BMW i3: commuter's choice electric car

This might be the first time I went to test-drive a car and found myself asking: “What’s a guy dressed as a panda doing here?”

Answer: the event I attended was hosted by World Wildlife Fund Canada CEO (and former mayor of Toronto) David Miller. Partnering with the restaurant, Bent, and BMW Group Canada, Miller introduced one of BMW’s newest models, the i3 electric car.

I don't think he drove the car to the restaurant. Photo courtesy WWF Canada.

I don’t think he drove the car to the restaurant. He would have found the pedals difficult to operate. Photo courtesy WWF Canada.

Miller’s initial remarks gave way to videos in which he took three celebrities on “first dates” in the i3. (I tacked the videos onto the end of this post.) All the while, celebrity chef Susur Lee and his staff at Bent plied us with tasty treats.

In case you're wondering, the door is beside the panda, not behind him. Photo courtesy WWF Canada.

In case you’re wondering, the door is beside the panda, not behind him. Photo courtesy WWF Canada.

This was all fine, but what I was really there for was the chance to drive a BMW i3. BMW thoughtfully parked two of them in front of Bent, on Dundas just west of Bathurst, near downtown Toronto, for journalists to take for a quick spin.

Engine options

I drove the all-electric model, not the one with the range extender gas motor. You can tell the two apart by the “fuel filler doors” on the right side of the vehicle. Every i3 has a door over the rear wheel to cover the battery recharge point.

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

Battery-extender-equipped models sport a second door by the front wheel well. Open that door to fill the range extender’s six-litre fuel tank. (A BMW rep noted that the fuel in the lines accommodate an extra three litres.)

For buyers who want to speed up charge times, BMW offers a “Wallbox” they can install in their garages.

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

Propulsion comes from a 170hp electro-synchronous motor that sits inside the left rear wheel, and if you get a battery-only i3, that’s all that sits over the rear axle.

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

The lithium-ion battery lies flat under the cabin floor, a common weight-distribution setup in electric vehicles that contributes to a lower centre of gravity and greater vehicle stability. Warming technology keeps the battery performing in cold temperatures. The battery is warranted for 160,000km or eight years to charge up to at least 70 per cent of its original capacity.

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

 

When brand new, BMW claims the battery will take you at least 160 kilometers on a full charge. That full charge takes several hours, so this car is best thought of as a short-range commuter car that owners charge every night. To get that kind of mileage, BMW designed the eDrive transmission as a component of its EfficientDynamics technology. Your mileage may vary depending on your choice of drive mode and your own driving habits.

BMW builds its “i” vehicles in a wind-turbine-powered factory, which makes the vehicles eco-friendly enough for the CEO of WWF Canada to endorse. (Miller’s green cred goes back to his time in the mayor’s office, when a Toyota Prius served as his official vehicle.)

Buyers can upgrade to an i3 with the aforementioned range extender, a two-cylinder, four-valve 650 cc  motor.

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

This is NOT a hybrid setup. The motorcycle-sized gas engine does not drive the rear wheels. Rather, it tops up the battery whenever it sinks to six per cent of its charge. That happens more quickly in this model since the range extender’s weight ironically reduces the range of the battery. This catch-22 aside, the range extender does what it says it does.

Exterior

The i3 certainly does stand out, given its aerodynamics, a window line that dips behind the front seat, an unconventional paint job and other stylistic touches. You know you haven’t seen this particular car before.

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

The BMW representative I questioned stated that this is a city car, pure and simple, given its limited battery-only range of about 160 kilometers and long charge times. He also said many local buyers reside outside the city. I can picture them sneering at filling stations during their daily commutes, no matter how low the price of gas sinks.

The rep also said early sales are split about 50-50 battery-only versus battery plus range extender.

The “frunk” consists of little more than a small plastic box in which three bottles of windshield washer fluid might fit – two if that’s where you keep the charger cable.

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

This is a great place for windshield washer and other fluids since you put them into the car using receptacles hidden under the black coverings to either side of the box shown above.

Interior

The interior and hatchback ought to please anybody of a practical bent. I could imagine this vehicle passing my hockey bag test without my needing to put the seats down. (The sticks could just go over the rear seats.)

Moving forward from the hatch, you’ll find the comfortable upscale interior you’d expect in a BMW. There’s more of it to enjoy since the car doesn’t need a centre tunnel running longitudinally down the middle of the car. Front seat room was no problem and, with the front seat forward, I fit in the rear seat as well.

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

The front door has to be open to get the rear seat suicide doors open. Those rear seats are easy to get in and out of since there’s no B-pillar.

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

The rear windows don’t roll down, I’m told. That said, there’s a handy switch in the back of both front seat headrests that fold the front seat forward, making it easier for (tall) rear seat passengers to extricate themselves. This is such a logical, visible place for this switch that I wonder why I haven’t seen it before. Oh, that’s right – because I rarely fit into the back seats of cars.

Driving

My five minutes driving the car started on Dundas Street west of Bathurst in Toronto, in front of Lee’s restaurant, Bent. (I didn’t ask whether I could take an i3 for more time since my condo’s parking lot doesn’t offer outlets for charging.)

Driving down a side street, I mashed the accelerator to the floor to confirm that torque is available even at lower speeds. I believe BMW’s 0-60 km/h claim  of 3.7 seconds and 0-100 km/h in 7.2 seconds. (Add less than a second to each time for the range extender model, due to the extra weight.) After that fun, I lifted my foot and let the electric engine spin down, slowing the car on its own, without my needing to touch the brakes. Braking, by the way, regenerates the battery, which makes the i3 a logical choice in stop-and-go traffic.

Turning radius was very good, thanks in part to the wheels-at-the-corners go-kart-like setup. The tall, thin 19-inch wheels (20 inches available) can be decorated with a variety of futuristic wheel covers.

In-car technology

Electronic amenities bombard the driver, so I’ll only mention a few here.

The rear-view camera, with its colour-coding and audio alerts, helped me back into a parallel parking spot without bumping into the pickup truck behind me. The front has a radar-type setup that detects objects as well. There isn’t that much “vehicle” ahead of the driver and the turning radius is great, so this is one easy vehicle to park once you get used to it.

A dial/joystick/touchpad sits between the driver and passenger.

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

I “wrote” my address into the navigation system using my finger on the round, two-inch diameter touchpad. Using it reminded me of the years I owned Palm Computing devices (and one Sony Clié).

Drivers will get all the feedback they need from the two dash-mounted video screens.

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

photo courtesy BMW Group Canada

The BMW i Remote app (yes, there’s an app for that… car, as there is for many new and upcoming vehicles) lets the driver stay in touch with the i3.

Conclusions

Finding out that suburbanites buy i3s doesn’t surprise me. My opinion is based on very limited drive time, but even at presently depressed petroleum prices, fuel savings must add up quickly. Thrown in a quiet, comfortable ride in a distinctive-looking car, and the i3 ought to quickly carve out a niche for itself.

“First date” videos

Back to the panda, and his boss David Miller…

Miller introduced three videos shot months earlier during which he introduced a chef, a comedian and a TV personality to the i3.

Here’s David picking up Jessi Cruickshank.

A ride with comedian Mark McKinney.

And last, but not least, our host at the event, talented chef Susur Lee.

Even the panda liked Lee’s food. I wonder if he got the leftovers…

photo courtesy WWF Canada

photo courtesy WWF Canada

 

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