Does i3 blow away the Leaf?

wallpaper-1600x1200-9BMW officially announced the first of its new range of electric vehicles yesterday with a simultaneous launch in Beijing, London and New York.

That tells you a lot: the company isn’t trying to convince anyone that the i3 is anything other than a city car, and one for style-conscious customers at that. It’s not any everyday car. BMW has a likeable honesty – electric cars are a compromise, but this one is less of a compromise than the rest. The company has made sure of that by offering two versions, one battery-only, complete with range anxiety, and a range-extender version with a petrol engine for topping up the batteries, similar to GM’s Ampera/Volt.

BMW has taken a properly ground-up approach to the design and engineering, with an innovative CRP passenger cell and largely aluminium chassis. So it’s light, offsetting the battery weight and helping ensure that is has the handling a BMW needs. And it has more torque than BMW’s own Mini Cooper S, so it’s quick.

But if the i3’s a game-changer it’s in the fact that it’s desirable – and not just because of the badge. It’s stylish and, critically, looks truly contemporary and different from everything else. The interior design is as modern as the technology and as clean as the emissions, with interesting fabrics, light tones and pale wood trim. Trim levels have names like Loft and Suite. Two iPad-like screens give an Apple-like feel. BMW could have made an electric 1-Series but this looks like a concept car. Or a Danish architect’s living room.

It’s cool and hi-tech, as an electric car should be. And it sensibly applies that technology to the practical task of overcoming some of the problems of EVs: the i3 comes equipped for fast charging, and a clever sat-nav system suggests ways of extending the battery range and directs you to charging points.

But the killer app is the cost. Priced from £25680 in the UK for the standard version and £28830 for the range-extender, including the government grant, it makes life uncomfortable for the Vauxhall Ampera (£29995) and even the Nissan Leaf (reduced to £20990). These are larger cars, but that’s not where the market is right now. People want premium and they want it in smaller cars, which happens to suit electric vehicles. So BMW’s answer is different – if i3 owners want to use a larger car occasionally they’ll be able to use something else from the BMW range.

The i3 will be successful precisely because BMW has understood that electric vehicles necessarily have limitations. Except in their appeal.

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