Thursday 21 September 2017

Now that BMW has skin in the game, you know the future's not too far behind

BMW's first electric car, the i3
BMW's first electric car, the i3
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

A future is being enthusiastically described for us at a special workshop on BMW's first electric car, the i3, in Amsterdam.

In it, we won't drive petrol or diesel cars around towns or cities any more. We will drive electric cars, parking is free, we can drive in bus lanes and there's no road tax.

There are all sorts of clever apps with our electric cars. For example, a smartphone, part of 'Connected Drive', lets you pre-heat or cool the cabin as you munch your muesli.

It tells you how much power is left in the battery, directs you to the next parking/charging point, while you get the (app-supported) bus, train, tram or plane (and their times) for the next part of your journey.

For most of us, we live in the Now. Our petrols and diesels are getting old (average age nearly nine years). No pre-heating/cooling here as we gulp breakfast. One glance and we know the fuel tank needs €50 more; the NCT is looming. Parking, road-tax, repairs are costly.

It is a long, long way from Clare (or Clara) to Amsterdam. The gap between the Now and the Future is huge. I sense it as I start my two-day test-drive in the first electric car from BMW, the i3, which arrives here on November 16.

Amsterdam is at the heart of an area serving 17.1 million people. To our eyes they are rather leisurely getting around in their cars, trams, old bicycles, scooters (no helmets) and bicycle rickshaws.

The electric car is part of, not imposed on, the system. Hundreds of charge points dot the landscape. There are many, and varied, electric vehicles – a number of cars are plugged in to charge at parking slots.

Their government has embraced the idea. Critically, so has ours – to a point. They give significant financial bolstering for the (fading) aspiration that 10pc of vehicles will be electric by 2020. We don't see many do we? Unlike Amsterdam, there are plenty of near-idle charging points alright, but few cars. That is despite huge incentives.

Imagine, on this €34,010 BMW i3 there is a €5,000 VRT rebate PLUS a €5,000 grant from Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. Contrast that largesse with the Budget no-go for a Swappage Scheme for ordinary cars.

But why aren't we buying more electrics? I don't know Sceptics/ experts say lots of it is pie in the sky, too costly; that lower running costs would be a long time making up the price difference between an electric car and a Ford Focus. And there's too short a distance between charges (range anxiety).

Madly frustrated by it all, I apologise to the BMW expert I'd confronted with 'Offaly straight-talk' in Amsterdam over his brave-new-world claims. It is not that simple. There are caveats. You need to change your whole attitude with an electric car – from planning a trip to everyday replenishment of the batteries.

It takes effort and change, smart apps notwithstanding.

On the i3, you are limited to (realistically) 130km/140km on a single charge (lower if you drove like I did – couldn't resist). There is a range-extender version with a 650cc 2cyl petrol engine to keep the battery charged. You'll get 300kms on one tank of fuel. But it costs €41,040. Far too expensive.

Yet, for all that, it is fascinating to see what happens when people make the effort. The motoring landscape shifts a little.

I also sense there is something afoot when BMW spends €2.5bn developing a roomy, four-seater electric car. They don't throw money away.

I drove the i3 extensively, intensively and silently, around Amsterdam's vast suburban and agricultural hinterland in heavenly sunshine (we were shown a solar-powered charging point, too) over two days. It was so quiet.

The i3 is completely different from any other BMW ('i' is a sub-brand). It looks different, and has carbon fibre (bodyshell especially), eucalyptus leaf (interior), granny's old apron – anything recycled or recyclable. With all that recyclable material, it is lighter but feels extremely sturdy. Great mix of fabrics and futuristic design in the cabin. I patted and thumped surfaces, and pulled at handles and ledges like the destructive priest in Father Ted. This will wear well, I've no doubt.

There was great room. The windscreen, as large as the 7-series, bathes the place in light. But not all is sweetness and light. Dreadfully, dreadfully the seats (great support) don't adjust for height and the boot is really small.

Yet there's lots of room at the back.

You have a small screen behind the steering wheel telling you how many kilometres are left in the battery pack.

In the centre is a bigger screen with sat nav and all sorts of smart apps that go with 'connected driving'.

In its own slot at your elbow is a smart phone which does everything except drive (it highlighted my inefficient driving). You take it with you when you park.

There's MPV-like space to your front as the dash sweeps, curving under the great windscreen. You barely hear the hum/whine of the electric motor or narrower-than-expected tyres. Yet you have massive thrust from the get-go (170bhp) – that is the nature of electric cars (0-100km in 7.2 seconds).

I had such fun with acceleration. Not good for battery range. Lift off your foot and it feels like you are gently applying the brakes (we hardly used them).

Research shows commuters travel just 50/60km a day.

So, if you don't drive more than 60km-100km (claimed range is 160km), have somewhere to charge this (driveway, garage, work parking space), it could be a smart, posh, practical (they reckon running costs are 30pc lower) trendsetter that will get you around rather stylishly.

No, it won't get you from Clare to Malin Head on one charge – you'll have to stop and top up.

Until they develop the technology to dramatically store more energy and extend the range that's the price of electric motoring for now.

But it was good, so good, to see what that future could be like.

Irish Independent

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