Cars | Perspective
October 13, 2017 at 12:02 PM
It makes sense. It won't be accepted by the majority of consumers anytime soon. But it is the future of an automobile industry in which romance has been replaced by reality, in which "the joy of driving" has been covered in smog or fear thereof or forgotten in the inconvenience and cost of tankers hauling and storing fossil fuels to be consumed by cars and trucks, only to be spewed into the air as burned fumes and taken into animal lungs — yes, dogs and cats breathe, too — across the land.
All of that is changing — too slowly to be considered a revolution, too clumsily — with too much demanded change in personal habits — to be thought of as evolution, with too many requirements that drivers think, plan and embrace certain responsibilities to be enthusiastically welcomed.
But change is coming nonetheless.
The future is represented by the 2017 BMW i3, a compact electric car offered with the Range Extender — a 0.6-liter, 2-cylinder, direct-drive gasoline engine, fed by a 2.5-gallon fuel tank. The small engine is installed primarily to assuage the anxieties of people worried about driving with electric power alone.
Currently, an electric i3 can be had with a 114-mile all-electric range. It is perfect for drivers who have made peace with dedicated commuting, say 30 miles to work and 30 back home with a minor side trip. Once returned, or parked where electrical charging is allowed, the all-electric driver can plug in and power up again.
At home, using a regular household 120-volt charge system, recharging to a 114-mile range will take 12 to 14 hours. Using a "quick-charge" system supplied by BMW will take about four to six hours.
There's this: If your daily round-trip commute is 60 miles, you have little or no need to visit a traditional fuel station. Requirement: You have to know before you go. The mythology of "go anywhere, anytime" does not apply here. The current i3 is not engineered or meant for whimsical long-distance road trips.
Why do I use the word "current"? It is simple. BMW and all other major automobile companies are investing heavily in electric automobiles. They are changing and improving them every year.
The 2017 i3, for example, has a larger battery that stores 45 percent more power than its predecessor. The i3 has been in production for four years. More changes are coming. That includes how the electric cars are built.
BMW is representative of the trend. It wants to keep its electric cars "all green" from production to customer delivery. In the United States, i3 cars are made with an energy-intensive carbon-fiber manufacturing process at a plant in Moses Lake, Wash. The plant runs on hydroelectric power provided by the Grand Coulee Dam.
Something similar occurs at the BMW i3 plant in Leipzig, Germany. Most of the Leipzig plant's power needs are provided by four giant wind turbines.
It is fascinating, more fascinating, I think, than ancient automotive concerns about speed and handling. Not to worry. The little i3 does well in those areas, too.
My wife, Mary Anne, and I drove the 2017 i3 with Range Extender several times from Gainesville, Va., to Arlington using Interstate 66 and Route 29. Each round trip was 73 miles. We had no problems and required no fuel stops. We simply plugged in overnight at home.
The drives were safe, as fast as we wanted and needed them to be, and comfortable. We were pleased.
Nuts & Bolts
Bottom line: The i3 with the optional Range Extender is not inexpensive. It is $54,295 with advanced electronic safety options. Is it worth it? Yes.
Ride, acceleration and handling: They are all good.
Head-turning quotient: Different. Some people will like it. Others will not.
Engine/transmission: A lithium-ion battery provides enough power to the electric motor to deliver the equivalent of 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The electric motor can be paired with a 0.6-liter, 2-cylinder, direct-drive gasoline engine that extends the car's range by about 60 miles. The transmission is a single-speed automatic.
Body style/layout: Four-door hatchback.
Capacities: The i3 seats four passengers. Cargo capacity is 9.2 cubic feet with all seats up and 38.8 cubic feet with the split rear seats folded.
Safety: Standard equipment includes ventilated front disc and solid rear disc brakes; four-wheel anti-lock brake protection; emergency braking preparation; stability and traction control; and side air bags. A full suite of advanced electronic safety options is available.
Price: The 2017 BMW i3 starts at $47,450. The price of the car as tested is $54,295, including $5,850 in options and a $995 destination-to-dealer charge. Dealers are willing to bargain.