Why BMW's revolutionary carbon-fibre i3 is the future of motoring

28th Aug 2013 | 13:30

Why BMW's revolutionary carbon-fibre i3 is the future of motoring

Carbon-bodied BMW i3 is just part of a "complete mobility" package

BMW has revealed the final production version of its i3. All electric, made from carbon fibre and integrated into the broader transport system, it's the first in a range of 'i' models that will revolutionise personal mobility, according to BMW at least.

We've been hands on and spoken to some of the key BMW personnel behind the revolutionary new model.

Integrated mobility

A big part of the i3 package is what BMW calls integrated mobility. To learn about that, we need to hook up with Che Franke, the BMW i ConnectedDrive expert. ConnectedDrive is the internet-connected part of BMW's iDrive multimedia platform.

"The BMW i3 is a complete mobility product," says Franke. "That starts with a SIM for data connectivity in every i3."

BMW i3

"This complete mobility is integrated into the navigation system and apps." What that means in practice is enhanced versions of BMW's existing smartphone app and the ConnectedDrive in-car system.

For starters, the app gets the usual electric car stuff - charging status, range status, the ability to schedule charging remotely and preheat the cabin.

Where things get a bit cleverer is the broader question of mobility. "We're working on an ecosystem of mobility that integrates public transport information into the navigation," says Franke.

App-enabled

In practice, for instance, that means the i3's navigation system might guide you to a park and ride location. You then step out of the i3 and your BMW smartphone app seamlessly takes over the navigation duties, guiding you all the way to your city centre destination.

BMW i3

Again, this part of the BMW i3 proposition isn't quite finalised. Franke says BMW isn't quite ready to announce full details of exactly which cities, services and public transport networks will be fully integrated into the i3's navigation platforms.

In theory, then, the BMW i3 sounds great. But a lot will come down to the detail implementation. Has BMW really sorted access to charging? Does the integrated mobility tech really work?

Open-air affair

But first, let's talk basics. The BMW i3 is a four-seater car with a novel dual-suicide door arrangement. The front doors are normally sized and operate in a conventional manner. But the rears are smaller and hinged at the back of the car.

There's also no middle pillar, sometimes known as the B-pillar, between the two doors. So, with both doors ajar, the result is a very large, airy opening for getting in and out of the i3.

BMW i3

That's actually possible thanks to what BMW calls the LifeDrive structure. It's a carbon-fibre passenger cell to which the chassis and powertrain components are attached. BMW says the use of carbon-fibre on this scale is a first for a mass-produced car.

Next up, the gubbins that makes the i3 move. Here we're talking 170hp electric motor and an 18.8kWh lithium battery. Factor in a fairly modest 1,195kg kerb weight, again in part enabled by the use of carbon-fibre, and you have a pretty nippy electric car.

BMW i3

BMW says it will hit 62mph in just 7.2 seconds. That's junior hot hatch territory - it's not far off cars like Ford's Fiesta ST. Intiial step off thanks to the instant torque of he electric motor is even better. It'll nail 37mph in just 3.7 seconds.

Real-world range

As for range, always a big question for an electric car, BMW is quoting 81 to 99 miles in normal usage with 12 miles if you use the energy-saving ECO PRO+ mode, which limits things like climate control usage in return for a few more miles.

BMW i3

You also have the option of of a tiny 650cc range-extending petrol engine. It doesn't drive the wheels, it just keeps the battery topped up and improves the maximum range to 180 miles.

So what will the i3 actually be like to live with? How long will it take to charge? Over to Manuel Sattig, Project Manager for BMW i.

"Charging the BMW i3 is more simple than most people think. You can charge on almost any socket. You can charge on the same socket you use to charge your mobile phone. Of course, this takes about 7.5 hours for a full charge," explains Sattig.

Fancy a top up?

That's not a problem for overnight charging, but what if you need a quick top up?

"If you choose the BMW i Wallbox, we send someone to your home and find out what your power supply can handle," says Sattig. The result is a fast-charging solution that cuts the charge time to around three hours.

But what if you don't have a garage? That's the problem for electric cars. They're designed for use in cities where most cars are kept on the street, not in private garages where charging rigs can be installed.

BMW i3

"It's a process. Building the infrastructure takes time. But 90 per cent of a car's life is spent parked. We need to use that time intelligently. At the office, the train station the airport, at the movies, shopping centres," Sattig says.

Charge when you can, then. But BMW can help you here, firstly with the ChargeNow card which aims to unify all the different service operators who offer charging points. In theory, the ChargeNow card will get you access to the lot.

First impressions

What we can say for now is that the car looks great in the, er, carbon fibre. The pillarless opening between the doors really emphasises that this is not a conventional car. As does the exposed carbon weave on the sills.

BMW i3

Up front, what's striking is the clean simplicity of the design. There are no dials and gauges. Just a pair of screens, one in front of the driver and one up front and centre. The materials are mostly very high quality, but there are one or two details that will at least intrigue.

BMW has used an ultra light weight material for part of the door cards. It's in keeping with the remit, but it's not terribly tactile. It looks, well, a bit recycled.

BMW i3

Still, there's plenty of space up front. In the back, things are much more cramped. The illusion of space created by the missing B-pillar disappears when the doors are closed. The appeal of this first i3 as a family work horse is limited.

Sordid matter of money

All of which just leaves us to discuss the sordid matter of money. In the UK, the i3 kicks off at £25,680 including the £5,000 electric vehicle grant provided by the government. If you want the range-extend versions, that'll be £28,830. You can have the BMW i Wallbox fitted for £315.

BMW i3

In reality, we think few people will buy i3's outright. Instead, leasing will be the most popular way to get into an i3. BMW is offering a £369-month deal over 36 months with a £2,995 deposit.

Warranty-wise, you get three-year unlimited mileage general cover and eight years or 100,000 miles cover for the battery.

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