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Old 06-17-2014, 02:42 AM   #1
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Post Car Review: 2014 BMW i3

Car Review: 2014 BMW i3

What’s a poor curmudgeon to do? Electric cars are supposed to be either dumpy little froo-froos barely evolved from a golf cart or some form of emissions-free Ferrari-baiter, replete with a price tag only a Hollywood movie director could afford. They’ve been either pathetically slow or monstrously fast, luxurious or bare bones, roomy or cramped. There’s been precious little in between.

Into this polarized marketplace steps BMW. Its newly released i3 (it’s just now going on sale in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver dealerships) finally seems to offer something in the middle ground where most consumers — certainly those of the upscale variety — shop. Its 7.2 seconds zero to 100 kilometres an hour time is most certainly perky. The styling is nouveau environmentally conscious, but with a certain mainstream grace that says I can make polite conversation about something other than saving the whales. Even the interior, all natural fibres and recyclable material, could pass muster on a regular car, albeit one geared toward hipsters with a moving-to-a-commune bent (the interior is lined with materials made from hemp fibres and kenaf).

What is really cool about the i3, however, far beyond the fact that its motor is electric, is how BMW has re-imagined the engineering of building cars. The German engineering giant didn’t just slap a battery into an existing platform and then try to figure out to disguise all that weight (a Tesla, for instance, weighs an SUV-like 2,108 kilograms and Mercedes-Benz’s incredible electric SLS AMG had almost a thousand pounds of battery on board). Instead, there’s a lightweight base chassis that houses the drivetrain (a 170-horsepower electric motor), battery (a 22 kilowatt-hour lithium ion affair) and suspension (independent all the way around), to which the body is bonded and screwed. All up weight is a feather-like 1,297 kilograms.

What makes the i3 all the more interesting is that said body is made of carbon-reinforced plastic. Yes, the dramatically-lighter-than-steel fibre has been used in automobile production — even for major components like the body or chassis — but only in expensive supercars — McLaren, Lamborghini, etc. — or limited production runs — Alfa Romeo’s sporty little 4C — but never in something as (relatively) inexpensive as the i3. Although much of the hype around the i3 will be its electrified propulsion, perhaps even more exciting is how widespread use of carbon fibre might make future fuel economy and emissions regulations reachable even for gasoline-fueled automobiles.

As for the i3′s performance powered by electricity, it checks most of the required boxes. The range is claimed to be up to 160 kilometres, though 120 km would seem more realistically attainable. Performance up to about 125 km/h is sprightly, but drops off thereafter. You won’t have to worry about exceeding the 50 km/h “stunting” law on major thoroughfares, for instance, as the BMW, for all its low-end spunk, can barely break 150.

Handling is similarly spunky. Body roll during hard cornering is minimal and, despite having tires narrow enough — 155/70R19 — for a rickshaw, there’s plenty of traction. The steering, electrically boosted of course, is a little numb and can occasionally feel like you’re piloting a flight simulator, but it never proves really annoying. Ditto for a ride that is typical of lightweight, sporty cars; sharp-edged bumps — and don’t we just have a few of those after this year’s deep freeze! — will challenge its compliance but otherwise things are tickety-boo in the comportment department.

Truly annoying, however, is how much regenerative braking BMW has built into the i3′s drivetrain. Regen braking, for those who have not drive an EV, is simply the reversal of the electric motor’s polarity so that slowing down recharges the battery. The more regen braking you use, the more the battery is recharged when you’re stopping, thereby extending range.

Too much regen, however, means the car slows disproportionately when you take your foot off the gas. Indeed, the i3′s throttle is very sensitive; just feathering the throttle looking for the slightest decrease in speed has the i3 slowing down like you hit the binders. It’s worse for passengers. Remember that doddering old uncle who couldn’t maintain a steady speed even on a flat, open highway, his spasmodic foot always leading to a herky-jerky ride? The i3 has a little of that. It is the i3′s only significant drivability fault and I predict that BMW will install an adjustable regen system in short order.

There’s precious else to complain about other than cramped rear seat quarters. The interior, funky as it is with bare eucalyptus trim and raw weave bodywork, is attractive. There are all manner of really neat convenience features including an optional dynamic range finder map that shows you how far afield you can drive after taking into account factors like speed, topography and traffic. It’s way cool and just one of the advanced ConnectedDrive technologies that puts BMW ahead of most electric cars.

Of course, the combination of carbon fibre, electric propulsion and the BMW nametag come at a price. In this case, its an MSRP that starts at $44,950 (before governmental incentives) and ranges up to about 55 large for a hatchback about the size and shape of a $9,998 Nissan Micra.

More importantly, the i3 is still range limited. Oh, the company offers a little two-cylinder motorcycle-like range-extending engine, but you’re still not travelling cross-country — or probably going to a distant cottage for that matter — in an i3. And no matter how much BMW talks about intra-modal travel — there is supposedly a new willingness for those under 30 to combine EV driving with train and bus travel to save the environment — the i3 is being sold to current BMW customers and others with enough cars in the driveway not to have to take said train or bus. Trading an M3 in for an i3 may take a gas-guzzler off the street, but it speaks more to a dilettante looking to impress their neighbours with how virtuous they’ve become rather than any widespread adoption of electrically-powered transportation. BMW is simply following the proven Tesla marketing model; forget about making electrical transportation a pragmatic model for the masses and simply tap into the moneyed’s need for adulation.

As good as it is — and it is very good — the i3 is still not proof that an EV revolution is at hand.

Article Found At: Car Review: 2014 BMW i3 | Driving
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