Thursday, April 3, 2014

BMW i3 REx European Road Trip!

Back in February we featured Steven from The Netherlands as a Born Electric guest blogger. At the time he mentioned to me that he was planning a road trip with his i3 REx that would take him on a fantastic journey from The Netherlands through Germany and France to the final destination of Switzerland. The funny thing is, I almost was able to meet him along the trip because I was actually in Switzerland the week before he arrived and my wife and I even spent an afternoon at the same lake in Zurich you see pictured below! In any event, once I heard Steven was about to engage upon this 1,100 mile road trip I asked him if he wouldn't mind sharing the details here once he returns and he was kind enough to do so. I get a lot of questions about the range extender, and many people want to know if it is possible to take it on a long trip. This post doesn't answer every question, but it does give some insight into how the car will perform on sure an extended road trip. I haven't read any story of an i3 doing a road trip over 1,100 miles yet, so this may be the first account of such a journey.

Travelcompanion: i3

OK, so we have this i3. It was, and still is, marketed as a city slicker. The question arises: is BMW underestimating itself ?

To begin with the conclusion: yes and no. It will go outside the city and beyond, with quite an aplomb at that, but its driver needs some commitment and perseverance to get there. As stated by Tom elsewhere: it is not a go anywhere, do anything car. With a normal to brisk driving style, it excels on local trips with perhaps a charge or two along the way. But when taking it easy, tourist style, it can haul you much further than your cities limits.

Once you get used to its unconventional lines the design grows on you.
Our i3 in the Appenzeller mountains.
The commitment starts with a careful planning. Call me a nerd, but I rather like planning a trip in detail, time allowing. However, the limited electric range did cause a little frustration. Frustration about not being able to reach the higher alpine passes in the six days we reserved for this trip. When pushed, we certainly could have done it, but in the end we opted to make the journey itself the goal.

The first hurdle is Europe not being the United States of Europe. Different plugs, different chargecards, you name it. Totally unfunny. Luckily, one of Hollands energy suppliers is owned by RWE, a large German energy supplier, so we could apply for a German charge-ID. You’ll need an app on your iPhone to start the charger, but that’s ok. For France and Switzerland, we’re out of luck. A lot of local/regional initiatives, so charging possibilities are limited to free chargers or, in Switzerland, chargers mounted in parking garages where charging is complementary or at a cost, payable at the checkout machines. And these have to match our Mennekes plug as well.

As you’ll understand, planning took a while, especially while I was not only looking for locations to charge, but also for roads worth driving and places worth visiting while charging. Not much fun to be stuck on an industrial estate for three hours… In the end, I planned our trip so that it would take us three days to reach Switzerland, leaving much of the motorway behind after crossing the Dutch border. Slow tourism, like our parents did with their 2cv, before Europe was shrunk by the proliferation of the Autobahn.


Smoothly gliding away, to not disturb our neighbours, is uneventful in itself. EcoPro is on, but so is the heat, for it was freezing during the night. Damn, we’ll need those electrons! Well, not entirely, to be truthful, for our first stop is at a 50 KW fast charger. The residual charge doesn’t seem to matter much at the fast chargers’; it’ll charge to 90% in 30 minutes anyway. But there seems to be a catch. We left the charger with ~94%, but the charge dropped right down to 86% in a matter of minutes. Something we have observed more than once after a fast charge. A pity in this case, because the next station should have been reachable with a margin. A margin worth having, for we were able to reach our designated charger with only 5 km (3 mi) on the clock. But hey, it was supposed to be an adventure !

This is the point where I have to admit we are driving the i3 ‘chicken version’, with the little REx in the boot. The upside: unlimited mobility. The downside: REx wakes at 5-6 km, no matter what. So we were at the threshold of failure to do the E-thing, and that only two hours into our journey! But we made it. We had lunch, walked the totally unremarkable town, takin’ it easy as promised, until the car was charged enough to reach our next goal. The ability to use your smartphone to monitor the car is invaluable.

The next goal: Monschau. A quaint little town, picture book stuff. Flocking with tourists of a more advanced age when in season, it is actually very nice when not. Coffee, apfelstrudel, you’ll get my drift how we passed the time.

Chargetourism: Monschau
With enough inside us and in the i3, off to the next charger. A short charging session of 32 minutes at 32 amps in Daun was all it took to take us to our hotel in Bernkastel-Kues. Again a picturesque village, this time with a larger river (the Mosel) and an ancient castle on the adjoining mountain. And the best news: we have entered the wine region, so the i3 was not the only one being replenished :)

At this hotel, we had the first experience of the friendly cooperation we would encounter along the way. We were fully prepared to have to drive the car to a charging station nearby and to walk back, but the hotel owner promptly offered us a spot in his yard where we were able to plug in under the carport. Sweet.


Day two took us through Germany to France. Our second hurdle: the designated electrospots in Saarbrücken were occupied by gas-burners! A Zoe was already double parked and charging, but i3’s cable is not long enough to do this. Damn. Now what? Time for friendly cooperation example #2: the receptionist of the adjoining offices came out to ask us if everything was ok, noticing of course it wasn’t because of me standing there with a large blue cable in my hands, looking lost. The solution was easy: one of the owners of the damned vehicles didn’t mind to take a hike, so we could charge, albeit with a little delay. The upside: the German owner of the double parked Zoe turned up, so we had an opportunity for a nice conversation about the future of the world.

Charged and fed, off to France we went. One possibility to charge with no alternatives. Gold or bust! Golden it was. Free of charge as well. Very good of the Cora supermarket to lure crazy dutch electrotourists to their store :) With enough cheese and charge, we took off through the Alsace, an area we always quite enjoy for a lot of reasons.

One of the reasons is that it has some nice drivers’ roads with not to much other people on them. We already enjoyed some nice, but not too quick, driving in the German Eifel yesterday, and the Alsace didn’t disappoint. Nor did the i3, so it is time for some car stuff, for this is supposed to be a car blog last time I checked….

I like to start with some downsides here, so I can end the paragraph on a positive note. And I will lift a tip of the vail: it is a very positive note. But first: the grind. Although visibility all around isn’t exactly bad, the car is difficult to oversee, so it takes more practice than I’m accustomed to, to position the car in exactly the spot on the  road you want it to be when driving spiritedly. It is growing on me, of course, but it is still not an intuitive process. I guess it has to do something with not seeing any of the nose or any other external part and the overview you miss in tight left hand bends because of the drivers side A pillar. I am still not used to have to look through the side windows to oversee that tight left-hander. Then there is the steering. Once accustomed, it is excellent and precise, but so direct that you’ll have to handle it smoothly if you want to impress your co-driver with your cornering style. And the last grump, which is really a very small niggle: close the rear doors firmly before doin’ the bends, for the warning signal for these is on a hair-trigger. (Tom's note: I have had other i3 owners tell me this also. If you don't close the rear door firmly, the "door ajar" light can light up while you are driving. It's in no danger of opening, it's just an oversensitive trigger than needs to be fully depressed).

Now for the gold: Do we enjoy it when it is going where no i3 has gone before? Oh yes! Yes! It is fast and nimble, which is good in itself, but it is the smooth as cream comfort that is the hammer. The suspension is firm, you already know that, so that is not the unique selling point comfort-wise. It is the easy, creamy-smooth instant power, the effortless recuperation, the relaxed one pedal driving that makes it so enjoyable to drive on your winding Alsacien roads! Take it out, that i3, if you have it, I’ll think you’ll enjoy it as much as I do !

With plenty charge left, we arrived in the quaint Alsacien winemakers’ town to fill up us and the i3 again at the B&B, a winemakers establishment. My advice: go there, drive the roads, drink the wine. Just do it in that order!


Not much to tell about day three, this being a car blog. Only that the leg to Basel was 106 km, mainly motorway, so we kept it between 90-100 (55-60) in the right lane to reach our destination with some electrons to spare, for alternative usable charging stations are sparse around there. With plenty of charge to get us to our next B&B we left sunny Basel and the river Rhine. 40% charge was a luxury I could enjoy for the 10 km (6 mi) drive to and fro from the B&B to the evenings’ restaurant later. This little drive was, besides enjoyable, also a good reminder for me to keep driving carefully during the day to make the most of our E-range, for the battery had only 16% remaining when plugging back in at our B&B at night. Do the math if you like. In our defence, we had the heat on on the way back…
Goal #1: Make it to Zurich using only electric power
Being already very pleased we reached our goal of getting to Zürich fully electric the next day, we set a new goal of reaching at least 1000 km (621 mi) of uninterrupted E-use. After a very enjoyable day in Zürich and at our friends there, totally uninteresting for you i3 enthousiasts, we started drifting in the ‘back’ direction on Saturday afternoon. With one final Swiss charge in St Gallen remaining, we took the i3 through Appenzell. Some mountain roads, not the most spectacular passes, but still sporting brisk climbs once more affirmed our belief that the i3 is a very nice car indeed. It's hard to keep your foot off that throttle :-)).
Goal #2: 1,000 km all electric
Then we reached the dreaded point that was looming in the planning all along. It was not the Swiss border which we passed without ado, it was the point at which the beast in the back had to be awoken. Time for a little car talk intermezzo.


I can understand that a lot of people question the execution of BMW’s REx solution. On the risk of repeating myself: I think they did a wonderful job, for it feels nearly sinful to start the REx after driving on electrons. So smooth. So quiet. So soothing for the conscience. You really get the feeling of doing the wrong thing when firing up ye olde’ ICE. And this is how it should be. It is an electric vehicle extended, mind you! Besides from this, the little bugger does its best to keep you mobile. We here in Europe have it easy, sorry about that American brethren, for we can engage REx at will, so we don’t have to motor through towns and countryside, but we can plan our  REx extension to happen anywhere along the way. The added bonus is of course that you can keep a nice safety cushion in the battery to get it up that Autobahn-slope, although it has to be said I was quite taken with the ability if the REx to keep up the battery when doing 120 (75) on the cruise with A/C to boot. On those not to steep but long slopes (climbing ~250 meters in ~35 km (~820 ft/~22 mi)), the battery level drops a little bit, of course, but I would say that a cushion of around 5% could just about, or just about not, suffice for most journeys. One thing I have noticed is that is seems that the car allows for a bigger battery-drift if you engage the REx earlier. One advantage of this is that it doesn’t have to run at top revs all the time to keep the state of charge on the small marker on your dash-display. Once the state of charge is low, it works very hard to maintain the 5% and prevent very low charge. To end this intermezzo about the REx something on fuel consumption. Exactly economical it is not. Doing 120 (75mph) on cruise gives you something of 15-16 km per litre (35-38 mpg us). Not too bad, not great. Taking 10 km (6 mi/hr) off the speed does wonders to this consumption however, but we kept it at 120 (75) where allowed.
Driving on the Autobahn: Speed kills - consumption rate that is!
A relatively uneventful 628 km (390 mi) later: home. We made a little touristic detour along the Rhine, which we used to recharge a bit during lunch, so we could cruise the 50 km (31 mi) of Rhine-borders in tranquility, and we recharged again at our nearby fast charger to make the last stretch on electricity before parking the car at its homespot with a feeling of well done planner, well done driver, well done little car. It is not perfect, but it is loveable all the way. And it’ll go further if you dare it…
Final stats of the journey
Map of journey

1780 km (1,104 mi), plugging in 16 times during the trip
Approximation of route travelled (source: Google)

Disclaimer - We have undertaken this trip and I have written this article on a strictly personal basis. I am not affiliated to BMW or anyones business mentioned in this story. Please mind that everything you’ve read here are my/our personal experiences and opinions and should be treated as such. Also, bear in mind that the English language is not my native one, so be patient if I’ve made some mistakes or used clumsy language. Any offence is unintentional.

Regards, Steven

A postcard from Steven to summarize his charging efforts along the way!


  1. Very nice article! (and perfect English!)

  2. Steve, Thank you for sharing your story. It is great that i3 REX had worked well for you. How many miles did you make in REX mode in the longest stretch (including refueling)?

    1. Hi Stanislav, on the last day homeward (628 km / 390mi) we did ~420 (~260mi) km on REx, with the lunchbreak as mentioned in between.

  3. A great read...thanks for sharing!

  4. Thank you for the comprehensive report;. Tom please keep these owner reports coming they are very entertaining and helpful, soon you get yours also, right?

    I know every offering their report so far are from Europe and they can manually turn on the range extender as Steven describes but have anyone done an extended trip without turning on the REX early? I would like to hear how the performance is when the driver allows the REX to turn on at the low point of 5% and then drive at highway speeds for 30 or 40 miles. have you already posted this test and I missed it or are you waiting for someone to do it?

    thank you

  5. Thanks a lot for your report, a first hand experience is always the best. I have two questions: how good was range prediction, I see you were driving along some various terrains, did the navigation take this into account right away or the remaining range would vary depending on whether you were driving uphill or downhill for some time? Second, what is the highway sweet spot to get most of the range i.e. at which speed does the range start to decrease rapidly? What is the speed you should drive at, to get longest range? Thanks in advance for your answers, Zsolt

    1. Hi Zsolt, the range indicator does use nav info regarding terrain and average expected speed into account. So far, the indication is quite good if you drive 'normaly' according to the driving mode selected (Comfort/EcoPro/EcoPro+). When driving in Comfort or EcoPro it is possible to undercut the estimation by driving smoothly and somewhat slower/gently. Undercutting EcoPro+ is a little harder. As for a highway sweet spot: sorry that I can't answer that question, for I haven't found one yet, the energy consumption seems to increase quite gradualy with the speed (in some sort of logarithmic curve of course). I keep it at around 100kmh (62 mph) if range is a concern, but this is totally arbitrary. More speed=less range, that's for sure...

    2. Zsolt: As Steven said, there really isn't a sweet spot, with EV's. Honestly the slower you go the further you'll go. I would imagine if you wanted to go absolutely as far as you could, then driving somewhere between 30 km/hr (18 mph) and 40 km/hr (25 mph) would likely render the maximum range.

    3. So I guess this is why other cars have this "turtle mode" somebody mentioned in the forum, it is to take you as far as possible when the battery is almost out. Steven/Tom, thanks to both of you for your answers.

  6. A great read and sounds like a lovely trip. One question, I guess if you were going up steep terrain you eventually came down. How much did the regen charge the battery on long downhill sections? did it actually increase the bars on the gauge in addition to the range estimation?