Mountain Wheels: Take a trip to the future in BMW’s mostly electric i3
2015 BMW i3
MSRP: $42,400: As tested, $49,000-$52,000
Powertrain: 170-HP electric motor plus 34-HP 650cc gasoline engine, single-speed automatic transmission
EPA MPGe figures: 124 combined: 137 city, 111 highway
Like my experience with the GM automobile that rhymes with “bolt,” I did not come to the revolutionary new BMW i3 with the intention of killing the electric car.
I just hoped that 2015-era technology, infrastructure and nearly $50,000 in purchase price — before the many thousands and thousands of dollars in tax incentives offered to drivers in Colorado — would result in more practicality, driving pleasure and maybe even public status, especially during a week on the road in Boulder.
Unfortunately, while it’s literally the most cutting-edge vehicle on the market, minus whatever Tesla is doing these days, the very small and extremely stylistic i3 is more like the all-electric Nissan Leaf or the Mitsubishi i-MiEV than the aforementioned General Motors gas-electric choice.
And that’s because i3’s 450-pound, 22-kWh battery pack and motor, while good for an impressively quick 170 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque, will only get between 80 and 100 miles of range on a charge — more realistically, about 70 miles, as most drivers say.
As a way of coping with that lack of ability of actually getting from Denver to Vail, for instance, the i3 is available with what is called a range extender — a 34-horsepower, 650 cc, two-stroke engine, tucked into the rear flanks of the tiny, 2,900-pound i3 and there to add another 70 miles or so of real world range.
During my test, the strange reality was that I had what was essentially a $50,000 four-seater BMW scooter, as the only access I had to electric recharging was through public facilities and I could never get a full re-charge. And if it’s a challenge to do that in Boulder, epicenter of all things revolutionary and technological, you may be in trouble in a spot like Summit County, or beyond.
Admittedly, as an owner, you’ll have your house wired to help the i3 recharge in something like three to five hours on a Level 2 (240 volt, like your appliances) charger; a wall socket charges the car in 10 or so hours. And you’ll hopefully have somewhere to charge the car during the day; I found only a couple of high-voltage Level 3 chargers anywhere in the Front Range, which are said to recharge the i3 in 30-40 minutes.
Full of power, the diminutive, 157-inch-long i3 is remarkable speedy with all that instantaneous torque, allowing you to motor away from the crowds of folks in larger vehicles (who I noticed treated my California-plated test vehicle like I had been dressed by my mother in brown corduroy pants and a tartan blazer for the first day of school).
The low-resistance tires make it a sporty performer and the steering is almost frighteningly direct; like an electric city bus, the accelerator also acts as a deaccelerator — take your foot off and it mostly brakes for you, which is eerie at first. I am told that deacceleration also automatically hits the brake lamps for you, which was reassuring.
That old “range anxiety” issue rears its head pretty quickly, as trying to make a trip even as simple as Boulder to downtown Denver easily burns up most of that charge. And unless you’ve found a Walgreens, a BMW dealer or one of the few parking lots to feature charging stations — and they are not occupied by other electric-hungry pioneers — you have to rely on the engine.
When the tiny motor kicks in — quite noisily, as the entirely carbon fiber-reinforced plastic automobile is not especially sound-insulated — you’ll get an indicated 60-or-so-mile range before you are really, really in trouble. Happily, that 2.4-gallon tank makes for the cheapest refills you’ll ever experience in a four-wheel, street-legal vehicle; you just need to refill over and over again, until you recharge the car.
If all of this sounds like a giant pain in the ass, you may not be the proper candidate for the car of the future — leading me to wonder how we’ll all make that quantum leap to a largely fossil fuel-free future, minus serious infrastructure upgrades or longer driving range through battery technology. For well-heeled urban dwellers eyeing a giant tax credit and the coolest anti-car on the road, I noticed the Front Range dealers had the cars stacked up like cordwood for buyers.
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