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BMW i3 to Ireland

Our BMW i3 was approaching the end of its time on the What Car? fleet, but we had one more journey planned for it.

Words ByJohn McIlroy

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The BMW i3 is a car designed for commuting, with its electric powertrain allowing for silent and stress-free trips to work and back.

This is largely how we've used our i3 over its time on the What Car? fleet, and it has spent much of its time within the London/Surrey area. However, our i3 came equipped with the range-extending petrol engine that allows you to travel that bit farther without the fear of being left stranded at the side of the road.

What Car?'s director of testing, and i3 custodian, John McIlroy decided to head home to visit his family for the weekend. This was no short trip into the countryside, though – John's family live in Moira, Northern Ireland.

Thursday 16 October
08h50, Teddington

Today's the day, then. As I write this, I'm at my desk at Teddington Studios, with the long-term BMW i3 parked down below. It's been charging all night on our Chargemaster 32A socket and I brimmed the fuel tank yesterday.

The i3 goes back on Monday, you see, so as a farewell I thought I'd embark on a longer journey with the car. I'm about to leave south-west London and drive to have dinner with my parents – who still live in Country Armagh, Northern Ireland. The trip will take two days, as it usually does; I'll check in with old uni friends in Liverpool this evening, then scoot across to Holyhead tomorrow. All being well, I'll complete the trek north from Dublin late tomorrow evening.

I say 'all being well' because I've spent much of the past 48 hours looking at various charging maps and getting into the nitty-gritty of where I'm going to be able to give the i3 crucial slugs of electricity. Our BMW is a range-extender, of course, so I do have the back-up of a petrol engine and a small fuel tank, but I reckon just completing the trip in 60-mile segments, with countless fill-ups, would be to miss the point. I'm going to try to get from Teddington to Moira, therefore, on no more than one tank of fuel. That's nine litres, or just under a couple of gallons, for just under 470 miles.

Charging infrastructure will be key, therefore, and it's patchy. I've had my run-ins with charging points in the past, most notably in London, but moving outside of the capital opens up another whole world of pain. The picture is changing on a day-by-day basis, with new charging points going in all the time – but the technology also seems frustratingly fickle, with large chunks of the country rendered no-go areas because of faults.

Today should be the more straightforward of the two legs, mainly because I don't have a defined deadline like a ferry crossing. My plan was to head from Teddington to Beaconsfield services, top up using Ecotricity's 125A CCS charger, then aim for more juice at Oxford services to take me towards and hopefully around Birmingham.

However, I've been in touch with Ecotricity about its network and I've been informed that Beaconsfield is out of action – the CCS unit isn't working at all, and even the medium-fast AC charger is dropping in and out of mobile phone signal (which is a crucial factor, apparently). So I'll have to nip through west London (avoiding the battery-sapping M3 and M25), then aim for a run up to Oxford. It's 45 miles instead of 21 miles - perfectly do-able, based on my evening commutes.

Then it's a question of whether the Oxford charger's working, and whether it's available or filled by another EV or a rogue delivery van. Then the suspense will move on to Warwick. Or Walsall. Or Warrington.

It's time to go; I'll be back online here in an hour and bit with an update. One thing's for sure: I'm going to have to stick to decaf coffee today during recharges or I'll be wired (geddit?) by mid-afternoon.

Thursday 16 October
11h00, Oxford Services

Early progress has been painless in the i3. It easily trickled out of Teddington and past Heathrow, then cruised along the M4, the M25 and M40. However, we already have a problem: the Ecotricity CCS charger at Oxford Services doesn’t like me.

Everything seemed to be going well; the BMW completed the 45-mile journey up here on about half of its electric range, giving me hope that a fast charge could soon restore it to full capacity and allow me to race on to Warwick Services and a lunch stop.

However, while the fast charger is available at Oxford, it reads my Ecotricity card correctly, then prompts me to connect up the cable. When I do this, it reports a ‘CAN error’ and advises I ring customer support.

Ecotricity’s customer support is, as it turns out, a very friendly chap on the phone. He listened carefully, disappeared to talk with an engineer for a few minutes, then came back to advise me to drive around the car park a couple of times and try again. It’s a known problem with i3s, apparently, although I can’t find any notable websites where this is made obvious.

So the i3 is ‘medium charging’ at the moment. The car itself says it’ll be full by 1.30pm, but I’m leaving before then and aiming for Warwick. If I can get enough juice there to take me around Birmingham, there are a load more fast chargers for me to try, starting with IKEA in Walsall.

I’m a bit crestfallen, because I’d expected problems, but not this early in proceedings. Still, chin up…

Thursday 16 October
13h00, Warwick Services

Let’s forget, for a moment, the glitch that occurred at our first halt at Oxford services. In fact, let’s also forget the fact that the BMW i3 is now sitting at Warwick services in yet another medium charger, because Ecotricity’s CCS DC charger here isn’t working either. Let’s just celebrate the i3 itself because this is a damn fine motor car.

I left Oxford with barely three quarters showing on the battery gauge, and the sat-nav warning me that Warwick would be ‘outside of EV range’. As I cruised up the M40, the difference between the remaining distance on the navigation and the predicted EV range never really changed; it started off at about 28 miles, and by the time I got here to Warwick, I had 24 ‘spare’ miles in the bank. After being downbeat in Oxford, I’ve arrived here really believing that this could actually happen - I mean, including tomorrow’s marathon across Anglesey.

I’m having to discipline myself, mind you, just to keep pure EV range as strong as possible. During recent commutes I backed off from Comfort mode and 70mph, instead choosing Eco Pro mode and setting the adaptive cruise control to 60mph. I was impressed at how much more of the energy meter was still showing when I got home, so I’m adopting that approach for all of the longer stretches of today’s run to Liverpool.

I’m also lucky that it’s such a fine day, because I’ve been able to turn all of the ventilation and air-conditioning off; this adds about three or four miles to the range under Eco Pro mode.

So it’s a lengthy stop here at Warwick – time to catch up on Tweets from kind people who’re following what I’m up to, and interacting with me during the journey (you can follow me at @johnmcilroy, although @whatcar is retweeting most of what I say anyway).

I’d always planned for this to be a substantial halt anyway, because Ecotricity had warned me in advance that the DC charger doesn’t work here.

Next stop is the other side of Birmingham, which will require a similar amount of range as it took to get from Oxford to here. Then it’s time to cross my fingers and hope that a) the fast chargers at IKEA in Walsall and/or Hilton Park North services are available and b) that they decide to work with the i3. Somehow I don’t think I’ve encountered the last twist in the plot just yet.

Thursday 16 October
15h00, IKEA Birmingham

No dramas at IKEA Birmingham, where I’ve finally managed to get the i3 hooked up to one of Ecotricity’s CCS fast chargers. They’re not joking when they say it’s quick, either; I arrived here with just under 30% of battery and it’s taken about 15 minutes for it to shoot straight back up to 60% – deeply impressive. It’s going to give it a full recharge quicker than I can drink a cup of Swedish coffee (which is probably for the best, all things considered).

In fact, if I can get the car to talk to the CCS chargers north of Birmingham, the rest of today’s journey should be relatively straightforward. Life on the motorway with adaptive cruise control set at 60mph is serene, apart from when you come up behind a Latvian trucker who appears to be doing 59.9mph. I’ve had to give the BMW a squirt of extra throttle, up to 65mph, on a number of occasions, but the way in which it seems to stretch out its range at these relatively modest motorway speeds gives me real hope for tomorrow. I’m beginning to believe.

Thursday 16 October
17h30, IKEA Warrington

The i3 really is excelling itself; I took the brave option and went for a straight 75-mile run from IKEA Birmingham to IKEA Warrington, pretty much the stated range - and I’ve made it here with 20 miles to spare.

The M6 helped, of course, by being its usual grumpy self. Heavy traffic around Sandbach allowed the i3 to manage acceleration and energy recuperation through the adaptive cruise control system, and the gap between the predicted range and the miles left on the sat-nav just kept growing.

The Ecotricity set-up worked perfectly here too; you tell the system you want to charge, then swipe your card so it knows you’re a registered user. Then you select the right sort of socket - DC CCS, in my case - and it tells you to connect and validate. The ‘handshake’ between car and charger takes a long time - about a minute, really - and I’ve noticed that locking the vehicle, at least temporarily, helps the charge to kick in. Either way, once it’s hooked up the percentage and predicted range on the i3’s phone application rockets up at an encouraging rate.

I’m going to sign off now because, well, I have about 20 miles to go to my overnight digs - the home of some old university chums - and more than 80% charge. So the great news is that the petrol gauge hasn’t moved at all; the i3 and I have taken our time, but we’ve reached Liverpool without using a drop of petrol.

That puts us in a good position for tomorrow, but the run from Liverpool to a charger in Bangor, north Wales, will still be crucial. That’s around 70 miles, which is clearly do-able based on today’s performance, but Holyhead is a further 25 miles on from there, and that’s not. So I’m counting on a single Mennekes 32A charger to get me to the boat (and its 13A plug socket, pre-reserved when I booked) with a full tank of fuel. It’s going to be another interesting journey, for sure. More in the morning - but if you've any questions in the meantime, feel free to tweet them to me at @johnmcilroy.

Friday 17 October
09h15, ASDA Bangor

Day two of #i3toireland has not started brilliantly. The run out of Liverpool was easy enough, the A55 pretty much deserted and the weather was fine (and that’s never a given in north Wales). I even made it to the ASDA in Bangor with a few miles to spare (about 10, in fact).

However, the Chargemaster point here - which has a 13A and a 32A connection - seems incapable of powering up the faster of those currents. The car’s charging socket flashes red and it reports ‘Mains power too low’ - which I presume means that the lights in Bangor High Street have started to dim. It definitely means there’s no nice 90 minutes of 32A charging available here.

I’ve tried disconnecting and reconnecting, of course, but all the while the clock is ticking, because ASDA operates a two-hour maximum stay in its car park, with no obvious way of extending this. It’s all done by CCTV, so I know I’ve got to leave before 11 or I’ll be stung with a £100 fine in the post.

There comes a time, therefore, where you have to cut your losses, abandon the idea of a nice fast charge and resort to 13 feeble amps. So that’s what I’ve done. The charge level has barely moved at all, frankly, and the car happily reports that it would be fully charged by, wait for it, 6.15pm this evening. However, I’m just hoping I can glean enough before 11am to get me the 25-odd miles to Holyhead.

There, at least, I can hook up to another socket for three and a bit hours on the ferry, which will get me enough juice to hopefully get north of Dublin, to motorways where my ESB E-Cars card may come in use.

And of course, I do still have a full tank of petrol. Ideally, though, I don’t want to hear the range-extender kick in at all until I’m just about to cross the border into Northern Ireland. If it holds off until then, I should be home and dry on less than nine litres. But right now, the euphoria that could bring seems a long way off.

Friday 17 October
09h55, ASDA Bangor

Brief update, this one. Some Twitter followers have suggested I use an open 32A socket at a National Trust property near here. Given how slowly the Chargemaster pod is refilling the i3, I reckon I've got nothing to lose. So I'm abandoning ASDA, sticking the tartan rug in the back of the Beemer and aiming for the National Trust. Fingers crossed.

Friday 17 October
10h45, Penrhyn Castle, Bangor

So we’re charging at speed again - or at least, at speed compared with Bangor ASDA. A few of the nice people who’ve been following this escapade on Twitter suggested that I try Penrhyn Castle, a National Trust site where a group called ZeroCarbonWorld has installed one of its ZeroNet points.

ZeroNet is an interesting scheme; it’s basically put 32A and 13A points in a load of public spaces, including many National Trust properties - looking beyond the areas covered by Ecotricity and Chargemaster.

Anyway, Penrhyn is only a couple of miles from the ASDA, so I made a quick call, confirmed the car park was open (because the castle itself doesn’t take visitors for another half-hour) and decided to take the risk.

The charge point wasn’t particularly well sign-posted, and nor are the spaces near it ‘painted off’ like the ones at motorway services, IKEA or ASDA. It’s also quite close to the entrance (presumably for logistical reasons), which means I think you’d be lucky to find it free at 2pm on a warm Sunday afternoon. Still, when you turn up at a Nat Trust property nearly an hour before it officially opens, car parking isn’t so much of an issue, so I was able to back right up to the power point.

Alas, connecting the 32A charger brought exactly the same problem as I’d experienced in ASDA - ‘insufficient mains charge’. But I thought the chances of precisely the same issue appearing in two different sites were pretty remote, so I delved into the depths of the car settings. Perhaps, I reasoned, yesterday’s batch of CCS charging had ‘re-aligned’ the car’s expectations of what a fast charge could be. So I turned the setting for that charging standard down to reduced, and reconnected the cable. Bingo!

I’ve since turned it back up to maximum and instead of the ASDA 13A prediction of a full charge sometime this evening, the car says it would be brimmed with electricity by just after 1pm. That means I have time here to get to well beyond 50% and allow myself a comfortable cruise to Holyhead with plenty of time to make the ferry.

I’m also going to say, just as a hunch, that I could have had this charge in ASDA Bangor, if only I’d throttled back the i3’s charging expectations there as well. You live and learn, I guess.

Anyway, the sun’s out and the castle’s gardens open in 19 minutes. Perhaps I’ll take in some fresh air before the crossing; after all, a Nat Trust property is a much more pleasant place to spend an hour and a bit than a grey car park in Holyhead.

Friday 17 October
13h00, Irish Ferries Terminal, Holyhead

So we’ve reached Holyhead, with about a third of the battery capacity left. Now the challenge is to try to juice up as we cross the Irish Sea. Only one of the ferry operators offers EVs the chance to charge up, and only on one boat: Irish Ferries’ Ulysses. There are a couple of sockets available but the only one compatible with the i3 is a standard three-pin plug, so that’ll have to do. I reserved a ‘need to plug in’ space when I booked, and I called a couple of days ago to reconfirm.

There’s always a nagging doubt, though, that amongst so many vehicles, you’ll just be waved on board into a regular space. The chap at the check-in desk radioed ahead to tell them an EV was coming, but I’m presently sitting in a ‘priority’ queue along with Club Class passengers. That all sounds jolly posh, but it won’t be much use if they don’t pick me out and guide me towards the socket once we all trundle on board.

I’m doing the maths and assuming that I do get to plug in, about three and a half hours of charging time should add up to another quarter of capacity, perhaps even a third. That should get me to fast chargers north of Dublin, giving me enough battery to reach a free-to-use CCS that’s about 15 miles away from my parents’ place.

There is the chance, therefore, that I could manage the entire trip on electricity. It all hangs on what happens during the next hour, basically, and whether I end up within reach of a plug socket on the Ulysses. Not for the first time in the past 48 hours, my fingers are crossed.

Friday 17 October
19h00, south of Dundalk

My fears about whether Irish Ferries would remember to allow me to charge up during the crossing from Holyhead to Dublin proved unfounded. In fact the process was slick, easy and effective. I was waved into the Club Class parking area, then beyond it and into a spot beside two electrical points. One was a PodPoint wall charger, equipped with a Chademo connector that’s incompatible with the i3; the other was, well, a raw electrical point - the kind of industrial socket you’d expect in the vehicle deck of a major car ferry.

Still, a friendly engineer guided me into the space, then set about assessing the needs of the i3 (three-pin socket, household voltage). He toddled off and came back with a long lead with a two-pin Continental socket on the end, and a suitable adaptor.

Following some charging errors at my mate’s house last night, I’d throttled back the i3’s domestic plug charging speed from ‘maximum’ to ‘reduced’ (there’s also ‘low’, which must be next to useless). However, when I showed the chirpy engineer the car’s transformer, which asks for 230V and 10 amps, he sounded confident. ‘No, turn it up to the max,’ he said. ‘I have 16 amps rated here - it should be fine.’

As is often the case with the BMW, we then spent 10 minutes talking about the car and EVs in general. Turns out the engineer must get all of the ‘plug in’ queries. ‘We had a Tesla recently,’ he said. ‘It was a nightmare to get connected. It couldn’t use the PodPoint and as for the domestic plug, it’s rated at something like 60 amps. Through that cable?! Not a chance!’ He showed a lot of interest in the i3’s Mennekes connector, in fact, and made a note to suggest an upgrade to the PodPoint. Full marks to Irish Ferries for offering the facility.

Anyway, upon arrival the car had added between a third and a half of its capacity. That’s not quite enough to make it to the CCS near Banbridge (about 10 miles from my destination) so I’ve been searching for a further top-up ever since Dublin. ESB’s power point at Dublin Point was out of order, and so were its sockets at the first services north of the city. I’ve ended up stopping at the last services south of the border with Northern Ireland, where a Mennekes socket seems to be doing the trick.

There’s no great rush now, although I would like to arrive at my folks’ place in time for late supper. I’m even keener to make it there purely on electricity, though, so I’m going to aim for that final CCS point. It’d be great to get a final blast of power and finish the whole experience off in style.

Friday 17 October
21h00, Moira, Northern Ireland

I cannot lie: my attempt to get from Teddington to my parents’ home in Moira, Northern Ireland, on no more than a single tank of fuel has succeeded - but the hastily added complication of trying to make it without using any petrol at all has failed. Just.

I knew it was going to be close, but as I left Castlebellingham services just south of Dundalk I reckoned there was a good chance of making it to the newly installed CCS charger just north of Banbridge in County Down. About 15 minutes there would easily get me enough miles for the 10-odd remaining miles to Moira.

However, the Irish weather had closed in, the wipers were going full pelt, I had to have the screen de-mister on the whole time, and I’d also been a teeny bit optimistic with my maths. So I cannot tell fibs: the range-extender arrow above the battery meter turned from grey (I’m going to cut in here to stop you from running out of charge) to white (I have cut in here) as I started indicating to turn into the filling station. Let’s call it 30 seconds max, okay? I screamed for all 30 of them.

The Northern Irish CCS chargers are free, by the way; you just tap in your requirements on the touch-screen controls and then it prompts you to connect up the socket and confirm you want to charge.

The final few miles after that were enjoyed in full-power Comfort mode, as the i3’s surprising agility allowed me to have fun on some of the sodden Northern Irish B-roads that I misbehaved on in various family Fiats during my youth. As I write, the BMW is sitting tucked up in the garage, with my parents’ Hyundai resigned to a night of heavy rain outside.

So what have I learned by shoving the i3 outside of its comfort window? There’s no doubt that this was a more compromised trip home than I’m used to. In the past I’ve done this trip that’s just taken two full days in one overnight stretch; even the more civilised version meant a late afternoon drive to Liverpool, so probably a good quarter off the i3’s total.

However, I’ve actually been surprised by how calm things have been. Sure, the charging points themselves have been a bit hit and miss, but the car has been entirely predictable throughout. I’ve long since learned to trust it going to and from home; what I’ve learned here is that those abilities transfer to longer journeys. If the i3 says it’ll do 75 miles, and I behave responsibly, it’ll do at least 75 miles.

Seriously, by yesterday afternoon I’d long since stopped looking at the range gauge; I did the maths at the charging point, worked out the next one, checked the available charge before leaving and then just got on with it. Only this evening, when I got my maths a bit wrong, did I start glancing down at regular intervals.

Would I recommend the i3 as a car to take this type of journey regularly? Of course not. However, I’d also say that someone who chooses an i3 range-extender for city commutes, then wants to take it on a longer journey every few months, need not be terrified of the experience. It requires a modest amount of planning (and making sure you’ve got every charge card and charging map available), plus a bit of extra patience - but it is indeed possible to get from one end of the UK to the other using no petrol at all. Well okay, maybe 30 seconds’ worth.

I'll post more thoughts in a day or two, and a few more details on the stats of the journey, but it's been a fun trip - a great way to say goodbye to a car that I’ve enjoyed since day one.

Want to read more about the i3? Read all of John's updates on life with the BMW i3

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