BMW i3

Past sin of which I’ve been guilty: thinking of electric vehicles the same way I think of diet soft drinks—or diet food in general. Expensive, unfulfilling, and leaves you wanting more. Lots of past electric vehicles have been that way, but the BMW i3 isn’t. It feels every inch a luxury car. Driving it is a pleasure, even in Toronto’s Mad Max-esque traffic. Here’s the bottom line: I don’t feel cheated. I get a luxury driving experience with some green credibility to boot.

The Electric Driving Experience

First, what’s different about driving electric. The BMW i3 is utterly silent; sitting in a moving one for the first time is a little strange. It also stops when you remove your foot from the accelerator—no slow creep at all. In fact, the stop is so quick that I rarely had to brake while driving Toronto’s many small side streets.

Fortunately, the BMW i3 has more in common with other luxury cars than with diet cars—excuse me, other electric cars. It makes for zippy driving, accelerating quickly and stopping precisely. I drove it through a bunch of the winding roads you find near the Don Valley, and its handling was exactly what you’d expect from a high performance vehicle—especially comforting, as I did this during last week’s big storm. I also decided to test the car’s guts out over a late-night spin on the Gardner—from 20 km/h on the onramp, I managed 100 km/h in six and a half seconds. Would’ve tried from zero, but other drivers might not have been into that. Turn radius is nice and tight, and it’s surprisingly compact for something that feels quite roomy—Toronto’s maze of one-ways, moving trucks, and ubiquitous tight parallel parking were no problem.

Test driving aside, I decided to try out a pretty standard urban driving dilemma: I took a couple of friends to Ikea and Costco. The back seats are comfortable for that kind of distance, and they fold down. We fit the three of us, a desk, one of those square shelves, and $500 worth of groceries in the i3. From the downtown core to Etobicoke and back, no problem.

Essential Facts: Luxury Details, Engineering Feats, and Green Solutions

The BMW i3 has no shortage of luxury details either, the centrepiece being the multimedia system. Its GPS has charging stations preprogramed with other key destinations, and after you’ve selected one, you can tether you phone or iPod to the car and listen your own playlists. On the way there, front and rear sensors alert you to cars or wayward pedestrians, and your dash will tell you the speed limit; the car gets this information from your GPS map. However, I’m told that the car can detect speed limit signs—say, held by a construction worker—and adjust accordingly. If you’re in cruise control, you can set it based on distance to the next car, ensuring that if they slow down, you do too. Then, when you get where you’re going, a rear camera will not only give you unfetter views, but graphical interface will show you the radius of the turn you’re making.

The battery can be charged from zero to 80% in three hours, zero to full in fifteen hours; that last 20% is the hard part. For most drivers, this means plugging in every night will be sufficient. In fact, you can use the BMW i3 app to schedule charging—say your rates are better from midnight until seven AM. You can also use said app to schedule a remote start and tune the climate control to your liking while it’s still pugged in, saving battery power.

If you need to charge during the day, the GPS has charge stations programmed. BMW has it’s own charge stations, or you can pay to use private ones. It’s exactly as easy as rolling up and plugging in.

Aside from the lithium-ion battery, one of the main technologies that makes the BMW i3 possible is extensive use of carbon fibre. It’s 30% lighter than aluminium and 50% lighter than steel; supercars have been utilizing it for years (here’s Koenigsegg making 280 mph capable carbon fibre wheels), and BMW is pioneering its use in their series cars.

It gets even greener. The interior leather is vegetable tanned, though you can order yours with textile seat covers made from 100% recycled polyester. The instrument panel is done in eucalyptus, which looks great and is from 100% FSC-certified forestry. 25% of the interior is made from renewable raw materials and recyclables, with 20% recycled plastics on the exterior. 95% of the materials used to build the car are themselves recyclable.

The Bottom Line

Finally, the huge difference between an eclectic car and a gas car: range. The BMW i3 can go about 190 kilometres, from full batteries to empty, if you have nothing else drawing power. (Actually, you can turn on an eco-boost setting that sets a hard ceiling on how much additional power can be drawn—a bit like battery saver mode on a laptop.) With the car comfortably air-conditioned, my smartphone plugged in, and the Bluetooth connected multimedia centre turned on, this drops to 150 kilometres.

Right now, I imagine a bunch of people in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto saying to themselves, “One hundred kilometres? How much farther would I possibly need to go?” Meanwhile, Canadians everywhere else, especially Calgary, are saying “One hundred kilometres?! How the hell would you get anywhere?” And there’s the rub: if you have an urban lifestyle and don’t frequently drive long distances, a BMW i3 is ideal. Otherwise, it just won’t work for you.

When it comes to new technology, the best place to be is one step after the early adopters. Props to the early adopters—they’re pioneers, but that comes with its share of product testing and mistakes. That’s why a lot of the first electric vehicles on the market felt a bit wanting. Hence picking up new technology one step after the early adopters. The BMW i3 isn’t the first electric car out there, but picking one up now gives you all the energy efficient, zero-emissions benefits of going green without the trials of being the first. And a bit of luxury doesn’t hurt either.

Dave Robson is the editor of DailyXY. He spends his time reading books, drinking Scotch, and smoking cigars.

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