An electrifying encounter
Some inventions, like many animal species, seem to make periodic Darwinian leaps in progress. The automobile is one of them. Karl Benz founded the Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik in 1883 and patented his Motorwagen in 1886. Only a few years later in 1913, Henry Ford and his engineers turned the car into the ubiquitous, mass-market item that has defined the modern urban landscape.
Over the past few years, the car seems poised for another burst of evolution, especially with regard to the emissions it generates. As emerging markets grow more affluent, hordes of new drivers are demanding their first set of wheels. But even a fraction of the projected increase in cars on the streets would present fearsome challenges, from congestion and the price of fuel to pollution and global warming.
Although many car companies are investing heavily in clean technologies, such as super-efficient petrol and diesel cars, hybrids and models that run on natural gas or hydrogen, the time has doubtlessly come for the purely electric car. In July, BMW launched its first fully electric car, the i3. Though not the first carmaker to go all-the-way electric, the design of the car is arguably what sets it apart, signalling a sea change in the sector.
Emil Frey is one of the most important distributors of the German brand and has a history almost as long as that of the automobile industry itself. Founded in 1924 by the auto mechanic of the same name, the company operates in five European countries and distributes some thirty car brands.
During a recent meeting with Alexandre Farago, who heads up Emil Frey distributorship in Geneva, he showed high voltage enthusiasm when telling the story of the i3. For the aficionados in our team, BMWs are about four things: A sharp rear-wheel drive chassis, cutting edge technology, a general sense of quality and outlandish styling. And the one question on our mind was: Is this the real thing?
Farago, who has been in and around BMWs since joining Emil Frey as a young apprentice mechanic, does not hesitate: “It clearly is a BMW – the traditional roundel badge and double kidney grille make sure of that – but its sharp edges and outlandish lines draw plenty of glances. Electric cars in my mind have always been practical rather than user-intuitive or well designed – limitations BMW has looked to tackle with its first all-electric model.”
And judging by the product itself, he is right. Whereas other electric vehicle makers have opted to use traditional automotive design alliterations in both interior and exterior, BMW has taken a leap forward. Inside, it is pared-back and almost mid-century in its aesthetic: matte wood and naturally tanned leathers set the tone. The interior styling depends on which package you go for, with buyers able to upgrade from the standard interior to Loft, Lodge or Suite. Whichever you choose, you will get a concept car-style interior, featuring two LCD screens, a funky steering wheel and a chunky drive selector.
Alexandre Farago continues: “The “i” project began several years ago and the result is an undoubtedly urban spin on BMW’s ‘sheer driving pleasure’ motto: the i3 is meant for the big city, not the open highway. Almost by necessity, of course – charging points aren’t nearly as prevalent in the countryside as petrol stations are. Still, the design is with purpose. BMW designed the i3 in a way that would trigger a totally different driving behaviour; it’s more relaxing, quite zen. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam, it should be a good time.”
The i3 has a maximum range of 160km when fully charged, suitable for the average city commute but not necessarily enough to get you to your chalet at weekends. But BMW has tried to ease consumers’ transition to electric by offering a clever range of services: a bespoke home charging system that allows for a full charge in less than 20 minutes, roadside charging assistance and the possibility to add a ‘range extender’ which is in essence a mini-motorcycle engine that keeps the batteries topped up.
Alexandre Farago and Emil Frey really believe in this new line and will set up rapid chargers at their Geneva dealership, made available for rapid charging for all to use, free of charge.
Running out of juice
One critique of electric cars is the concern that they induce over battery life and question of just how many miles you can eek out before running out of juice. BMW’s answer is the in-dash navigation system. The console, larger than would be expected for a car of its size, offers info on battery-efficient routes, driving style, traffic and even topography.
Timber to perfection
The dash is not only sleek, it’s got sustainability in mind and is made from eucalyptus primarily grown in Europe by producers dedicated to responsible forestry. Its minimal treatment also means each car’s dash has unique colouring and markings.
The i3 is the first mass-produced car to use hi-tech carbon fibre for its passenger cell, made by the Germany-based SLG Group. 30 per cent lighter than aluminium, using it means the car can carry a heavier battery. In fact, it’s about 300kg lighter than a Nissan LEAF.
There are elements of black glass throughout the design of the exterior that add lightness to the BMW i3 – and the tailgate is no exception.
The i3 has no centre tunnel as its energy storage is in the floor. The result is an interior that is much more spacious than most cars, opting for a lounge-like design, using relaxing rather than racy materials. The under-floor storage means the seats are raised, allowing for better views.
Article by Raymond Langley