My time with the dainty i3 was punctuated by an encounter with an ethereal brunette who is a big advocate of electric mobility. Call her Carmen. She works at the local BMW dealership, and while teaching me how to use the fast-charging facilities, shared some interesting nuggets of information. But not a phone number, sadly.
Still, she did tell me the dealership had sold more units of the i8 than the cheaper compact city-slicker — and by a sizable margin: proof that the hybrid speedster is faring well in its position as the BMW halo car, despite that hefty starting price of R1 790 000. In fact, only a handful of i3 owners are out there and your chances of sighting one are slight.
In our time with the egg-shaped i3, we received more questions and second glances than we have in any other car that has come through our test basement. It really is a fascinating little thing and one has to give kudos to BMW for being ballsy enough to design something so radical. But, just as those looks take some getting used to, living with the i3 requires a lifestyle adjustment. First, you will need to plan your trips carefully. Although BMW claims a range of 160km on a “full tank”, the longest distance ours managed was 116km in normal driving conditions. This model was not equipped with the optional range extender, which employs a two-cylinder engine solely dedicated to charging the battery.
Second, a car like this is certainly not compatible with the whims of our beloved energy parastatal. One evening, Eskom cut power in the middle of the night, while the i3 was busy charging. That made for an unpleasant morning surprise. And the fact that charging stations are few and far between makes things even trickier. Indeed, the biggest impediment to this exciting electric wave is the lack of infrastructure in South Africa. This is a pity, because the i3 makes the concept of green motoring quite fun. The car’s performance is what you would describe as fizzy: it goes from 0-100km/h in 7.2sec, zoots into gaps in traffic with ease and is happy maintaining freeway speeds too. Bursts of acceleration are instantaneous.
Unlike A “normal” car, the i3 requires no mechanical process before power is eventually transferred to the drive wheels. In truth, this car makes the tried and-trusted method of internal combustion feel a bit outdated. As a machine that complements the practicalities of daily life, the i3 works well too. A smart interior layout results in a spacious cabin that is easily on par with most B segment hatchbacks. The boot is roomy and rear legroom is ample for people of average height. Novel touches like the suicide doors (which open on their rear hinges) look cool in addition to making getting in and out easier.
When you consider the amount of technology the car boasts and the abundance of costly materials used in its construction, the price is almost justifiable. You will pay R532 500 for the standard version; an extra R70 000 if you want the range extender, which doubles the distance you can travel between charging. For small urban families it could work — as a second car, perhaps. But for the same sort of money you could buy a well-equipped 3-Series. For now, i3s are being bought by well-heeled early adopters. We, the masses, will have to wait for Eskom to get its act together and for electric-car technology to get a little cheaper before plugging in.
0 -100km/h: 7.2 sec
Top speed: 150km/h
Fuel consumption: 12.9kWh/ 100km
Price: R532 500 Standard; R602 500 (with range extender)