September 22, 2014 @ 05:31 PM

BMW i3: This is your F1 car… sort of

So it doesn’t go as fast, in fact the BMW i3 is less performance oriented that the X5. But it is all about cutting edge zero emission technology, advanced manufacturing, and made (almost) entirely from carbon fibre. Good thing we got to drive it, because it’s not for sale. Not in Malaysia


Text: Ahmad Zulizwan
Pictures: BMW Group & Ahmad Zulizwan
So it doesn’t go as fast, in fact the BMW i3 is less performance oriented that the X5. But it is all about cutting edge zero emission technology, advanced manufacturing, and made (almost) entirely from carbon fibre. Good thing we got to drive it, because it’s not for sale. Not in Malaysia
The facts are well known by now so let’s get straight to the issue: the ground-breaking BMW i3 electric vehicle (EV) which the media tested right here in Cyberjaya is not about to be launched locally. It simply costs too much and with the way automobiles are taxed currently, the i3 will have a sticker price of more than RM300,000 (based on a price of about £26,000 after a £5,000 electric car grant from the UK government). Needless to say, that’s a steep price to pay for something which only seats four, with a limited range made even more precarious for the lack of a charging station infrastructure.
Let us roll out other things that we already know too; first is that the two units of i3 were at BMW Malaysia’s headquarters recently for training purposes. As the Cyberjaya office also houses the Regional Training Centre (RTC), related personnel from markets that will eventually sell the EV needed to be taught about the vehicle’s intricacies. And since a working unit is around, they might as well have some members of the media have a go at it. You can read about my opinion about how the car drives in the accompanying story (Moved by Electrons). So let’s reveal what makes the i3 such a marvel; and what it is to us thanks to that thing called the National Automotive Policy (NAP).
The NAP had a long gestation period for reasons no one is quite sure why, but post-January 2014, the effect it had to the industry in general was ‘subtle’. The contents seemed to promote car companies in being indifferent to what they have been doing all along. Basically, if you are already assembling cars within Malaysia, you get some love from the government – although not much different to the one already given out; yet at the same time if you do not have a factory here, there is no great incentive to lure you in. This changes, however, if EEV (Energy Efficient Vehicles; a broad term to include hybrid- and non-hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles) are taken into consideration. But with a low domestic market potential and a very ambiguous incentive scheme, not a lot of people will want to bite, if ever.
Where does this leave the BMW i3? This is a car in its own league – it is a premium electric vehicle; and its production process is ground-breaking even for BMW’s lofty standards, plus it is hinged on having minimal carbon footprint. In short, even if the Munich office decides to have another ‘i’ assembly facility, Malaysia won’t be in contention. Not with the current legislation and public’s laidback attitude in green mobility, or a green lifestyle to be more specific.
The fact is that whether locally assembled or imported, modern efficient vehicle – more so for zero-emission types – are too expensive to produce. Its country of origin matters less than the cost of materials attached to it. In any country where EVs are sold, some form of government incentive exists to lower the sticker price. When there are none, or not strong enough, efforts are being made to legislate them. Take the i3’s birthplace for instance; there is still a reluctance to provide more substantial direct subsidies and fiscal incentives to promote the use of electric vehicles, hence why sales of such cars in Germany are not as expected.

Direct subsidy/fiscal incentive (for EEV) in different countries
- Acquisition Tax waived for EVs (through 2015)
- Exclusion from Vehicle Weight Tax
- Receives Clean Energy Rebate
- One-time bonus for EVs (maximum of €7,200)
- First Registration Tax waived (Hong Kong)
- France: €6,300 ECO Bonus
- Germany: EVs are exempt from the annual Circulation Tax for 10 years
- Denmark: Free parking in large cities; exemption from Environment Tax; EVs exempted from 180 per cent tax for registration of passenger cars
- Spain: 25 per cent off for EV price under SITVE (maximum of €6,000)
- UK: 25 per cent off for car price (maximum of £5,000)
United States
- Instant $7,500 Federal Tax Credit
- Further benefits are dependent on state; e.g.:
New York: EEV with special sticker gets to use the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes
Florida: Owners are protected from premium surcharges by insurance companies; and they get to apply funding to install charging equipment to their residence
California: Cheaper electric tariffs for charging cars; free parking
Rest of Asia/ASEAN - India is behind schedule in unveiling the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020
- Other major markets are yet to finalise their assist plans for EVs (Thailand, Indonesia)

What’s your story, i3?
BMW tells the world that car production methodology has reached a new era due to the i3. We have to agree. They’ve gone out of their way in making sure the i3’s carbon footprint is lowered throughout the entire assembly process, right down to the efficiency of the factories involved. The Leipzig factory (specifically for i-models) utilises 70 per cent less water and 50 per cent less energy; the latter using power entirely from renewable energy sources. The impact is immense – even the CO2 emission penalty of having to ship the carbon fibre material (from its joint venture BMW Group-SGL Group factory in Washington) to Germany makes the entire production less polluting than any other normal assembly process.

The lithium-ion battery is designed and assembled entirely by BMW and weighs 239kg. Warranty? Eight years or 100,000km. Together with the synchronous electric motor the entire powertrain tips the scale at 365kg. Output is rated at 170bhp and 250Nm, allowing it to move the 1,195kg vehicle to 100km/h from standstill in 7.2 seconds. Note that most of the work comes in at lower speeds with 0-60km/h reached in just 3.7 seconds.

A full charge takes eight hours using  a conventional domestic plug socket; or five and a half hours when using the BMW i Wallbox. However, a fast charging facility using 50 kW DC current will charge the battery to 80 per cent capacity in only 30 minutes.

With a full charge – and this is still very dependent on driving behaviour, how the air-conditioning is used, load factor, etc – BMW claims a range of between 130-160km. There is another i3 variant which didn’t make its way here and equipped with a range extender engine. Its 650cc two-cylinder engine recharges the battery when needed to stretch estimated driving range to 300km.
Moved by Electrons
It’s not so much of a test drive; rather what a valet parking attendant does to be honest.  The drive route is within the BMW Malaysia office compound, twice around, for a total of 600 metres – maybe. But the car is unregistered, and without insurance. Fair enough.

It may be made using carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) and plastic, but the doors weigh a fair bit. As the commanding glass house suggests, the all-around view when seated is impressive, although you may also immediately notice the thinly padded seats. Fortunately, comfort is not sacrificed, at least in the little time I had driving the i3. You only get an idea of the car’s carbon passenger cell when the doors are open and sill exposed, otherwise it’s not advertised. The interior is weird and classy all the same; the fibrous door panels and upper dashboard works well with the eucalyptus-tree sourced dashboard top (Why eucalyptus? Because the tree grows quickly to suit the car production/sustainability needs).

It still feels BMW here, not in the typical way. Other than that there’s an iPad-sized monitor (as instrument cluster) in front of the driver with another 10.2 inch display in the middle. The steering wheel looks oddly upside-down (like it is deep in lock), and behind it is a protrusion that houses the gearing which the driver turns to shuffle between Drive, Neutral, Reverse and Park.

The i3’s 9.86 metre turning circle is impressive. In comparison, the much smaller Mitsubishi iMiev needs nine metre. I squeeze out of parking relatively easy, putting more attention to feather the throttle. On the move, it is fairly quiet, not unlike other EVs available where any noise mainly comes from the electric motor and tyres. The difference is that BMW has dialled in some performance feel to it: the throttle feels heavy and so does the brake. Even the steering has more resistant than I expected, certainly not from tiny contact patches off low resistance 155/70 R19 tyres. For this, it does drive like a regular car.

Not so with how the eDrive lays down power. With 170bhp and 250 kicking in from 0rpm (I like to describe it as 1rpm), it moves with confidence. It is easy to modulate the power, but mind that deceleration the moment you take the foot off the gas. Energy recuperation happens immediately, putting significant retardation to the powertrain and those skinny tyres might as well be slick tyres on a racing car.

The party trick is its Parking Assistant feature. The i3’s sensors detect a possible parallel parking spot as you drive along and prompts you to turn on the signal once one is detected. Then press on the park assist button until the car parks itself. The i3 does the throttle input, steering and braking – it even changes gear by itself. Brilliant, this. A pity it is too expensive.

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Not applicable
On sale
Not in Malaysia
BMW eDrive technology, Hybrid synchronous motor, 170bhp, 250Nm
130-160km (EcoPro in Comfort mode)
Charge time
8 hours (domestic plug); 30 minutes (fast charger)
Automatic single speed, rear-wheel drive
3999 / 1775 / 1578mm

Rating 4 stars

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