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BMW i3 will come with range anxiety-ending option

BMW's i3 will come with a small gas tank option, but not one big enough to take away from its electric car purpose.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

How?s this for mind-boggling choice?

Car buyers can decide among gasoline or diesel internal combustion, conventional or plug-in hybrid, and all-electric powertrains.

The plug-in hybrids come in two varieties: In one, both the gasoline engine and electric motor directly drive the wheels. With the other, known as range-extended, the gasoline engine usually just runs a generator that keeps the battery charged and the electric motor humming.

But even ?range-extended? now means more than one thing.

The gasoline engine in Chevrolet?s Volt occasionally sends power directly to the wheels. The one in Fisker?s Karma luxury sports sedan never does.

Both can handle long trips. They travel relatively short distances on battery power, then, the gasoline engine kicks in. Much of the time, the electric and gasoline systems switch back and forth, depending on the driver?s demands and the state of the battery. No matter what?s going on, though, performance remains consistent.

A third option arrives in a couple of years, when BMW?s i3 urban car goes on sale.

The i3 ? still a concept and price not announced ? was originally pure electric, but BMW recently announced it would offer extended range as an option.

Unlike the Volt and Karma, though, that choice won?t transform this carbon-fibre and aluminum beauty into cross-country transportation.

BMW designed it with a different purpose, spelled out in an interview with Tom Baloga, the company?s vice-president of engineering for North America.

The fossil-fuel option is intended only to relieve range anxiety. The car will still be for urban and suburban use.

?We?re trying to make the range extender a bridge to acceptance of pure battery-electric vehicles,? Baloga says.

The i3 will offer longer all-electric range than the Chev and Fisker products ? likely around the 160-kilometre maximum promised by Nissan?s Leaf and most other EVs. But to save weight and space, the added engine and fuel tank will be small. They?ll kick in only when the battery runs low and, once they do, acceleration and top speed will drop. They?re simply to ensure drivers safely reach their destination.

In a pure EV, Baloga says, ?if I?m going on a trip to grandma?s house, I calculate that there and back is 156 kilometres . . . and I can usually get 170. But what if it?s colder out, or I need the wipers,? both of which reduce range. ?I don?t want to take the risk getting stuck, so I wouldn?t take the electric car.

?We?d like people to say, ?I can take that trip with the range extender.??

The aim is to ensure i3 owners drive more electric kilometres, in part because they?ll have greater battery distance than other range-extended cars and, unlike those with pure electrics, they can feel comfortable taking the car to the limit of that range.

While drivers will experience a ?noticeable drop-off? in performance, the gasoline-powered journey won?t be a ?low-speed limp home,? Baloga says. ?The performance will be safe.?

But that drop-off, combined with the ?very small? fuel tank, means the range-extended i3 won?t be suitable for long trips. For one thing, the little tank would have to be refilled, at best, about every 200 kilometres.

BMW expects a ?balance? between i3 buyers who choose the range-extender and those who don?t, Baloga says.

None of these three choices is better or worse than the others ?? although for a supposedly ?green? car, the Karma?s fuel economy is horrendous. They simply reflect different philosophies and goals.

The Volt and Karma are essentially hybrid cars that don?t make sense without gasoline power but will suffice for single car households able to afford them. The i3 is an electric car with enough gasoline-powered backup to provide peace of mind but too little to make it your sole car.

Plenty of choice, and certainly more to come.

pbleakney@sympatico.ca

  • BMW i3 will come with range anxiety-ending option The BMW i3 electric concept vehicle is seen at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles November 16, 2011. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS)

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