Tucked away at the back of the BMW Pavilion at the recently concluded Auto Expo in Greater Noida, behind the fancy GS motorcycles and the new 6GT and X3, and beside the beautiful i8 Roadster, was the BMW i3s. Clearly this vehicle was not at the top of the list for BMW India, possibly because (as Vikram Pawah, President of BMW India told me later) the carmaker has no immediate plans to launch it, since India does not have the requisite charging infrastructure as yet.
Still, a couple of months ago, I found myself in Lisbon, staying in a hotel co-owned by Portugal’s most famous son, Cristiano Ronaldo. There was no getting away from the man, not just in the hotel, but at every souvenir shop across town. There was also no getting away from the fact that Lisbon has several charging stations for electric cars across town. Electric cars may not have the sales numbers they enjoy in a country like Norway, where every second car sold is either a plug-in hybrid or a fully electric car. And while the super-rich oblige Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors despite production problems with the new Model 3, those with a bit less money go in for the extremely impressive i3, and I was in Lisbon to drive the latest variant of that car, the i3s, the ‘s’ ostensibly standing for ‘sport’.
Starting out from Lisbon Airport, we were supposed to drive through the narrow, winding streets of the very hilly city, through squares with gigantic cathedrals and charming old trams traversing the roads, before heading down the estuary of the Tagus river and Lisbon’s iconic 25 de Abril bridge, passing the monument commemorating Portugal’s explorers, including Pedro Alvares Cabral, who ‘discovered’ Brazil for the Europeans, and Vasco Da Gama, who was the first European to cross the Cape of Good Hope onwards to India. And we would go onwards down the coastal road towards Portugal’s iconic racetrack, Estoril.
This was not the first time I was driving an electric car, but it is always disconcerting when you start a car and see the instrument cluster flash to life, but don’t hear or feel anything. The sounds of silence are very disconcerting, maybe I will get used to it one day, but for now, it still feels strange. Once you take the i3s, out on the road, however, you realise that it is like any other car when the navigation system promptly gets you lost, or sends you down a one-way street.
Getting lost in Lisbon might be a problem sometimes, but it is a glorious way to discover the city. And the navigation system’s glitches are not a fault of the i3s, which it must be said is a very capable car. In fact, the navigation sent us into really narrow streets with just enough width for a small car, but this is where the i3s really surprised, with its tight turning radius. Despite getting lost for the fourth time, I eventually made it to the coastal road, stopping to see a small exhibit BMW’s i Division had made about how humans are polluting the seas. A glass cube, a meter across, was filled almost to the brim with cigarette butts from just the stretch of beach next door, about a kilometer long.
There was no doubt BMW was trying to get its environmental message across, and the i3 has always been promoted as a green car, even the variant fitted with a small range-extending petrol engine. The car that I drove did not have a range extender, however there was no point of time that I ever felt worried about the remaining range, (well, there was one time, but more about that later).
Popular as the i3 has been, this mid-life upgrade was mainly designed to address its big problem – it is a deeply ‘unsexy’ car. Thus it now wears some sporty bodywork, and in red and black, looks a lot meaner too. It also has slightly upgraded electronics and power delivery, thanks to better tyres.
But is it ‘sporty’? Before hitting Estoril, you hit the small ‘B’ roads in the hills above the coast, and these beautiful roads are the sort of place you would want to drive any sportscar. The i3s is nice, it does not handle badly at all, but as a couple of my colleagues discovered, when pushed hard the i3s system can reboot; that is, constant hard acceleration and braking between corners did overload the electrical system, and this sends the vehicle into ‘limp’ mode, which restricts the power to the system and the speed of the car. Truth be told, nobody who is a potential i3s customer would drive like that, but then again, you can’t keep an automotive writer from being a bit naughty at times.
BMW i3s Specs
Powertrain: BMW eDrive
Technology — 650cc twin-cylinder range-extending generator
Max Power: 181 bhp
Peak Torque: 250 Nm
The i3s also comes with BMW’s latest automation technology, such as radar-assisted cruise control and lane assist, both of which keep the car safe, as well active city safety, which would brake the car automatically in case it sensed a collision with the car in front. All of these features are considered ‘Level 1’ autonomy, although you still have to keep your hands on the wheel, albeit lightly.
In other respects, the i3 is a perfectly acceptable small hatchback for Europe. The ‘suicide’ doors make clambering into the back easier than on a three-door car and there is sufficient storage space for groceries or a small suitcase, but do keep in mind that with a normal range of around 250 kilometers, this will not be a long-distance cruiser.
This brings be to this car’s biggest drawback – its price. It is not as ludicrously priced as the Tesla, but in the UK, for example, a standard i3 costs close to 30,000 pounds, and that too after tax-breaks by the government. To encourage people to buy electric, governments across Europe have given incentives like free charging stations, no tolls and in London, no congestion charges. In addition, given that petrol and diesel prices in Europe are on average 50-60 per cent more expensive than India, there could be some long-term value in buying one of these.
BMW plans to sell over 200,000 electric and hybrids under the i brand, and even hybrid versions of its regular cars, by 2020. And even though some of those might come to India, BMW did bring the ‘Active Hybrid’ on the previous generation 7 Series to India. It might be some time, though, before we see a large number of plug-in hybrids in this country, especially with our hare-brained taxation policies for cars. Still, driving the i3s around the central Portuguese coast was fascinating, and there is no doubt that electric is the future of motoring. While the i3s is far from the sportiest car I have ever driven, it was good fun. Then again, this drive was bookended with the mental M5 at the other end. Had I been driving the i3s alone, well, I don’t know how I would have felt. The future may be electric, but it is far from charging me up.