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Green Wheels

Fun BMWi3 electric starts at $45,000

Published August 2, 2013

NEW YORK—Superlatives flowed like a high-voltage current this week as BMW finally pulled the silky sheet off its long-awaited i3 electric car.

It was, said the company’s North American president, Ludwig Willisch, a “truly pivotal moment for the future of mobility … a revolutionary shift in every aspect of car production.”

It’s “a day future generations will remember,” said CEO Norbert Reithofer, at the New York unveiling, which happened simultaneously with others in London and Beijing.

And on it went, through speeches and panel discussions at a warehouse space in Manhattan’s trendy Chelsea neighbourhood.

Was this truly, “the dawn of the day,” as futurist designer Neri Oxman insisted?

Certainly, climate change won’t stop in its tracks because the world’s top-selling premium carmaker has launched itself full tilt into battery power, after six years and $2.7 billion worth of research and development.

Still, the i3 is remarkable, not only because it marks a major advance toward electrification of car travel but also because other aspects of its production and the ideas that surround it make competitors look dowdy by comparison.

As I wrote three weeks ago, after driving a pre-production version in Germany, the i3 is agile, sure-footed, fast and fun.

Although the unveiling revealed exterior tweaks from the concept model and the final interior design, the significant news concerned price and options. (Unlike some other EV makers, BMW insists it intends to produce the i3 in large numbers and will make money on each one, although it will need to move a great many to recoup the development costs.)

When the i3 goes on sale here in the first half of 2014, the base model will cost $44,950. But buyers can expect to spend much more.

The “extended range” option — a two-cylinder, 650-cc, 34-horsepower gasoline engine that runs a generator to keep the battery charged and the 170-horsepower electric motor humming — adds $4,000.

Three trim levels, designated as “Design Worlds,” will be offered. The base is Loft. Above it are Lodge and Suite. The main differences are interior materials (Loft is outfitted in wool and simulated leather; Suite is all cowhide), as well as wheels and navigation aids.

A technology package, available with any trim, includes additional connectivity features, hi-fi stereo and a fast-charging system that, with the car attached to the proper station, fills the 22-kWh battery pack to 80 per cent capacity in 30 minutes.

BMW will also sell 240-volt home charging stations, plus installation.

And buyers can move up to 20-inch wheels, from the standard, already tall, 19-inch versions.

Prices for these options aren’t available.

The company expects most early buyers will already drive BMWs, and that, accustomed to refinement, they’ll go high end.

The base model, though, includes all of i3′s key elements: a light, strong carbon-fibre body is attached to an aluminum chassis, which also cuts weight and absorbs collision energy.

The 204-kg, liquid-cooled battery pack sits beneath the passenger compartment, creating a low centre of gravity and 50/50 weight distribution, which contributes to the excellent handling.

It moves from zero to 100 km/h in 7.2 seconds, with a governed top speed of 150. Battery range, on the optimistic European test, is 190 km, but BMW makes it 130 to 160, depending on driving style and conditions.

Cold-weather tests revealed a modest drop (BMW won’t reveal the exact reduction). In any case, it says, there’s plenty of range for the urban and suburban driving, for which this car is intended.

The carbon-fibre construction allowed the designers to eliminate the B pillars and install centre-opening coach doors for easier entry into the two-person back seat. The body is dent proof; the plastic and aluminum won’t rust.

The tall, narrow Bridgestone tires increase i3′s range by improving aerodynamics and reducing rolling resistance. They also contribute to its tight 9.86-metre turning radius. Snow tires are available.

The i3 is fascinating. But is it revolutionary? More next week.

Transportation for freelance writer Peter Gorrie was provided by the manufacturer. Email: wheels@thestar.ca

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