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BMW i3 preview

S.Muralidhar August 14 | Updated on August 14, 2013 Published on August 14, 2013

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Apart from the odd experiment and the Reva, which remains in the fringes of the car market, electric vehicles are unlikely to find mass adoption in India in the foreseeable future. There are too many challenges inherent to electric vehicle technology and the support infrastructure that such cars need to stay relevant for the Indian buyer.

But, in the traditionally big car markets around the world there is surging interest in eVehicles and almost every major manufacturer has already developed an all-electric model either as a concept or actually for sale. Even though this was driven initially by the tightening regulatory environment surrounding vehicular emissions and engine efficiency, electric vehicles are at cusp of joining the mainstream in many countries at least in Europe.

Seriously electric

BMW joined the bandwagon with its own electric vehicle concepts, which it has showcased over the past two years. But, the German luxury brand’s intent has been very clear with the i3 and the i8. They seemed destined to be headed for mass manufacture right from when they were first announced.

So, even as many observers hasten to add that the move is inevitable given BMW’s lack of options to meet the increasingly stringent ‘fleet average’ emissions and mileage regulations, the company has just pulled the wraps off the final production version of the i3.

But, to make it abundantly clear that it is very serious about the future of electric mobility, BMW has announced the setting up of a separate outfit in BMWi and a brand of the same name, dedicated its Leipzig plant for the manufacture of eVehicles and launched the i3, its first series produced all-electric model.

The BMW i3 is claimed to be the first premium car in the world to be designed from the ground up to be powered just by an electric drive system. In the flesh, this car looks like a crossover between a sporty hatchback and a family van. So, though it is meant to deliver the touch, feel and performance of true-blue BMW, there is a considerable amount of practicality and purpose to its design.

The i3’s relatively compact body measures 3,999 mm in length, 1,775 mm in width and 1,578 mm in height giving it fairly distinctive proportions which emphasise the car’s focus on urban usage. The extremely short front and rear overhangs of the BMW i3 are also clear pointers to its packaging, which is oriented towards maximising interior space, while also ensuring nimble driving characteristics.

Weight savings

Under the outer-skin of the i3 is a structure that features a two-way split. The bottom part called the ‘Aluminium drive module’ houses a metal chassis and the drive technology – batteries, controllers etc. The top part of the two-way structure (BMW calls it LifeDrive architecture) is the ‘Life module’. The central feature of the Life module is the carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) passenger compartment.

This is obviously not the first time that CFRP is being used in a car, but the extreme structural rigidity that the material offers and it lightweight property gives the BMW i3 huge weight savings according to company officials.

As a result, the i3’s kerb weight is less than 1,200 kgs. In an all-electric car weight saving is very crucial because that enables the use of larger batteries, which in turn improve the performance and extend the range of the car. In the i3, the lithium-ion batteries are placed low and below the floor of the car. Power is fed to the rear wheels from the electric motors. Together with the low centre of gravity and the 50:50 weight distribution, the configuration ensures that the i3 delivers typical BMW agility and performance, claimed company officials who were present at the unveiling in London late month.

To ensure that the i3 also delivers on the BMW promise of reliability, the BMW Group, under the eDrive programme, has independently developed the electric motor, power electronics and high-voltage lithium-ion battery just like it has worked on the i3’s unique vehicle architecture based around the LifeDrive structure, with its CFRP passenger cell and aluminium module encompassing the powertrain, battery and chassis.

The hybrid synchronous electric motor that powers the rear wheels of the i3 generates an output of 170 hp and a maximum torque of 250 Nm. Since the power is sent to the wheels through a single speed transmission, all of that performance is available on tap from the word go. The i3 is said to be capable of going from stand still to 100 kmph in just 7.2 seconds and the top speed is restricted to 150 kmph in the interest of efficiency.

Recuperation mode is activated the moment the driver takes his foot off the accelerator. The electric motor switches from drive to generator mode, feeding power into the lithium-ion battery. Unlike some of the other electric cars in the market, the i3 also has a coasting mode in the driving cycle to ensure that there is no power consumption at all if the driver can anticipate driving conditions.

The official driving range of the BMW i3 according to the new European Driving Cycle is 80 to 100 miles or 130 to 160 kms. The car is expected to be largely used within city limits and the batteries will possibly need to be recharged once every two days or daily. For buyers looking for a higher driving range, BMW plans to offer a range extender in the form of a small 647cc gasoline engine and a 9-litre fuel tank.

But the engine instead of powering the car will only act as an electricity generator putting power back into the battery pack and extending the driving range to a maximum of 300 kms.

Cabin or coach

Similar to the way in which many of BMW’s iconic design cues have been reinvented for the i3’s exterior (such as the kidney grille), there is a lot of newness to the cabin of too. New materials that gel with the environment-friendly image that the car tries to live up to have been tried out on the dashboard and door trim. With the use of a CFRP body structure, BMW engineers eliminated the need for a B-pillar. And in the absence of the B-pillar, the five-door, four-seater car could be fitted with coach doors on either side (also called suicide doors). Entering and exiting the car is easy and there is an exaggerated sense of space when the doors are open.

The design of the i3 was tweaked from its concept to now sport a deeper kink in the shoulder line at the rear door window. As a result the bigger glass allows more light to enter the car and increases the feeling of space in the car. But, though there is no B-pillar, the integration of the rear passenger seat belts into the door panel makes it extra thick and reaching for the door handle is also a bit cumbersome.

However, there is no escaping the feeling of sitting inside a sci-fi movie set when you are inside the i3. BMW has also developed an app for use with smartphones, which when paired can do a lot more than just tell you what the state of the battery is in the car.

Outlook

The i3 is just the beginning say BMW officials. The electric sportscar i8 is next on the anvil and it is not very far from being launched too. The general consensus is that electric vehicles will become more attractive to own and drive both for the eco-friendly statement they make and the savings they will deliver.

It certainly is already fashionable to own one, as was seen in the way many celebrities became the early adopters for the current hybrids. The potential for luxury electric vehicles is clearly there, though the numbers will remain small during the years to come. But, if BMW is planning to price the i3 at over $ 40,000 in the US, wonder how many adopters in India will be willing to pay twice as much or more, especially given the inconsistent policies on incentives that is currently the norm.

muralidhar.s@thehindu.co.in

Published on August 14, 2013
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