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BMW i3 Range Extender

Click to view picture gallery“Buy a low-emission, battery-
  powered plug-in and you
ll get a
  5K Government grant. Despite
  that, sales have been slow —
  a major reservation of motorists

  are concerns about the real-world
  driving range. Can BMW’s new i3
  change all that?


PURE ELECTRIC POWERED car sales in 2013 totalled just 2,512 in the UK. But things are looking brighter: registrations of plug-in electric cars year-to-date in 2014 are three times higher than last year due in part to the recent arrival of the premium brand BMW i3 plug-in electric and Range Extender models.

Joining the main-selling all-electric plug-in Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe/Twizy, and the Vauxhall Ampera, the BMW i3 five-door supermini hatchback was always going to raise the profile of battery-powered cars and widen the buying audience.

BMW's recently launched i3 is available in two forms: a battery-only version and the Range Extender which comes with a 647cc two-cylinder petrol engine that acts as a generator and more or less doubles the car's range from between 80-100 miles for the battery-only model up to around 180 miles on just one 9-litre tank of petrol.

A full electric charge
can be achieved in eight
hours from a domestic
13amp plug supply.
Use BMW’s AC Fast
Charging box and you
can charge the battery
pack from zero to 80% in
just three hours with
a full charge completed
in four...”
Longer trips can be made the same way as on any conventional car by topping up with unleaded during the journey. The driver can also select a mode where the electric power is kept stored in the battery pack for later use, say in low-CO2 city zones, and instead just use the petrol engine/generator. Even so, at no point does the petrol engine directly drive the wheels: it only charges the battery which drives the electric motor which turns the driving wheels.

A full electric charge can be achieved in eight hours from a domestic 13amp plug supply. Use BMW's AC Fast Charging box (315) and you can charge the battery pack from zero to 80% in just three hours with a full charge completed in four.

The i3 version costs 25,680 and the Range Extender model 28,830 that's what you'll pay after the 5,000 Government plug-in grant has been applied. The typical customer profile for the i3 so far is wide-ranging: fleet and business users along with retail customers of all ages attracted by the technology, low running costs and free road tax.

BMW UK say that they have a production-restricted supply of around 2,000 i3s available this year of which 850 have already been sold with over half of customers opting for the Range Extender version. There are currently 46 UK BMW i dealers and lots of ownership propositions including BMW Access, which allows i3 owners to borrow other BMW or Mini vehicles for longer trips.

The i3 family five-door hatch is rear-wheel drive and uses a mix of aluminium, carbon-fibre and thermoplastics in its construction. It weighs in at 1,390kg, of which 230kg is taken up by the lithium-ion battery pack beneath the floor.

The electric motor and driveshafts are located under the load area floor and the Range Extender's two-cylinder 647cc motorcycle petrol engine, which acts as a generator, is also mounted in the tail. With the main mechanical elements positioned at the back it's eerily quiet inside the car as any noise is left behind.

With its upright design, the i3 looks more like a supermini-sized MPV or people carrier than a family hatch, but maximum carrying space and passenger safety rather than driving aerodynamics are the priorities in this sector.

The most unusual
feature is the pillarless
entry — there’s no
B-post, so while the front
doors are hinged
conventionally, the back
doors are hinged
at the rear and open from
the leading edge...”
The large front bumper extends a fair way forward of the grille and bonnet giving the front a 'stepped' appearance. The side profile is also distinctive, with the waistline dipping under the rear side door windows; at the rear is the obligatory tailgate affords easy access to a 260-litre boot; with the rear seats folded cargo space can be expanded to 1,100 litres.

The seats are slimline, skeleton-style items to maximise cabin space and minimise weight. But the most unusual feature is the pillarless entry there's no B-post, so while the front doors are hinged conventionally the back doors are hinged at the rear and open from the leading edge. Known in the past as 'suicide doors' these are nothing new or unique but provide easier access for rear seat passengers and for getting young children into and out of child seats. Rear seat legroom is not especially generous, but the totally flat floor does allow plenty of foot space.

The interior ambience is thoroughly modern and perfectly in keeping with our i-tech world. Lots of bright colours and lots of different finishes including an 'engineered' wood effect finish on the dash keep it smart. Naturally there are plenty of option packs to personalise your i3 although at significant extra cost with options and accessories, my Range Extender test car was priced at 42,115 (before the 5K subsidy).

Standard kit includes a CVT automatic transmission, 19-inch alloy wheels, charging cable, 50:50 split/fold rear seats, airbags (front, side, curtain and head), alarm, automatic AirCon, Bluetooth, stability control, BMW emergency call, iDrive controller, Eco-Pro driving modes, hill-start assist, SatNav, auto lights and wipers, electric windows and door mirrors, central locking, and rear parking control.

But it's really all about driving the i3 that matters: it's very easy and simple, and the only hard thing is the ride comfort. A column-mounted stalk controls Power-On, the auto 'box's straightforward D/P/N/R modes, plus the parking brake.

Switch on, select forward or reverse, press the accelerator and go the steering is light and its 2.5-turns lock-to-lock makes it easy to move through traffic, enter side streets and squeeze the i3 into narrow parking spots.

Switch on,
select forward or reverse,
press the accelerator
and go —
the steering is light
and its 2.5-turns lock-to-
lock makes it easy
to move through traffic,
enter side streets and
squeeze the i3 into
narrow parking spots...”
There is a particular driving technique that's best for most of the electric or hybrid cars on the market rather than using the brakes, it requires taking your foot off the accelerator which slows you down much sooner than normal.

Doing so allows 'harvesting' of power, which happens from the moment your right foot lifts off the accelerator. Not only does this significantly slow the vehicle (even to a standstill at junctions) without touching the brake pedal, but it's especially strong with the i3 in this 'regeneration' mode. Much of your everyday driving can be done just by using the throttle.

As regards 'going' rather than stopping, the usual high torque from the 168bhp electric motor applies with 184lb ft available instantly and on tap from standstill.

This whooshes the i3 in near silence from zero to 62mph in just 7.9 seconds for the Range Extender and 7.2 for the marginally lighter battery-only version. Top speed for both is 93mph. The 27bhp/39lb ft two-pot 647cc petrol engine, which is used only as a generator, combines with the electric motor to give an official Combined Cycle fuel consumption figure of 470.8mpg.

When it comes to real-life fuel economy it really does depend on how the i3 is used. If it's kept below 80 or so miles a day and charged by electricity, the petrol use is nil. Reports back from some of my colleagues who have been running i3's Range Extender versions in real-life conditions over a longer period are that 75-80mpg is a nominal figure but for 'plug-in' cars such as the i3, it's all about the driving range distance and low taxes.

Okay, so it's expensive and the ride is firm but the i3 is nevertheless a practical city car with an interesting design; it's also easy to drive, incurs minimal taxes and has minimal running costs. And, crucially, it does away with conventional electric car 'range anxiety'. — David Miles


BMW i3 Range Extender
| 28,830
Top speed: 93mph | 0-62mph: 7.9 seconds | Average MPG: 470.8mpg | Range: 180 miles
Power/Torque: Electric 168bhp/184lb ft | Petrol: 27bhp/39lb ft | CO2 13g/km