Break the Fossil Fuel Habit in Style!

BMW introduces the i3, its first fully-electric car. Could this be the EV that makes fossil fuel cars go the way of the dinosaurs?

Electric cars are cleaner and more economical than internal-combustion vehicles, but let’s face it – most of them aren’t exactly stylish. BMW hopes to change that with the BMW i3, the first all-electric production car in the BMW family. 

Not quite as sleek as a Tesla might be an understatement; it looks a little more family-oriented. This four-passenger vehicle sports all the amenities that you’d expect from a luxury car: a roomy interior, climate control, hands-free smart phone interface, parking distance control with rear-mounted sensors, passenger safety features, and of course, its own smart phone app. In addition to those standard features, it includes options such as a navigation system, adaptive LED headlights, a sun roof, heated seats, a rear-view camera, and more. And realizing that all-electric vehicles can’t travel long distances – at least not until a recharging infrastructure is built – there’s an optional range extender: a two-cylinder gasoline powered engine that effectively makes the i3 a plug-in hybrid. 

Instead of adapting older technology, BMW engineered this vehicle from the ground up. The aluminum chassis provides a robust skeleton, and the eco-friendly carbon-fiber reinforced plastic body is strong, light, corrosion-proof, impact-resistant, and fully-recyclable. Like the Tesla Model S, the i3 has no transmission, decreasing the car’s weight, cost, and complexity. Its 125 kW / 170 hp hybrid synchronous electric motor with regenerative braking ability provides 250 Nm of torque. It can accelerate from zero to 100 km/hr (62 mph) in 7.2 seconds. If it’s driven in high-efficiency mode (i.e. NOT going 0-100 in 7.2 seconds) the i3 can travel 200 km (125 miles)  on a single charge. In “Comfort Mode” its range is 130 – 160 km; at an electric rate of $0.10/kWh, its cost per unit of distance is roughly equivalent to a car that gets 225 km/gal (140 mpg). If you’re charging it with solar or wind power, then the electricity is free, after the cost of the PV panels or turbine and accessories. 

The i3 has a 360V, 22kWh lithium-ion battery bank. That’s about one-third as large as the battery in a Tesla Model S, while delivering about half the driving range. The 240VAC intelligent charging system can fully charge the battery in 3 hours; the optional fast charger can charge it up to 80% in 20 minutes and to full capacity in 30 minutes. The battery bank is encased in aluminum and placed in a crash-safe location. And if it crashes, there’s an automatic electric cutoff feature. Unlike the Tesla Model S, which can be plugged into any 120V outlet, the i3 requires 240V for its charger. 

BMW expects to sell the i3 in the US starting in the second quarter of 2014. With a base price of $41k, it’s about $20k less than a Tesla Model S. The smaller battery and lower passenger capacity probably account for the difference in price. Think of this as a “Tesla light” at a Chevy Volt price. What stands out to me is that the i3 is eco-friendly, not only as a zero-emission car, but also its design and manufacturing. Its carbon fiber production facility is run entirely on hydroelectric power. BMW invested money in several clean manufacturing processes in order to make this car – processes that will affect the rest of the auto industry. And as I mentioned before, the carbon fiber is fully recyclable.

With every new technology, the first of its kind is something that only the rich kids can afford, but eventually the design concepts work their way down to the rest of us, which means that by the time my 2009 Corolla wears out, a fully-electric vehicle like this might actually be in my price range. 

Could this be the car that turns internal-combustion engines into dinosaurs? Probably not, but it’s a big step in the right direction. 

Images courtesy of BMW