Ryan Bubear spends a week with the BMW i3 eDrive REx. What's it like to live with an electric car in South Africa?
Yes, it's an electric car. Yes, it's here in South Africa. And, no, we didn't find ourselves stranded by the side of the road, begging confused passers-by for any spare electricity.
When we first drove the BMW i3 at the local launch back in February, we were suitably impressed, throwing around words like "compelling" and "revolutionary". But, dear reader, that experience was a single-day affair, and we didn't have to worry about silly things such as charging.
So, in a bid to find out exactly what the first volume production electric car from Munich is like to live with on a day-to-day basis in infrastructure-deprived SA, we procured a BMW i3 eDrive REx (that's the range-extender model) resplendent in Ionic Silver with tasty blue highlights. Nice, isn't it?
Er, yeah. We've got one word for you: "Eskom".
Goodness, that escalated quickly. Sure, the threat of rolling blackouts is ever-present in South Africa, but load-shedding generally isn't scheduled through the night in residential areas, when your battery-powered i3 would typically be plugged in. And running an electric vehicle requires oodles of forethought anyway, no matter how stable the power grid.
We're not convinced. But we'll play along. How long does it take to charge?
Well, that depends. If you plug into an ordinary domestic socket — as we did — BMW reckons it takes around eight hours for the high-voltage lithium-ion battery to reach an 80 percent charge from zero. And, since the last 20 percent is said to take a little longer, you're looking at well over 10 hours for an "empty-to-full" cycle. Which is fine if, like us, you charge overnight.
Of course, the kind folks at BMW will gladly organise the installation of an i Wallbox (for a fee, naturally) should your premises be suitable. This bad-boy taps into the maximum current strength available at your property to reach the same level of charge in somewhere around three hours. Alternatively, a public fast-charger can do the job in just 30 minutes — if you can find one.
Okay, so say the lights stay on for long enough. How far can you drive on a full charge?
Again, that depends. With a claimed consumption of 12.9kWh per 100km (13.5 for the heavier range-extender we drove), the German automaker says electric range is somewhere around 130km. But temper your right foot, switch to Eco Pro+ mode (which disables the climate control and limits top speed to 90km/h), and drive with the sort of anticipation that EVs generally reward, and that figure can be pushed past 150km.
What? Most South Africans do that sort of mileage just popping down to the shops!
Firstly, we suggest you move closer to civilisation. Or at least closer to a Pick n Pay. Secondly, remember than the BMW i3 is aimed squarely at urban dwellers, and is not intended to be the only vehicle in the household garage. Besides, if you live far outside the city, the REx model makes more sense for you.
Fair point. So, is the range-extender worth the extra cash?
It is. The R70 000 premium may seem a little hefty at first, but this chunk of change buys you significant peace of mind by greatly reducing the effects of range anxiety. Indeed, the 28kW/55Nm 650cc twin (borrowed from the brand's motorcycle range and fed by a nine-litre tank) — which acts as a generator to top up the battery — adds well over 100km to the total range.
When it kicks in, however, it sounds a little like you're being followed — at a fair distance, admittedly — by a tiny helicopter. And it does make the i3 a little porkier, which in turns hits acceleration times.
Ah, yes. Acceleration. Which reminds us: what's it like to drive?
Marvellous. And quiet. Marvellously quiet. Instant access to the 125kW rear-mounted hybrid synchronous electric motor's peak torque figure of 250Nm means it positively rockets off the line, while in-gear acceleration is just as startling. At 7.9 seconds, the REx takes seven-tenths longer than the even lighter pure electric model to reach 100km/h, but it's still more than sprightly enough.
Of course, pilot the rear-wheel drive, single-speed transmission hatchback like this on a regular basis and your estimated range will plunge faster than Volkswagen's share price after the Dieselgate news broke. But, thanks to the energy recuperation function, you have little use for the left pedal, since backing off the throttle produces a strong enough braking effect to require the illumination of the brake-lights.
In fact, if you employ hefty enough doses of anticipation — as any good driver should — it's entirely possible to complete a lengthy journey without touching the brake pedal at all.
So, forgetting that it's an electric car for a moment, just how practical is the BMW i3?
It's, well, average. While there's decent leg- and head-room on the rear bench, access is hindered by the coach-style doors. The fact that the front portals must be heaved out of the way for the rear doors to be opened greatly complicates matters in even moderately tight spaces. Up front, however, there's plenty of room, thanks in part to the lack of a transmission tunnel. And the luggage compartment weighs in with passable 260 litres.
It doesn't look like a typical BMW, does it?
Nope. The Munich-based manufacturer has clearly made an effort to set the i3 — and indeed the i8 plug-in hybrid sports-car — apart from its conventional models. Whether the futuristic styling cues will resonate with the buying public, of course, is a question you may well be better placed to answer.
Well, it's certainly different. Has BMW SA managed to sell many yet?
By our maths, we put the current local tally at 79 units over a sales period of around eight months. It's a niche product, after all.
One of those belongs to Nicky Oppenheimer, we heard. So, come on, then: what's it cost?
Well, the pure electric model comes in at R532 500, while the range-extender costs R602 500. Of course, there's an options list as long as your arm should you have more cash to spend.
We don't. But will the BMW i3 really save us money?
It should — if you use it properly, that is. In fact, BMW says if you do 20 000km a year with a petrol-powered vehicle returning 7.0 litres per 100km, switching to an i3 would save you more than R1000 a month (based on electricity at R1.25 per kWh and petrol at R11.02 per litre).
Of course, even if you were able to achieve such a saving, you have to consider the compromises (range anxiety, charging time, lack of public infrastructure, etc.) that come with owning an electric car — which we're sure you already have.
Still think it's compelling and revolutionary?
Without question. Eskom anxiety notwithstanding.
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See page two for specs and pricing.