Most people are afraid of electric cars like the 2016 BMW i3 Rex I recently drove for two months around my home in rural France. They’re not concerned about being zapped by the flow of high-voltage electrons. They’re just desperately worried about running out of power and not being able to recharge quickly and easily. There’s even a trendy name for it: range anxiety.
I’m subject to range anxiety myself. When I first drove in Europe in the 1960s, you had to be careful to schedule fill-ups outside the sacred mealtime hours once away from dedicated motor toll roads, lest you be stuck with an empty tank for a couple of hours at midday. There are also thousands fewer stations in Europe than there used to be. My village used to have two. Now it has none, with the closest being 5 miles away. Additionally, as a consequence of my first three cars (including an early Porsche) having no fuel gauge, I don’t like to let the fuel level drop below half before refilling. Given my history, I strongly empathize with people who don’t want to face the recharging issues around contemporary electric vehicles.
But now that established automakers like BMW and others are interested, some electric cars have become so wonderful to drive that even someone as paranoid as I am about being left with a dead vehicle can be tempted to yield to their undoubted charms. Low operating cost, near silence, and race-car acceleration in normal driving are extremely attractive. Still, there’s that anxiety, worry, fear—probably unreasonable, but real.
Given that my home is in a remote area with low population density, far from even modest cities, we wanted to find out if normal life could be sustained using an electric car every day without additional stress. BMW France kindly allowed us two months with a 2016 i3 Rex, which is fitted with a 0.7-liter two-cylinder four-stroke Range Extender engine. I’d have preferred testing a true electric-only model, but getting it from and taking it back to Paris would have been impossibly difficult without hauling it like a piece of dead cargo. In truth, even with the range extender, both delivery and return drives turned out to be nightmares, but only because of acts of God (and French unions), not the car itself.
For the entire two-month test, all I had to do was plug the i3 into the normal 220-volt, 50-hertz socket in my garage. No special installation for quick charging was required. The comprehensive control panel announced each morning the available range using the engine and the available range from the batteries. Curiously, the gasoline range changed every day, from a low of 72 miles to a high of 90 miles—all without ever using the engine. The predicted electric range after an overnight charge was between 73 and 91 miles, the latter figure appearing only once. Typically the panel announced around 78 miles. Presumably the variance was based on how much distance the i3 covered on the previous day’s charge.
Apart from the ghastly delivery trips, the gasoline engine never came on, which might be a problem over time. Gasoline does deteriorate. I suppose the practical rule would be to run the electricity down so the engine would come on automatically, then exhaust the ridiculously tiny (2.4 gallon) fuel tank once a month or two. Apparently that manifest insufficiency is dictated by frankly stupid rules on what is or is not qualified for high-occupancy lanes. In terms of actual use at home, the i3 was perfect. It had performance, range, comfort, and practicality going for it, and running it for a full Four Seasons test would have changed nothing. It behaved exactly as one would want any vehicle to: no problems, no surprises, and no inadequacy in anything you needed to accomplish.
The i3’s “automatic braking” — regenerative retardation — was first perceived as excessive, then as quite wonderful. I made virtually no use of the brake pedal as the i3 will come to a full stop by itself with your foot off the accelerator. It became a game to figure out when and where to lift off so as to come to a halt exactly at the stop line without touching the brake pedal. And that aspect, playing a game, turned out to be a great attraction.
As for the BMW i3’s appearance, let’s just say it’s interesting. It’s not lovely, but has some strongly positive aspects, particularly the spacious and luminous cabin. On the other hand, despite having four doors to make entry into the rear seats easy, passengers are unable to exit until the front doors are opened. Apart from its exceptional initial acceleration and extraordinarily quiet demeanor, I found the i3 to be an interesting and well-made car.
I keep four cars here in the countryside: two nominal daily drivers and a pair of two-seat roadsters for top-down use in nice weather. One of the two “regular” cars is inexpensively insured for use of less than 5,000 miles a year. Were I to replace it with an electric, I’d have about as much driving fun as with one of the roadsters while considerably diminishing both operating costs and environmental degradation. Bearing in mind the service I’ve demanded from my limited-mileage vehicle, I’d choose an i3 without the Rex — or a Nissan Leaf or Renault Zoe pure electric. But current electric-car economics are strongly against that. I can buy a low-mileage used car with an economical 1.0-liter engine for about one-fifth the price of the beautifully made but limited BMW.
As much as I loved using the i3, it’s not ideal for my present rural environment. Instead, it’s the perfect solution for the purpose for which it was created in the first place: use in or near a city with an extended suburban area. It’s more than just a city car, but it’s not a replacement for the principal car for an individual or a family. When I lived 30 miles from Paris at the end of the 1990s, it would have been absolutely perfect. Any time I wanted to go to the city for a show, a museum exhibit, or dinner with friends, I could have gone and returned on a single charge. In most cases, I could have recharged the car in a parking garage. (Today, there are even charging points on the street in some parts of Paris.) But I couldn’t have come home for a weekend, as I often did with the Four Seasons Ford Ka.
The i3 is a great car, but one excessively expensive for its capabilities. Too bad, I’d love to own one.
2016 BMW i3 with Range Extender Specifications
|Engine:||Electric AC synchronous motor/170 hp, 184 lb-ft plus 0.6L DOHC 8-valve I-2/38 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 41 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm|
|Transmission:||1-speed direct-drive automatic|
|Layout:||4-door, 4-passenger, mid-motor, RWD hatchback|
|EPA Mileage:||117 mpg-e/39 mpg electric only/range extender|
|L x W x H:||154.7 x 69.9 x 62.1 in|
|0-60 MPH:||7.0 sec (est)|
|Top Speed:||93 mph|