Imagine an automotive “iPhone” that’s smarter than any “smartphone” that came before and changes the game with its special combination of hardware, software and designer wear. The game-changing gadget in question is the i3, BMW’s weirdest science project yet for the general public.
The multi-faceted, battery-powered machine is packed with state-of-the-art technology, constructed like a carbon supercar and crafted like a work of art, rolling on equally arty alloy wheels.
It’s one of the most interesting vehicles to ever hit the road in Singapore, so it’s no surprise that our three Torque experts have a keen interest in the clever little electric car…
THE “COOL” FACTOR
I couldn’t care less about environmental issues (I write for a car magazine and drive a hot hatch, so how much of a tree hugger can I possibly be?), but what I do care a lot about is how cool I look behind the wheel.
At this point, I should also mention I’m not your typical snob. Unlike most other snobbish people, who get a thrill out of easily recognisable displays of consumption, I prefer my conspicuous consumption to be, well, inconspicuous. I love expensive toys, but I love them even more if they’re devoid of any branding.
For someone like me, the BMW i3 is the automotive equivalent of “stealthy” consumerism, but not because of how speedy or how flashy it is (hint: it isn’t on both counts). I think the little electric BMW is a fantastic big toy for the big boy because the average observer wouldn’t be able to identify it, and even if they could, they wouldn’t know what to make of it. While the i3 has recognisable BMW cues such as the kidney grille, it looks like nothing else in the automaker’s model range.I’ve had curious mechanics ogling its tyres (they’re an extremely odd size – 155/70 R19 at the front and 175/60 R19 at the back), people coming up to me and asking if it was an experimental prototype, and other road users doing double-takes as I silently glided past.
Even an activity as mundane as getting it recharged at a charging station resulted in a small crowd of curious onlookers and rubberneckers (the car’s quirky good looks are partly to “blame”).
There are plenty of tangibly cool things about the i3, but dissecting the secrets of its coolness is a little more difficult.
Sure, it’s got a carbon fibre chassis, thermoplastic “skin”, “suicide” rear doors, an oh-so-chic Ikea-esque interior and a hilariously small 9.86m turning circle. But more tangible to me is how the i3 makes my inner snob a very happy camper.
The biggest part of the i3’s allure lies in how it makes me feel while using it (like Apple’s various “iThings”), and not so much in what it can actually do. That’s because the car doesn’t handle all that well (the suspension has a surprising amount of wallow, the supposedly super-stiff carbon fibre chassis has a lot of front-rear flex), and it has a dinky boot, which is in stark contrast to its decidedly un-dinky price tag that can bag a 328i.
Despite the i3’s obvious shortcomings, I had a silly grin plastered across my face during my time with it, even though I wasn’t driving with flat-out enthusiasm. Yes, the i3 has its fair share of warts, but even so, I desperately want one as a new toy. And if that doesn’t speak highly of the i3’s cool quotient, I don’t know what does.
THE “DESIGNER” FACTOR
The aesthetics of this new-age electric vehicle (EV) has an added dimension: It isn’t driven solely by visual flair, but also reflects the eco ethos at the heart of BMW i.
The i3’s pod-like form and thermoplastic outer skin give it a futuristic chic, and bring to my architect’s mind the external skin of a building that’s been applied to its structural framework. In the case of the i3, the frame is a carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) “Life” passenger cell module that is light and strong, connected to an aluminium “Drive” module.
Organic materials can be found throughout the cabin, such as Kenaf cladding made from plant fibres (for the door panels and dashboard carrier) and a fabric made from wool and recycled PET bottles (for the rooflining). The most striking interior material has got to be the dashboard’s eucalyptus wood veneer, an attractive renewable material that provides a distinctly au naturel yet premium feel.
To me, the layering and juxtaposition of the high-tech equipment and the highly organic elements give the i3 cockpit a unique aesthetic.
Unique, too, is the open concept of the hatchback, like a studio apartment’s. The designers did away with the B-pillars and dividing tunnel, and incorporated a “floating” layout, thereby creating a generous space that belies the car’s compact dimensions.
The rear window sills are low, while the rear seats are elevated, achieving a similar effect to curtain walls and bay windows in a condo. Passengers in the back will definitely appreciate the good views. Those rear coach doors also enhance accessibility, and because they can only be opened when the corresponding front door is opened first, they work like “child locks” for safety-conscious young parents like myself.
On the move, the steering is light, the absence of any audible “engine/exhaust” sound heightens the sensation of immediate acceleration, and the “regenerative” deceleration after I ease off the throttle is so substantial that I hardly need to use the brakes at all. These characteristics complement the i3’s revolutionist persona, making me feel like I’m literally driving a vehicular revolution.
Amazingly, hopping from the i3 to my X6 doesn’t feel as dramatically different as I anticipated. Apart from the obvious differences in their size, noise and performance, both are well-built upmarket Bimmers as far as I’m concerned, and the transition from one drive to the other is seamless to me.
In my experience, the i3’s realistic electric range of 100km is more than enough for my typical daily usage. If I buy the car, it’ll come with a Wallbox unit that lets me recharge the i3 at home, which is more convenient than any service station. I can also do a quick battery boost while shopping, running errands or attending meetings at places with public charging stations, such as the carparks in Marina Bay Sands, Orchard Gateway and Biopolis.
Stretching the battery-only range by a further 100km or so is the i3’s standard Range Extender (REx) module. I initially assumed that said module works like a smartphone-style spare battery, but it’s actually a 647cc 2-cylinder petrol engine that “drives” the batteries to maintain their (low) charge. Refilling the 9-litre fuel tank costs around $20.
This designer EV has inspired me to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle – I use both sides of the foolscap paper now and switch off the lights when I leave a room.
THE “DINO” FACTOR
Having to embrace the future has always been a bit of a hurdle for me. For instance, I view social media as something that brings more problems than benefits, and I prefer chatting with someone in person than sending an e-mail.
When it comes to music and cars, I’m a total “dinosaur”. When my editor discovered that my music collection consists mainly of The Four Seasons, Engelbert Humperdinck and anything doo-wop, he declared that I’m an 80-year-old man. I wonder what he’ll say when he finds out I also enjoy listening to the Glenn Miller Orchestra. [David to Jeremy: You’re a 90-year-old man.]
I’m also “prehistoric” in my definition of BMWs – they have to be naturally aspirated, high-revving, finely balanced and precise. Just like the 6-cylinder E46 M3.
Which is why my seeing the i3 in the flesh for the first time seems like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The design is so out of this world, there’s nothing on the road that resembles it. And what’s with those “bicycle” tyres? Can they provide enough grip for dynamic driving?
The i3’s interior reminds me of an alien spacecraft, albeit with a certain “Muji” charm. An all-digital instrument panel, which resembles an iPad mini turned on its side, has taken the place of analogue gauges that this traditionalist is partial to.
Things get even more space-age when I switch on the car and drive off. The acceleration is instantaneous and addictive, with every flex of my right foot turning the scenery into a blur. In fact, the i3 is quicker than the old M3 from zero to 60km/h!
The fun, however, doesn’t last long enough. Zipping around in the i3 has me grinning, but also leaves me groaning about the lack of a soundtrack. Then, range anxiety sets in, even though the battery is good for around 100km and the range extender for another 100km.
There are two charging points within 10km of my house, but since neither is capable of fast-charging, I spent an entire afternoon chilling at Changi City Point while waiting for the i3 to get juiced up.
Is the i3 tomorrow’s Bimmer for today’s driver? Probably, but not for this motoring dinosaur, who still desires a drive in yesterday’s M3 – with Glenn Miller on the stereo.
TYPE Synchronous electric motor with inline-2 range extender
BORE X STROKE 66mm x 79mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 10.6:1
MAX POWER 38bhp at 5000rpm
MAX TORQUE 56Nm at 4500rpm
POWER TO WEIGHT 129.3bhp per tonne
DRIVEN WHEELS Rear
0-100KM/H 7.9 seconds
TOP SPEED 150km/h
CONSUMPTION 13.5kWh/100km (combined)
CO2 EMISSION 0g/km (13g/km with range extender)
FRONT MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
REAR Multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
FRONT / REAR Ventilated discs
TYPE Bridgestone Ecopia EP500
SIZE 155/70 R19 (front), 175/60 R19 (rear)
TRACTION CONTROL ABS with DSC
KERB WEIGHT 1315kg
TURNING CIRCLE 9.86m
PRICE INCL. COE $236,800 (after $20k CEVS rebate)
WARRANTY 3 years/60,000km
+ Brilliant rethink of everyday electric motoring, radical exterior, practical interior
– Landed property required for Wallbox, same price as 320i GT, less sporty than 118i