirrors: Standard
  • Auto dimexterior mirrors: Standard
  • Sun roof: Optional
  • Daytime driving running lights: LED
  • Light sensor auto on off lights: Standard
  • Xenon headlights: LED
  • Highbeam assist: Standard
  • Highlevel 3rd brakelight: Standard
  • Rear fog lamps lights: Standard
  • Park distance control PDC: rear (opt front + rear + rear camera + park assist)
  • Camera for park distance control: opt rear
  • Metallic pearl escent paint: Optional
  • Fuel Type: electric
  • Electric start: Standard
  • Fuel range average: 260-310 electric km
  • Driven wheels: rear
  • Driven wheels quantity: 2
  • Gearratios quantity: E
  • Gearshift: automatic
  • Transmission type: automatic
  • Electromechanical parking brake: Standard
  • Front tyres: 155/70 R19 (opt 155/60 R20)
  • Reartyres: 155/70 R19 (opt 175/60 R19 / opt 175/55 R20)
  • Length: 4011 mm
  • Width excl mirrors incl mirrors: 1775-2039 mm
  • Height: 1577 mm
  • Wheel base: 2570 mm
  • Ground clearance minimum maximum: 139 mm
  • Turning circle wheels body: 9.9 m
  • Load volume / capacity: 260-1100 L
  • Load volume / capacity: 1100 L
  • Unladen/tare/kerb weight: 1345 kg
  • Load carrying capacity / payload: 425
  • Gross weight (GVM): 1710 kg
  • Towing capacity - unbraked: 0
  • Towing capacity - braked: 0
  • Fuel tank capacity (incl reserve): 0l
  • Fuel consumption average: 0.0 l/100km
  • CO2 emissions average: 0g/km
  • Power maximum: 125 kW
  • Power maximum total: 125e kW
  • Torque maximum: 250 Nm
  • Torque maximum total: 250e Nm
  • Acceleration 0-100 kmh: 7.3s
  • Maximum top speed: 150 km/h
  • Engine capacity: electric cc
  • Engine size: electricl
  • enginedetailshort: elec
  • Engine + detail: electric
  • Cylinder layout + quantity: e
  • Warranty time (years): 2 vehicle / 8 hybrid battery
  • Warranty distance (km): unlimited vehicle / 100000 hybrid battery km
  • Maintenance plan: Standard
  • Maintenance plan time (years): 5
  • Maintenance plan distance (km): 100000 km
  • Service interval indicator: Standard
  • Service interval (distance): service interval indicator km
  • Brand: BMW
  • Status: c
  • Segment: passenger car
  • MMcode: 05018202
  • MMVariant: i3 (120Ah)
  • MMintrodat: 2019-01-03
  • Introdate: 2018-11-09
  • DuoportarecordID: BMWi3_1Fh3

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Used i3 (120Ah) eDrive availbale from the following auto dealer:
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