The curious case of the BMW i3

Liz Dobson
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In New Zealand, BMW's electric i3 car will have the range extender option of a 647cc two-cylinder petrol engine.

A euphoric autobahn trip starts going backwards when battery runs low

Placing my bag in the boot of BMW's new electric i3 car that was parked in front of the company's Munich headquarters, I closed the lid and turned to find a queue had suddenly appeared.

There was a German family of four, including an eager 10-year-old son and pouting 13-year-old daughter; a young South African couple plus an assortment of individuals.
The queue certainly wasn't there when I had arrived at BMW Welt, the company's large showroom and display centre that's a popular tourist destination.

Though as my companion, BMW New Zealand's communications manager, Edward Finn, unlocked the car I did see a few of the tourists turn towards us.

But it only took them a couple of minutes, while our backs were turned placing our bags in the boot, to go from tourist to curious.

The electric car is about to go on sale in New Zealand, but as I was at a BMW launch in nearby Austria I had a chance to have a preview.

• For our first drive of the BMW i3 click here
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I was given an afternoon, and a half-charged battery, to test the car around Munich before flying home to New Zealand.

The BMW i3's official range is 130 to 160km, or even 200km in the most efficient driving mode. The vehicles we'll get in New Zealand will have the range extender of a 647cc two-cylinder petrol engine that adds 260 to 290km to the ability.


BMW i3

I was eager to test the car that had galvanised so many of Driven's readers when I first posted a photo of it on our Facebook page.

As I moved towards the driver's door, the mum of the family shyly asked me if she could take a photo of her son sitting in the driver's seat.

As a mum myself, of course I obliged. I even insisted the mum have her photo taken, and even suggested pouting daughter have a go, but the teen was too busy sulking for Germany to have fun so Dad took her place. Then the South African couple wanted a photo in the car, and suddenly that queue had turned from a few to a mob and I realised my afternoon would be spent taking photos of others in the car instead of driving it myself.

Edward and I quickly entered the car, and because of the silent engine, precariously negotiated our way through the Welt crowd who were photographing our departure.
Because of the unique shape of the i3, the car instantly gains attention, even in the hometown of BMW, with other drivers of the electric car waving at us as we whooshed silently through the residential streets.

Eager to test the vaunted torque of the i3, I moved off the streets and on to the autobahn. Foot down and the car instantly surged ahead and effortlessly hit 130km/h.

I laughed as we sped past other cars and smiled as other drivers looked agog as we drove past.

What range anxiety, we joked, with the air conditioning blasting in our face and the i3 maintaining 130km/h.

Oh, that range anxiety, we yelped when a warning light flashed and we were alerted to the fact that at our speed we wouldn't make our destination, BMW's test car storage facility.

"If we run out of battery power, you're pushing the car to our destination," I told Edward.


BMW i3 interior

Fearing I really would make him do it, he altered the setting to economy mode, turned off the air con and searched for a nearby charging station or even a cafe we could grab some electricity from.

Where once we were zipping along at 130km/h, we were suddenly at a sedate 70km/h in the slow lane with drivers angrily overtaking us.

I searched ahead for an off-ramp so we could escape our embarrassment but there was only kilometres of autobahn ahead.

Suddenly my palms were very sweaty - it wasn't due to no air con - and I glanced at the energy display that showed we had a near-empty battery.

Thankfully Edward recalculated our route, an off-ramp appeared and we headed to the power-saving residential area.

There was nervous silence in the car as we arrived at the storage area and slotted the i3 next to the fast charging point.

But as we tried to plug in the car, a BMW staff member pointed out that our test vehicle wasn't a fast-charge version that we would have back on the road within an hour - instead it would take eight hours to "fill up".

"It will be ready at 8 o'clock, is that okay?" the staff member said.

"No, we'll be in a plane heading back to New Zealand," I said.

He shrugged and left our i3 and us in similar states - feeling empty.

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