BMW's electric i3's fine performance and low running cost make going eco so easy
Electric charger The BMW i3 has a range of 90 to 100km, and to charge the hip hatch is easy – even in the rain. -- ST PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER TAN

BMW's i3 was launched here barely four months ago and it is already the best-selling electric car on the market, with orders breaching the two dozen mark.

Now, you may say the number hardly makes a car a bestseller, but consider this: Only one other electric car has ever been put on the road with a normal plate - a Tesla Roadster.

None of the other carmakers with electric models managed to sell any. The Mitsubishi iMiEV, Renault Fluence ZE, Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt were all here, mostly as part of a $20-million "test-bed" scheme that allowed these cars to run around tax-free.

Another $75-million trial is on the way, with new participants such as China's BYD and France's Bollore looking to join. These companies are, of course, hoping the trial will pave the way for long-term tax breaks for electric cars.

In my opinion, this is a crutch mentality that is slowing down electric car adoption.

If companies want their cars to sell, just make them desirable. And that is exactly what BMW has done.

The stunning i8 plug-in hybrid sports model reviewed last week is one example. Despite its rather hefty price tag of $600,000, demand is outstripping supply.

The i3 is another example. This is a full electric car, backed by a small twocylinder engine that kicks in to power up the batteries if they run low.

But over the course of a week since taking delivery of this long-term test car, the petrol engine kicked in only once - last weekend, when several errands had to be run back to back.

On normal weekdays, the i3's realistic range of 90 to 100km is more than adequate. In fact, with my workplace just five minutes away, I could go up to four days without plugging the i3 in.

If I had been truly determined not to rely on the so-called range extender (the small petrol engine), I could have driven to BMW agent Performance Motors.

A high-voltage quick charger there would have juiced up the i3 to 80 per cent in under 30 minutes. A full charge via a normal household socket takes eight to nine hours.

A smartphone app that comes with the i3 also tells me where I can find a public charging point.

These are just for extra peace of mind, really. Because for nine out of 10 times, plugging the car in at home will be sufficient for all your mobility needs.

What I find a little disconcerting is how quickly the range falls initially. At full charge, the range meter reads 115km. But when you come back an hour later and start up the car, it could say 100km. What accounted for the unused 15km?

And often, after driving just 2km, the range drops by 5 to 8km.

Thankfully, the consumption rate slows down after the midway point.

In the default Comfort mode, which comes with full acceleration and airconditioning potential, the car is good for 90 to 100km. It depends on how much idling time you encounter.

In EcoPro mode, the air-conditioning is not so powerful but still good enough for evenings. There is a slight drop in acceleration, but progress is still very brisk. The improvement in consumption here is minute, so I would not bother with it.

In EcoPro Plus mode, the car goes without air-conditioning (compressor is deactivated) and acceleration is further dulled. In this mode, the car is still driveable and consumption improves by 10 to 20 per cent.

The discomfort of not having airconditioning is not worth the savings. So, in short, just leave the car in Comfort mode, which gives you access to sports-car-like performance.

The stated 0 to 100kmh timing is 7.9 seconds, but the i3's acceleration is so perfectly linear (the beauty of electric motors) that it feels like a much faster car. You get 250Nm of torque the moment you depress the acclerator. And unlike in combustion engines, where torque tapers off after 4,000rpm or so, the i3's maximum shove is maintained as long as your foot is on the pedal.

Much of the i3's performance is attributable to its lightweight body.

Made largely of carbon-fibre and plastic, the BMW tall hatch weighs only 1.2 tonnes (about 200kg lighter than a Mercedes-Benz A-class). This makes for one exhilarating car.

This, in fact, is its most loveable trait. Its second-most loveable trait is its low running cost.

Based on today's cost of electricity and petrol, you stand to save close to $1,000 a year on fuel if your current car is a Volkswagen Golf or equivalent, and you clock 19,000km a year.

The bummer is its road tax. The Land Transport Authority has deemed it fit to slap the i3 with an annual road tax of around $1,700 - more than what a 2.4litre petrol car attracts. It effectively wipes out the electric car's fuel savings.

While I started this article saying that electric cars should not rely on subsidies to succeed, I think the road tax for the i3 is unneccessarily and unjustly punitive.

This is the first of a three-part report based on a three-week test.

CAR INFORMATION

BMW i3 Electric Range Extender - Lodge (A)

Price

:$186,800

Engine Type

:

Hybrid synchronous motor with integrated power electronics, charger and generator

Engine Cap

:

647 cc

Horsepower

:

168 bhp / 4,800 rpm

Torque

:

250 Nm / 4,800 rpm

Transmission

:

Single-speed Direct Drive

Acceleration

:

7.2 sec (0-100 km/h)

Top Speed

:

150 km/h