BMW i3 is a punchy, funky battery-powered family car with range
Electric dream come true The i3, an electric hatchback with a carbon-fibre plastic body, is futuristic-looking both inside and out. -- ST PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER TAN

A bold and radical car like the BMW i3 deserves a proper introduction, so let's start from the beginning.

The i3 is an electric hatchback with a carbon-fibre reinforced plastic body bolted to an aluminium frame.

It runs on lithium-ion batteries which you recharge via a wall box that comes with the car. This will be installed at your home or workplace. A full recharge from empty takes up to eight hours.

The Singapore version comes with a range extender, which is essentially a small two-cylinder petrol engine that kicks in to juice up the batteries when they are low.

This gives the i3 a realistic range of 170-200km. Technically, you could drive to Kuala Lumpur by continually refuelling its nine-litre fuel tank. But mostly, you can drive without having to call upon the range extender by plugging the car in every time before you go to bed.

The engine does not drive the wheels - it is connected solely to the batteries.

Even though it is primarily a city car, the i3 would be suitable for long hauls. It displays the same ride characteristics of compact BMWs, and while the seats are thinner than most, they are no less supportive or comfy.

The car is decked out with amenities you find in a mid-range premium model, including a new generation of self-parking system and adaptive cruise control.

The cabin is as unique as the exterior.

The absence of a transmission tunnel makes for a completely flat and obstruction-free floor. It is handy if you are in a tight parking space and need to exit via the passenger door.

Besides carbon fibre, the interior is furnished with a natural fibre sourced from a fast-growing plant. The juxtaposition of synthetic and natural materials makes for a funky ambience.

The car is bright and airy, thanks to a high ceiling and that barrier-free floor space. For a smallish car, the i3 is actually quite roomy. The same goes for its boot.

Its multi-function two-spoke steering wheel looks futuristic and lets you take charge of cruise control.

In an electric or hybrid car, you would ordinarily rely a lot on cruise control, but the i3 is so responsive and driveable that this function becomes mostly redundant.

The i3 can be driven with a single pedal once you are familiar with its unique characteristics. Once you lift your foot off the accelerator, the car goes into a battery recuperative mode - it uses the remaining motion to charge the batteries.

This results in a palpable "braking" action. If you observe traffic keenly, you will be able to come to a stop without applying the brakes.

You can even enjoy swift cornering without touching the brake pedal - but up to a point. A couple of runs through the serpentine Old Upper Thomson Road show the car's tallness and relatively high centre of gravity.

So the brakes are still necessary now and then. The car will, however, keep up with better-handling cars in this exercise because of its torquey motor.

Throttle response is very strong and instant. So pulling out of a corner is always clean and quick. Straight-line acceleration is impressive too, with 0-100kmh despatched in 7.9 seconds.

The only thing is that the brakes feel slightly retarded, resulting in a small mismatch between your expectations of acceleration and deceleration.

The car's superb visibility contributes to its driveability. Its clear front quarterwindow areas are a great help for sharp turns.

The tallish i3 facilitates easy access as the seats are at hip level. Getting to the back row is also easy - even though the car looks like a three-door.

Two compact rear doors open rearwards (like a Rolls-Royce's), but each can be opened only when its corresponding front door is ajar as the latch is on the inside of the door pillar. As such, the rear door has to close before the front door.

The i3 comes with a smartphone app that allows you to access several functions remotely - even if you are in another country. You can check its state of charge, switch on the air-con to cool down the cabin before you get in, activate the lights and horn and even preset its navigation.

These are nice, but not really the car's main selling proposition.

To me, the i3's best trait is its supercarlike acceleration. You can filter, merge and overtake with gaps that are usually too small for other cars. It makes you feel like you are riding a sports bike with earplugs. Yes, the i3 is very quiet.

Because electricity is cheaper than petrol and an electric motor is more efficient than an engine, the i3's running cost is low. This certainly helps in offsetting its relatively high road tax of about $1,700.

And while the i3 is slightly pricier than models its size, it is less costly than expected for a carbon-fibre car that looks and drives like nothing else around.