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Motors

At last, an inter-city electric car — the BMW i3S

Wednesday, 10th July, 2019 4:47pm

At last! Ring the church bells in Munich, and someone get Duracell on the phone because I’ve got good news — I’ve just driven a long motorway journey in an electric car without having to stop.

I know, I know — truly Earth-shattering stuff, right? I’ll be expecting a photographer from Life magazine to call around any minute now. Doubtless, President Higgins is already preparing a congratulatory telegram. Ticker-tape, anyone?

Okay, so this is perhaps more of a personal milestone than an excuse for a national day of celebration (but would you say no to another bank holiday?) but for me at least, it represents a major step up in the performance of electric cars.

There have already been cars on the market with the range to be able to cover the all-but-all-motorway run from my home to a spot 190km away, where work often brings me. Any Tesla you care to mention should be able to do it, as will the likes of Jaguar’s I-Pace, Audi’s e-Tron quattro, and even Hyundai’s humble Kona Electric.

The achievement here, then, is purely a personal one. It’s the first time that I, me, myself, have been able to do this, and the better news is that I managed it in a car that has at least a passing relationship with affordability — the BMW i3S.

Okay, so it’s not cheap, but then again neither is any electric car with a range that stretches further than ‘piffling’ right now. You can get an i3, once you factor in the VRT kickback and the grant from the Sustainable Energy Authority, for around €35,000 which while not chump change is at least within the bounds of possibility for many drivers.

This, my test car, is actually an i3S, which means it has more power than the standard i3. Not a lot more power, admittedly - 184hp against the standard model’s 170hp.

It is a bit quicker, though, sprinting from 0-100km/h in 6.9 seconds. The standard car takes an aged and decrepit… er, 7.4secs, which is hardly tardy.

Worth the upgrade? Probably not, to be honest, not least because the motor’s extra power means that the claimed range of 255km on one charge for the i3 falls to 245km for the i3S. Again, not much of an advantage, but there are days when it may be crucial.

The i3S also features sportier suspension — normally something we’d advocate — but in this case it’s something of demerit, causing the i3S to ride with an uncomfortable solidity that can, on occasion, feel as if someone accidentally filled the dampers not with hydraulic fluid but with quick-set concrete.

Still, there’s no doubting that the i3 is fun to drive, either in standard or S form, and that makes it pretty much the only electric car in this price bracket of which you can say that. The steering is nice — light but incisive — and the usual insta-surge of electric torque from step-off.

That makes the i3S feel exceptionally fleet on its feet around town, but the one big benefit to the S model is the additional, sustained, shove you feel at higher speeds. Here is an electric car that can go toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow, with big diesels on the motorway, which is its own special kind of fun.

Of course, hitherto, motorways have been happy hunting grounds for electric cars for only the briefest, and slowest, of journeys. Unlike city streets or rural roads, where traffic and corners offer you regular opportunities to replenish your batteries through regenerative braking, motorways are all-drain, all the time. Which means that your radius of operations shrinks rapidly, as does your range to recharge.

The i3S copes, though. On that fateful (yes, alright, fateful for me) long haul run, what kept me from giving into my range anxiety and pulling in for a quick top-up of electrons was the i3’s sat-nav, which overlays a visual sweep of range onto the map.

Even cruising at the legal limit, and with the cabin heating on for much of the time, the i3S reassured me I’d make it.

It helped that this was early morning, and so heavy traffic approaching the city allowed me to temporarily switch the drive mode select to the most frugal Eco Pro Plus setting, which limits the top speed to 90km/h and shuts down aircon and heating.

Even so, it feels impressive that I finally swept into my destination, some 188km after leaving home, with 39km of range still indicated on that minimalist digital dashboard. At last, for me, I’ve been able to tick off my regular commute, in an electric car, uninterrupted.

I get the sense that many, many more of us will begin to do just the same in the coming months and years.

The i3’s not perfect. The cabin looks hopelessly gorgeous, but it has only seatbelts for four people, and only just enough space for that many.

The rear-hinged rear doors are quirkily enjoyable, as is the pug-nosed styling, but it’s unforgivably boxy at the back, almost fridge-like.

And while the batteries and motor are high tech (sufficiently so that BMW has seen fit to abandon the old range extender model, which kept a little two-cylinder moped engine on board to top off the battery charge en route), the i3 lacks more recent refinements such as adaptive cruise control or blind spot warning.

It is, after all, a car rapidly approaching its seventh birthday, and one which BMW will likely not directly replace, not least because its carbon fibre chassis and labour-intensive build process make it searingly expensive to make.

It’s also, effectively, been superseded, largely by impressive new models from Hyundai, Kia, and Nissan which clock in with similar price tags, but with greater range and more practicality.

I do think that the i3 will go down in history as a noble effort, though.

An interesting first barrage of electrical assault from one of the world’s most renowned car makers.

Not as interesting as that drive, of course. I mean, that’s worthy of a statue, or at least a blue plaque, right?

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