By: Dave Abrahams
Cape Town - Most of the questions during the media presentation at the South African launch of BMW's i3 and i8 electric cars this week centred on one topic - range.
That's understandable, given that South Africa is a big country and that the electricity supply they use to 'refuel' is shaky at best.
The iProject staffers did their best to reassure us that yes, you can recharge an iCar from a conventional 15A socket (although it'll take all night!) and that there will be a solar charging set-up available in the foreseeable future which could take your iCar off the grid.
Drive the cars, they said, then come back and talk to us.
So the next morning, we set off in a base-model i3 on a varied route that included some freeway driving, and an hour or so of rush-hour traffic.
The i3 is light, airy and comfortable, very neatly finished in a variety of eco-friendly and/or recycled materials. Instrumentation consists of two colour displays that stand out from the low fascia, giving it an understated and futuristic look.
Getting under way is a process that needs to be learned - it won't go unless you're wearing your seatbelt and you push the right buttons in the right sequence - but once you do the results are impressive.
A BARELY AUDIBLE ELECTRIC HUM
Acceleration off a standing start, accompanied by no more than a barely audible electric hum, is unexpectedly fierce; steering, on large-diameter low-rolling resistance tyres, is quick, direct and accurate, and the whole process is totally seamless.
That's the beauty of electrics: no clutch, no transmission, no lubricants or filters to change, just direct drive to the rear wheels.
Given that the i3 has a carbon-fibre 'life cell' (body frame) on an aluminium chassis, the whole clad in plastic panels, it should be virtually maintenance-free, other than brakes, dampers and tyres, for the life of the battery, which is warranted for eight years.
Just about the time we realised that there was no longer enough charge in the battery to get us back home, we arrived at the BMW dealership in Somerset West for a quick car-change to an i3 'REX' (range extended) with a 26kW, 650cc petrol twin coupled to a generator.
It doesn't drive the wheels (that would require an expensive and weighty transmission as well) it just charges the battery to keep you going when you run out of Eskom amperage.
It won't allow the battery to go completely flat; it chimes in when there's about five kilometres' worth of charge left and thrums away with a steady beat that sounds like two lawnmowers flying in formation, its nine litres of fuel tankage adding about another 100km to your range, depending on how you drive.
It's quite noisy, and it negates some of the i3's 'green-ness' but, with a bit of intelligent route-planning, you shouldn't need to use it very often.
A VERY COOL CAR
That, however, can't be said of the i8, which has a tweaked Mini Cooper S engine (170kW worth of tweaked!) and six-speed paddle-shift transmission driving the rear wheels, and a 96kW electric motor driving the front wheels.
Pure electric range is less than 40km (and limited to 120km/h) so the three-cylinder turbopetrol is really the prime mover - and wow, does it move! There's little we can say about the i8's dynamics that hasn't already been said in our pre-launch road test, other than that its composure at naughty speeds on familiar Western Cape back roads was exemplary, its comfort surprising and its power delivery akin to a kick in the kidneys.
Oh, and it's a very cool car, looking almost as if Lotus founder Colin Chapman had been asked to design the Batmobile. As a R1 755 000 supercar (that's what it costs) it's a very good supercar - never mind its green credentials.
As a premium hatch with range issues, however, the R525 000 (R595 000 with 650cc genset) i3 is going to be a hard sell. But still, as IOL Motoring editor Jason Woosey put it, BMW is probably not aiming for big sales volumes here; this is more about the sentiment of making a start along the electric road. And that is very cool indeed.