Monday, February 25, 2013

BMW Allows The First Journalists Ever To Take A Ride In An i3

An i3 test car going through cold weather testing in Sweden.     Photo: Autocar
For the first time ever BMW has allowed a few journalists take a ride in i3's. One of the test rides took place in Sweden where a small fleet of i3's is finishing up their final cold weather testing. BMW has actually been conducting cold weather testing of the i3's there for over two years now, as the conditions there are perfect for this kind of validation. The other drive happened in Ismaning, Germany at another of BMW's test facilities.

Kacher poses as BMW's Kranz looks on. Photo: Car Magazine
In the past two days Autocar and Car Magazine have published articles on their impression of the experience. It appears nobody was allowed to actually drive the i3, they were passengers. Autocar writer Greg Kable had Patrick Mueller, head of BMW i drivetrain development as his pilot and Georg Kacher of Car Magazine had the privilege of being chauffeured by non other than Uli Kranz, the project leader of BMW i. You can click on the above links to read the full reports and I'll summarize the revelations that I believe are most important here:

1) The i3 is faster than what we thought. Until now BMW had said two things about the speed of the i3. In one instance they said the concept i3 will go 0-100km (62mph) in 7.9 seconds. Then in most recent marketing venues we were told the "Concept i3 goes 0-60mph in under 8 seconds". It's important to note they always referenced the "Concept i3" not the production car. Now for the first time journalists have quoted 0-60 times. Kable from Autocar said the i3 will do 0-60 in 7.2 seconds and Kacher said it will do it in 7.3. The i3 is clearly going to be a quick car. My MINI-E did 0-60 in about 8 seconds and it was a blast to drive. The ActiveE is no slouch either, but it takes a little over 9 seconds to hit 60mph. Cutting two seconds off the ActiveE time will certainly make for a spirited drive. 

2) The i3 achieved an official 140 miles of range on the European test procedure. What does this mean? Well the 2011/2012 LEAF achieved a range of 107 miles on this same test and that translated into a 73 mile EPA rating. Translated to the i3 that would then give it an EPA rating of 95 miles per charge. I know you can't make that exact assumption, but if you simply roll the numbers and say the i3 achieved a range of 130%(140/107) that's what it converts to and it's all we have to go on at this time. I would be happy if that is the EPA range rating for the i3. I have contended all along that I would prefer a 100 mile EPA rating, but as long as it is over 90 miles per charge, then I believe it will do just fine. It will then have the highest EPA rating of any EV that doesn't have a Tesla powertrain.

The 20" wheels on the concept coupe
3) It will come standard with 19" wheels and 20" wheels will be optional. The concept cars had 20" wheels, but concept cars frequently have oversized wheels that don't make it to production. These wheels are huge for a car of this size. There isn't any production car anywhere that is this small and has 20" wheels! You usually only see 20" wheels on huge SUV's and trucks. The whole concept of these tall wheels and thin tires is to maximize efficiency by reducing rolling resistance and drag, while still providing great road holding for high performance driving. When questioned about how the thin tires can manage to give the car such great handling Kranz said: "It’s not rocket science. All that matters is the size of the contact patch. The 19-inch tires may be skinny, but their tall height generates the same contact patch as a low-section 16-inch MINI tire". Kacher was very impressed with the handling and he said: "The i3’s most awesome dynamic talent is its incredible grip. The made-to-measure tires are about as narrow as those of a 125cc motorbike, yet they hang on almost as tenaciously as BMW’s latest DTM racer."

This is the engine to be used for the REx
4) The range extender will be a 650cc two-cylinder gas engine borrowed from the BMW C650GT motorcycle. When used for the motorcycle it has a maximum of 60hp but on the i3 it will be highly optimized for efficiency, and will run at lower RPM's for a quiet, low vibration operation. This lowers the power output to 35bhp. It will be mounted close to the rear wheels and accompanied by a 2.3 gallon gas tank which will be positioned behind the front axle. This makes sense since the gas filler door is on the front passenger quarter panel. I imagine 35 hp will be enough to allow the i3 to continue at highway speeds of 65-70mph on flat surfaces, but I don't believe it will be enough to allow the car to climb steep grades at highway speeds. It's worth noting that BMW has hinted that the range extender is not meant for full time driving like a Chevy Volt. It's main purpose to to allow you to get you to your destination or the nearest charge point once you have exhausted the battery and allow you to do so without worry of being stranded, it's not designed for prolonged high speed driving. If you frequently need to drive more than 100 to 120 miles or so, perhaps the i3 with a range extender isn't the best plug-in choice for you, but let's wait for the official specifications before we conclude that for sure.

5) Kacher wrote: "BMW has tooled up initially to produce 30,000 cars a year, but this can be extended to 50,000 units if the i3 takes off". I had heard rumors of production estimates being 30,000/year initially but they were never really confirmed. If Kacher got this directly from Kranz then it's really the first time an official production goal was offered by BMW. It's a lofty goal. No other EV has even come close to selling that many in any year, let alone it's first year. One advantage the i3 does have though is it will be available in markets all over the world, unlike many of the other plug in cars that are available today. However the LEAF is available in many countries also and it hasn't hit the 30,000/year mark after more than two years and it's a much more affordable car then the i3 will be. It's difficult to gauge the plug in vehicle market. Government incentives play a big role and so does the proliferation of public charging infrastructure. However the i3 is the only EV in it's price class that will offer the performance and range that it does, as well as an optional range extender and the premium driving experience that is expected of a BMW so it will be interesting to watch how the sales figures progress.

Since I wasn't lucky enough to be one of the first outside BMW to hitch a ride in an i3 I'll just reprint Kacher's conclusion. He makes his thoughts on the car very clear:

"The i3 is shaping up to be a breakthrough electric car. It delivers dynamic thrills like no electric car before it. The steering seems highly involving, the drivetrain’s punch would flatten a Leaf, and the handling and road-holding seem up there with BMW’s best. Ulrich Kranz and his team appear to have succeeded in bringing pure driving pleasure to the environmentally friendly car. We’ll know for sure when we drive the car in summer 2013"


  1. Great news Tom! Thanks for the update. I know I don't have to search the internet for any new i3 news because you always put it all here! I can't wait till I can buy one of these. I'm just hoping it will be in the mid 40's. I really need to keep it under $40,000 after the $7,500 federal tax credit.

  2. OK BMW enough teasing. HOW MUCH??

  3. Sure thing Jerry, thanks for following!

    Anon: It's going to be a while longer I'm afraid, hang in there.

  4. Thanks Tom! As an early Chevy Volt owner looking to move on to the next thing after my lease runs out at the end of the year, I have been increasingly interested in the i3.

    Initial reaction to this ... The range extender performance does concern me, because I absolutely WOULD use it for long roadtrips. If I can't climb a long grade at 70 MPH then that's probably OK, but they do need to size it to handle rolling hills (e.g. I-85 in the Carolinas) at that cruising speed. I only take a roadtrip 1-2 times a year but I will want the range extender to enable that for me.

    The other thing I'm concerned about is the size and looks, and only an in-person visit will resolve that. So come on BMW, unveil the production car and tell me where I can go to see it!

  5. Chris, I'm sure it will be able to handle rolling hills as you describe, as there will be a nice buffer built in. However it looks like sustained high speed driving up inclines may not be possible.

    BMW has frequently reminded us that this isn't a car meant for frequent long distance driving and that the range extender is really there just to make sure you aren't left stranded, not to extend your driving for hundreds of miles at a time. Still, lets wait for the official specifications before we draw these conclusions. With a 2.3 gallon gas tank it will allow you to drive 80+ miles without stopping for gas so the car must have enough power to drive safely at highway speeds in charge sustaining mode.

  6. I just read both articles you linked to, very promising! I can't wait to test drive one of these. Do you know exactly when they are going on sale in the US?

  7. I finally just read them as well ...

    Thanks Tom for the range extender info. I don't plan to use the range extender "frequently", especially with 90-ish miles of electric range. But I do go on roadtrips a couple times a year, and I absolutely expect to do that with the car that I get in Dec 2013. I don't have a problem with stopping for gas every 80 miles -- well, I did when I first heard about the odd i3 design, but I've warmed up to it and now think it's just as shrewd as the Volt design was 4-5 years ago.

    I hope they will offer gas engine threshold modes similar to the Volt. That would mean A) a hold mode to force the engine on so you have some pure EV mode left at the end of a long drive, or B) at least a mountain mode so we can game it. Lack of hold mode is the NUMBER ONE complaint I have with my Dec 2010 Volt -- a feature now offered in 2013 models.

    Suicide doors! I'd forgotten about that. I see from these pictures that they shortened the doors a bit, moving the hinge point up, away from the rear of the car. That's fine with me -- that huge door opening looked worrisome, as far as chassis stiffness would be concerned. The CAR article's photo gallery illustrates this well in the second to last photo -- as well as the lack of B-pillar.

    I sure hope that that rear end looks a lot better once the camouflage comes off. It looks like a Fiat 500, or worse.

    More details, BMW! I'm getting excited!

  8. One more comment, as I mistakenly posted the above before completing my read of the SECOND article ...

    The second article is quite a bit more comprehensive. The writer gives us quite a bit of subjectives about the vehicle dynamics, and makes use of car performance jargon like "ten tenths" and "steering windup" :)

    He writes that the i3 "goes on sale in November", "will cost around €40,000" ($52K at today's rate) and the range extender option will cost "an extra €3000" ($4K). I realize those probably isn't official pricing, and certainly not US market pricing, but I thought it was worth noting.

    He says the i3 is "wider than a 7-series". Really?

    He says "the available fast charging kit will restore 80% of the energy in only 60 minutes". Does "available" mean that fast charging (via SAE Combo) will be an option, not standard?

    All very interesting, no matter what ...

  9. Chris: European pricing is usually 20-25% more than we pay in the US so you can use that as a barometer. He referred to the 79" that BMW listed as the concept i3's width. NO the car will not be that wide. A Cadillac Escalade is 79" wide, the i3 will be around 70" wide, comparable to a Nissan LEAF. With quick charging he's referring to the European quick charging. Here in the US, an i3 will charge to 80% in about 30 minutes using the SAE standard recently named "CCS" (Combined Charging System)

  10. I will be buying an i3 if it were available today. Trouble is, I live in Cincinnati compared to preferred States like CA, OR or WA.

  11. Peregrino: Where you live in the US doesn't matter, you will be able to buy an i3 anywhere in the US. It's *possible* that for the first few months they may roll out availability in major EV markets first, but within a few months of the launch I am sure you will be able to buy one anywhere in the US.

  12. Pardon my ignorance or lack of technical knowledge on the subject of EVs, but my question pertains to the subject of Range Extender. I am aware the RE will kick in if ever one has been driving long distances and the Battery ran low. However, I would like to know whether the RE can be made to start while the engine is at rest, with the idea of 'charging the Batteries' until it's 80% again.

    1. BMW hasn't given the technical details on this yet Peregrino. However it's been speculated that you will not be able to do so. The reasoning is you really wouldn't want to charge the batteries from a gasoline source, it's just not efficient and really defeats the purpose of an electric car in the first place. I'm sure the range extender will work to build up a buffer, let's say to get the battery to 20% charged, but I highly doubt if you'll be able to park the car and allow the range extender to continue to run so it charges the battery.