Friday 23 February 2018

Noiseless BMW not priceless

Electric vehicles will come to a street near you, but not before range and price are addressed, says Campbell Spray

'TWO things must ye know of the Wise Woman. First she's a woman and secondly...?' 'She's wise?'

For some bizarre reason the sketch from Blackadder regularly came into my head during the test of the BMW i3, the company's first proper electric car.

The two things ye must know about it is that the car is electric and a BMW. The first means that there will be compromises over range, the second that it will be well-engineered but expensive.

While the company hopes to get over the ever-present range anxiety by having the option of a noisy converted motor-cycle engine on board to re-charge the battery for another 130km or so, possibly doubling the distance the car can travel, the whole project is so wrapped in pretensions and compromises that the i3 is taken out of the realm of everyday motoring.

However, that is seeing the project from the viewpoint of someone who wants to have just one car at home to cover all bases, needs to get adults in the back with ease and hasn't got €40k or so to hand out.

Yet if I was a Google executive living in a funky apartment in Dublin's Grand Canal Dock area, the decision would be very different. Yet, even so, I would be worried about the narrow tyres, which don't help grip or stability but will cut down on consumption. I would also not like the awful rear-hinged doors, that seem to have been added at the post-planning stage, which are contingent on the front doors being opened and, for anybody of any ordinary height, access has just too many pitfalls.

The BMW i3 is certainly a crowd-puller, will turn heads, attract comments and help initiate conversations; even if they are just about the odd look inside and out, the price, reality of driving EVs or the quietness of the whole driving experience. It is little wonder that the moves are under way in Europe to insist on electric and hybrid vehicles having noises to announce their presence. A number of times during my test, people stepped out or dawdled in front of it unaware that a killing machine was coming their way. The massive use of aluminium, carbon-fibre and special plastics give a body that is light and striking but the build quality, like the looks, is a bit eccentric with an awful mix of surfaces in the cabin, which don't really work well in a clean, co-ordinated way. The weight savings – equivalent to two of our bigger forwards lining out at Stade du France yesterday – is then offset by the lithium battery under the luggage compartment. The ride – perhaps courtesy of the narrow wheels and light body – is more jittery than you would like at low speeds and at high speeds on motorways – when your range begins to go down the plug-hole – there isn't a totally confident grip or stance. Yet the scorching acceleration never fails to fascinate and leaves other drivers scratching their heads at the lights. Around town the car's handling is a joy; fast, nimble and confident.

This four-seater hatch, which has some of the look of the equally loved and derided Fiat Multipla, is not cheap even without the range extender at the on-the-road price of €34,010, courtesy of €5,000 VRT rebate and €5,000 SEAI grant. Put in the range extender and the price shoots to €41,040 (€2,500 VRT rebate, €5,000 grant). But, and it is a big but; by the time the test car was loaded with extras including 19" alloys, metallic paint, park assist package, Harman Kardon HiFi and adaptive LED highlights, the OTR price would be nudging €50k. No doubt a mere bauble for some wealthy "early adopters" but heady stuff for the ordinary person. There are some special finance packages available to sweeten the pill. The connectivity with your mobile is, as you would expect, amazing.

There is a greater awareness and acceptability of the whole electric vehicle idea as witnessed by the massive response to the ESB's search for EV trialists. That a company like BMW is prepared to spend billions investing in the project should not go unnoticed. The i3 is very quirky and has some likeable parts but it really is still too expensive and impractical for use as the main family car. But then, that's probably not the point of it.

Sunday Independent

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