When Hollywood wants to portray the future, it sits the star (Halle Berry in the sci-fi drama Extant, for example) behind the wheel of the BMW i3.
The hybrid and electric 2015 AA New Zealand Car of the Year looks futuristic enough, and delivers on the future technology and environmental fronts as well.
Although in New Zealand it is a plug-in hybrid running on battery and petrol power, the i3 is available in other markets as an all-electric car. The model available here travels more than 130km on a fully-charged battery, with a small petrol engine providing a further 116km range, giving a potential total range of around 246km.
There are around 55 i3s on New Zealand roads, a number about to be boosted significantly with Air New Zealand ordering 36 new i3s from BMW NZ for it sales fleet.
The BMW i3 being charged at a Spark phonebox in the main street of Waipu. Picture/ Tony Verdon
Joining the annual “Leading the Charge Road Trip” convoy of electric and semi-electric in Northland last week provided a chance to drive the i3 in city and open road conditions. I spent a day and a half on part of the 17-day journey from Cape Reinga to Invercargill, during which the cars are stopping in about 40 towns and cities, and travelling around 2000km over 17 days.
While the three all-electric Teslas taking part in the trip attracted most of the attention, there was also genuine interest in the less exotic EVs such as the most popular EV, the Nissan Leaf, and Mitsubishi’s i-Miev model.
The solar orange and frozen grey metallic i3 was one of two i3s on the trip, the other being a silver all-electric model imported from Japan. The quirky design of the i3 ensured both cars drew attention from people inquisitive about electric vehicles.
With two main front doors, the i3 has two rear-hinged “suicide” rear doors, which make getting in and out of the back of the car easy.
The BMW i3 in Kaiwaka, near a fast-charging station just off State Highway One. Picture/ Tony Verdon
Like the Teslas and other evs, the i3 is no slouch taking off at the lights — the 22 kW battery helps propel the car from 0 to 100km in 7.9 seconds. A high-end imported Tesla Model S does the same (in ludicrous mode) in half that time, but it costs around twice as much as the i3.
The i3 here costs around $83,500, depending on the number of optional extras required.
The windy roads between Paihia and Kawakawa provided a good test of the BMW i3’s ride and handling. With the battery sitting on the floor of the car and ensuring a low centre of gravity, the i3 is surprisingly agile.
As you would expect from a BMW, the steering is firm and direct, and there is no sense of the car struggling to handle sharp bends. It is also quieter than most models with no engine noise. Back-seat passengers can easily hear the conversation of the driver and front-seat passenger, even when the i3 is travelling at the speed limit on the highway.
The interior of the i3 is as quirky as the exterior, with most controls attached to the steering column. There is a chunky lever on the right-hand side of the steering wheel to place the car in drive, reverse or park mode, while the battery power level and gas tank fuel gauge is straight ahead of the driver.
Ventilation and other buttons are in the centre of the console and are similar to those in other BMW models, while there is a large screen for the gps, audio and other information in the centre of the car.
The seats are comfortable and the upright, almost boxy, design means there is plenty of head and shoulder room in both the front and back of the i3.
Driving the i3 takes some getting used to, with the surge in power being almost instant and continuous when you press the accelerator. There are obviously no gear changes, so the power just keeps coming.
It is more difficult to maintain a set speed in the i3 than in a conventional petrol-engined car, although the i3 does have cruise-control to hold the car at a set speed. Once you get used to the operation, you hardly ever have to use the brakes to slow the car. The car relies on the electric motor to act as a generator when decelerating, and energy recuperation recharges the Lithium-ion battery on over-run.
This braking torque is particularly effective in slowing the car when you take your foot off the accelerator, meaning much less use of the brakes than in a normal petrol-engined car.
Recharging the battery during an overnight stay in Whangarei proved tricky when the hotel could not provide a car park close enough to reach a power point. Ironically this could be done easily at most private homes, as the car comes with the required power points and extension cords. Instead of overnight charging I put the i3 on to a Northpower slow charging point in central Whangarei around 8am, and picked it up around 11.30am with the battery fully recharged.
With a theoretical range of 264km, the i3 was fully charged and fuelled for the 165km trip to Auckland. I drove the car close to the 100km/h speed limit most of the way to Waipu and became alarmed about how fast the battery was draining.
There was a quick stop in Waipu’s main street to see an electric charger attached to the Spark phone box (Spark is trialling several of these remarkably discrete facilities), during which I was advised to reduce the maximum speed and so extend the car’s range.
The i3 pulled well up the Brynderwyn Hills, and the battery started regenerating as soon as we started descending the southern side of the hills. By using both the battery and the range-extending petrol engine, and sitting at around 80km/h, we reached central Auckland with around a third of a tank of petrol left, and around 25km of range left in the battery.
So it completed the trip with plenty of spare range, after a careful drive.
The real benefits in smaller evs are gained in stop-start motoring around town, on short journeys. They are much cheaper to run ( the Government’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority calculates an electric car costs around 30 cents a litre to operate, or seven times cheaper than petrol) and of course the travel generates no carbon monoxide fumes.
The i3 has enough range to travel from the Northland to Auckland, with perhaps a recharge on the way, but to gain maximum range, acceleration and maximum speed have to be moderated.
Watching the battery level and fuel gauge becomes something of an obsession in an electric vehicle, and more experienced ev drivers tell me they still pay more attention to them than they did in their petrol-engined vehicles.
The exercise highlighted the large number of fast and slow charging stations now available, and being rolled-out, especially along State Highway 1.
The i3 provides a glimpse into the future of motoring, especially given New Zealand produces around 80 per cent of our power from sustainable hydro resources, and that our moderate climate conditions help ensure robust battery outputs.