BMW i3 range extender
Week ending March 28
Driven this week 523 miles
The BMW i3 is a car designed for the city - so we haven't wasted much time in putting it to the test in the depths of London. Last week Bentley decided to hold a morning press briefing at The Gherkin - and instead of driving my normal commute to Teddington and then catching the train/tube to and from the event, I took the i3 all the way up from Farnborough to Victoria Embankment.
I'd planned ahead, of course; I'm already learning that a bit of pre-thought is part and parcel of EV ownership. So I'd checked the Source London website and discovered that six charging points - each with 13A and 32A connectivity - were available at the Tower Hill underground car park, about a 10-minute walk from the Bentley bash.
The i3 really feels at home in clogged-up traffic. It's relaxed and effortlessly quick away from traffic lights, not to mention superb at nipping into gaps and making the most of any brief lull in the London rush hour. The tight turning circle meant that it was entirely comfortable in the tight confines of the underground car park, too.
Things look promising enough when I arrived; all six 'pods' were visible, and none of the spaces in front of them was taken. However, when I parked up at the first one, I soon realised that I was facing a challenge - because its screen was completely blank. I wandered over to another pair of pods; they were at least powered up, but only to the point where their screens could each display, 'Out of service'.
I dashed around the car park and quickly worked out that all but one of the pods was out of service or not powered up at all - and when I moved the BMW to the only potential source of electricity and swiped my Source London card, only the 13A door popped open. Even if Bentley's management decided to give us War and Peace of an answer to every question, that rate of charge would mean that the BMW wouldn't gain an enormous amount of range at Tower Hill.
Sure enough, when I returned two and a half hours later, the BMW had added only a few miles to its pure EV potential. More worryingly, the Source London pod had managed to 'forget' my swipe card - so it wouldn't unlock the door to allow me to free my three-pin plug. Sure, I could always disconnect the cable at the car end - but then I'd be leaving the rest of my charging cable lying in a public car park.
I called Source London from the street, because the mobile phone signal downstairs was non-existent. In fact, it turned out that the patchy coverage was the main issue, because the pod itself had apparently lost contact with the 'mother ship'; the door couldn't be opened remotely, so an engineer was required.
Said assistant turned up within an hour, entirely unsurprised at my predicament. 'These machines down here always do this,' he said. 'We have to come and reset them all at least once a week, because they lose contact with the network and go into a failsafe mode.'
I ranted about all of this on Twitter, of course - and the next morning I got a call from PodPoint, the operator responsible for the Tower Hill plugs. It turns out that patchy mobile phone coverage is a problem in many of the City of London car parks, because so many there are underground. Everyone who needs to be aware of the issue is aware of the issue, but planning permission is required for the mobile phone masts that would provide a solution.
And me? I was on the rev-limiter, a rabid EV user within a few hours of bringing the i3 into central London. Thank goodness, in fact, for the BMW's ability to soothe when everything around you is utter chaos. By the time I'd driven back from the car park to our offices in Teddington, I'd calmed down enough to laugh about the morning's events. It might not always be fun, but being custodian of a cutting-edge EV is certainly interesting.
By John McIlroy
Week ending March 21
Driven this week 383 miles
We're a week into life with the BMW i3 and we're impressed. It took a few days of commuting to get over the initial range anxiety (we accept that enthusiastic early adopters may not suffer from this) but now that we've done that, we're settling into everyday life in an extremely promising fashion.
Let's not pretend that this is 'normalisation' - because it isn't. There's no doubt that you need to reset your brain and take a different approach with any EV, and the range-extender doesn't escape that trait. I've quickly confirmed my suspicion that the i3 is happier running in pure electric mode around town than it is on the motorway - so I've developed a tactic for my commute. On the urban roads at either end I stick the car into Eco Pro mode, which recuperates more energy every time you lift off, to the point where you can actually get away without using the brake pedal at all.
Then when I hit the faster stuff - and providing the car is beneath 75% of EV charge - I turn on the 'hold charge' function to kick in the two-cylinder motor and keep the batteries at a decent level. Sure, this costs me some fuel - but there's something good about going to a filling station once a week with a quarter of a tank left and paying, er, about £8.42 to fill it back up again.
I promised you a breakdown of our car's options, so here goes. Before the government's electric car grant of £5000 is taken into account, the range-extender i3 costs £33,830 - and then BMW was quite keen for us to try a few key options on top of that. So our car comes with a different design of 19in alloy wheel at £680 (we've avoided the spine-jarring 20in items) and metallic paint at £530, plus adaptive LED headlights, DC rapid charge preparation, the Winter Package (battery pre-heat and heated front seats), Park Assist Package (reversing camera and sensors), enhanced Bluetooth phone prep, a Harman Kardon stereo, an electric sunroof and the widescreen navigation system.
Throw in the cabin treatment - called Interior Loft and comprising a multi-function steering wheel, grained foil trim and floor mats, for a cool £1000 - and you end up with a car at £41,515 - or £36,515 after the grant. Small wonder that most i3 users will have leased the car instead of buying it outright.
Next week? Central London; it's time to take the car into the middle of the capital to see how it performs in really clogged-up city streets – and if it's possible to use the on-street charging network.
By John McIlroy
Week ending March 14
It's common practice for us to put our award winners on a longer-term test here at What Car? - but even so, the latest addition to the fleet has us all fascinated. It's our Green Car of the Year: the BMW i3.
The i3 triumphed in the eco-category back in January for a number of reasons. It features a ground-up re-think on construction, manufacturing, infrastructure, technology and even the buying process. Perhaps more importantly, it introduces a real shot of glamour into the electric vehicle market.
We've actually bent our own rules because while our Green Car of the Year is the fully electric i3, the car on my driveway for the bulk of this year is going to be the range-extender version. It's a little more expensive than the pure EV and a teeny bit slower, but its small fuel tank and two-cylinder petrol engine mean that range anxiety need never be a problem. If the batteries are about to go flat, the motor simply kicks in and keeps them at a manageable level – and if I need to travel a fair distance in this situation, I can force it to 'preserve charge' until I switch back on to pure electricity.
Our car isn't exactly cheap, mind you. We'll give you more details on our car's (extensive) list of options in the weeks ahead but it works out at £41,515 – or £36,515 after the grant. BMW would argue, of course, that most people will lease an i3 anyway, and our car is an early launch vehicle that was fully loaded for demonstration purposes – but even so, this is not a bargain price for something that's roughly the size of a Ford Fiesta. It's also not technically new; we're starting this test with 2500 miles on the clock.
Still, in its early running with us the i3 is doing a good job of overcoming concerns over the cost by feeling, well, so different and special. The knowledge that there's a petrol engine back-up is a pleasant security blanket, too. I'm looking forward to seeing if I still feel I need it after a few thousand miles.
By John McIlroy