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Would you buy an electric car if it was a BMW?

BMW i3

Electric cars have been around for years. And yet finding a model that is both stylish and environmentally friendly might have previously been a challenge. Will the BMW i3 up the ante?

Electric cars are nothing new – the fully electric Nissan Leaf has been on UK streets for several years. But I can’t shake off the impression that most people are buying electric cars purely for their eco credentials rather than because the car around the batteries appeals more than conventional rivals.

I’d wager that the BMW i3 will change that though. BMW is famed for creating fun to drive cars and the electric i3 is no different. Yes the i3 is powered by lithium rather than fossil fuels, but the basics underneath are pure BMW.

Is an electric drive enjoyable?

The car is enjoyable to drive and in spite of the skinny eco tyres, it handles corners well and the electric motor provides big instant chunks of power as soon as you touch the accelerator.

Despite the capable handling, the driving experience is supremely relaxing too as you can essentially drive using only one pedal – lift off the throttle and regenerative braking (which maintains the charge in the batteries) means that the car slows quickly. Approaching roundabouts and slowing for corners you really don’t need to go anywhere near the brake pedal as a consequence. Even in town you don’t have to brake much if you anticipate traffic lights and keep an eye out for pedestrians.

Electric car government grant

You might think that price is still a huge stumbling point for electric cars and yes, electric cars do still cost a premium. However, if you were to buy the most similar conventional BMW rival with the same equipment as the i3 – the 118i five-door, the petrol powered model would actually cost £600 more than the electric car (admittedly once you’ve taken into account the government’s £5,000 electric car grant).

This might all sound like an advert for the i3, but the reality is that electric cars offer a very different proposition to fossil fuel powered models. Battery power offers smooth and quiet motoring and compact batteries allow for more cabin space.

As for the concern of running out of battery charge on the road, the i3 should manage a real world 80-100 miles per charge and its standard-fit satnav shows you where the nearest charging points are and displays how far you can travel on the satnav map. You also have the option of a ‘range extender’ version with up to 186 miles real world range if 100 miles isn’t enough for you.

So would the BMW i3 convince you to trade in your petrol or diesel car for electric power? Does its striking styling appeal to you or would you rather the more conventional design of the Nissan Leaf?


My biggest concern with an electric car is the deterioration of the battery, whereby it holds less charge after repeated charge cycles. It’s bad enough when a mobile phone’s battery deteriorates over time, requiring a replacement after around two year’s use. Unlike a mobile phone, replacing the battery of an electric car will be a substantial expense, running into the thousands.

If it is a second car, it’s worth a look. But the range is too little otherwise for when you might want an unplanned longer journey. The addition of a motorcycle engine as a limited range extender is OK, but I’d rather have a hybrid car that can motor on indefinitely when necessary.
There is a lease option of around £3000 deposit and around £4300 a year for 3 years.
Electricity still comes from gas in the main and presumably is cheaper than petrol largely because of no duty and only 5% vat. So I don’t see it as particularly ecofriendly unless perhaps you generate your own from solar panels. If electric vehicles were to become very popular more grid generating capacity would be needed – already under threat.

It is apparent from traffic observations that few people are purchasing electric cars. I have yet to see a charging point actually being used. None of these cars make economic sense and as Malcolm R says they are usually running indirectly on gas (or coal). Their pricing seems bonkers as apart from the expense of their batteries, electric motors are surely cheaper to produce than internal combustion engines. When they have a range of 300 miles I might be tempted..

I can only afford one car and when you say the “i3 should manage a real world 80-100 miles per charge” you immediately rule this car out for me. I know 99% of my trips are less than that but I want to be able to drive up to 300 miles when I go on holiday, so the i3 is useless.

will, I have heard that if you lease the i3, BMW will lend you a conventional car for occasions like holidays. Has anyone else heard this? It still would not persuade me to have one – there are always the unplanned trips, and 80 miles soon gets used up if you have to do 3 or 4 trips in a day. Anyway, I still wonder what the point is of an electric car, both on eco grounds (dubious) and expensive, life-limited batteries.

Steve says:
14 November 2013

The BMW i3 does not match up to the Vauxhall Ampera, which is also bigger than the BMW.

Ampera’s 45 mile plug-in range, plus a further 300 miles when the car’s 1.4 litre generator automatically clicks in, means the Ampera remains the leading choice.

It is awkward that Ampera still costs about £30,000 new even after the £5000 government grant.

Many people would buy the Ampera if it were priced at £20,000 which it now is in America, its place of manufacture (where it is badged Chevrolet Volt).

Incidentally the Vectra-sized Ampera is manufactured at GM’s Hamtramck Cadillac plant. So its quality is similar to a BMW anyway.

Personally, I would not have a wholly electric car even if it was made by Rolls Royce! There are questions about the reliability of batteries added to which I am not wholly convinced that the original manufacture of them is particularly friendly to the environment. The main problem, though, is the range – or rather the lack of it – and the time it takes to re-charge the batteries. Although I, like many others, spend most of my time on relatively short journeys a quick succession of these can mop up range rather rapidly. Murphy’s law guarantees that after a succession of short journeys there will be an unexpected need to make a longer one for which there is insufficient charge!

A hybrid car offers the ability to cope with longer journeys, whether or not expected, but its only real advantage is reduced air pollution when driving on battery power. As soon as the auxiliary engine is fired-up this advantage is lost. To get a given mass from A to B under a specified set of conditions will need the expenditure of a particular level of energy. In the case of the hybrid car on a long journey, the major source of energy will be the auxiliary engine (there will be some benefit to be offered from regenerative braking, but this may not be significant on, for instance, a long motorway journey). This being so, it would seem to make more sense to use the engine to drive the car directly rather than to generate electricity to charge batteries which are then used to drive the car. In fact, the electric car will be at a disadvantage because it has to lug around the rather high mass represented by the batteries.

As a second car with the batteries leased , an electric car can make sense especially for urban driving. Sure I have seen some statistic that the average car journey is only around 20 miles.

The BMW i3 like the Vauxhall Ampera (and Chevrolet Vault) has only four (not five) seats.
For some buyers this could be a problem.
It ids very disappointing for a car at this price point to only have 4 seats.

The alternatives.

Toyota Plug In Prius – true battery range about 10 miles in autumn /winter, about 13 in spring / summer, backed up by a 300+ miles petrol tank. 5 seats. Petrol engine starts up if heating is required (no pre-heating option at home). Petrol engine starts up if screen demister used. Front tyres wear out at less than 10,000 miles.

Vauxhall Ampera / Chevrolet Volt : battery range maybe 25 miles backed up by a petrol tank range (I guess) of over 200. Only 4 seats )like the BMW i3). Larger dimensions make it too big for a typical domestic home garage (despite being longer and wider than 5-seater Prius). Fifth seat (rear middle) lost because centre console front & rear housing the battery.

Husky Red says:
16 November 2013

Anyone know when hydrogen cars will properly arrive? Will avoid the electric cars fossil/nuclear generation problem. Only output is water.

At present the main methof of producing hydrogen is from methane and coal. Still a fossil fuel in effect, with CO2 produced that needs to be stored.

I guess hydrogen cars will need a whole new infrastructure to first manufacture and then secondly distribute and retail the hydrogen.

Electric cars might ultimately need us to make greater investment in power generators (e.g. more wind & solar in our back yards, plus Sizewell C, Bradwell B and whatever Horizon and NuGen can provide). However, the initial uptake of electric cars need only require the adoption of charging points at service stations.

Pickyman says:
16 November 2013

In defence of the Prius, I disagree with DavidMg on tyre wear. My Prius isn’t a plug-in, it’s the 1.8 model, which after nearly 3 years and 20,000 miles has plenty of tread left.

Tyre wear on my 2004 Prius was 29,500 miles – good.
However on my Plug In Prius I have an advisory note from the service dealer that the tyres need changing at less than 9,000 miles. Plug In Prius has 15 inch wheels, 2004 Prius has (I think) 16 inch wheels, perhaps this is part of the reason.
In both instances the tyres wore on the outer edges more than the centre of tread which suggests under inflation – however tyres inflated to Toyota recommended pressures. I understand that some Prius owners in the USA over-inflate their tyres to overcome this flaw.

Chris says:
24 January 2015

Now for a comment from someone who’s been driving the BMW i3 since Summer 2014, and not a oil company rep. My i3 has taken the place of another petrol BMW, and I haven’t used that since the switch. That’s 7 months and counting, 0-40 in 3 seconds, 0-60 in 6.8 seconds, instant torque, zero petrol cost, zero tax, half price insurance, 100,000 mile battery warranty (electric car batteries in BMW, Ampera, Audi, and VW e-Golf & E-Up cars all use the latest generation of automotive lithium batteries which are NOT the kind found in your mobile phone! Please people, do some research before posting fiction! The electric car has come a long way in a few years, with batteries of 300 mile range already available. All UK motorway junctions have free rapid charge points installed which I’ve used to drive from London to Liverpool and back with zero cost! Can anyone beat that?

If you could come back and give an update when the car is ten years old or has covered 100,000 miles, that would give us an idea of how reliable the technology is.

I have owned the 94Ah i3 for 3 months now and travelled 3,500 miles. I agree with Chris superb performance and great fun to drive. I have every confidence the battery pack will live up to expectations as I owned an original Honda Insight coupe hybrid from 2001 to 2012 covering 65k+ miles. The original battery pack was still performing well when I reluctantly sold the car which did not deter the list of 15+ buyers queuing to become the new owner. I would rate the i3 as the best car I have ever owned over 60 vehicles throughout my 46 year driving history.

How many people keep a car for 100,000 miles? There is a 8 year warranty on the I3 batteries.

I’e kept two cars for over 100 000m – one to 120k, the other to 170k. My two sons have “decent” cars that are both around 160k and in daily use.

So you now have at least three cars? Which one has the HUD?

For London to Liverpool, or such like, I’d take the train.

I prefer cars for cross-country journeys, e.g. Swindon to Fairbourne and back in a day.

I reckon it’s a BMW, Ian.

Never mind a HUD, I want PDC’s too 😁

So what is your third car, then?

Electricity to charge an electric car still comes largely from fossil fuels. I wonder why we should give away this electricity for nothing when there are people who cannot afford it to heat their homes? It seems a perverse kind of subsidy. A bit like the feed-in tariff.

If an electric car is viable it should stand on its own feet (or wheels) – and be charged for what it costs. The Carbon Trust is forecasting a huge growth in hydrogen-powered cars when the technology improves (one source of hydrogen is electrolysis, another is from carbon fuels). I would hope that rather than an ever-increasing proliferation of personal transport we should look at greatly improving the availability and cost of public transport, and reducing unecessary journeys by placing people and their work closer to reduce commuting. We cannot continue indefinitely with expanding travel; it needs to be done more responsibly.

Electrolysis powered by surplus solar power is an environmentally acceptable way of generating hydrogen. It is difficult to store safely. In the early 70s it seemed possible that storage as palladium hydride might be practical for electric vehicles, but this proved hopelessly uneconomic.

The concept of electric vehicles is superficially attractive but I don’t understand why they should be subsidised because the environmental impact from manufacture, battery replacement and providing electricity is significant. Zero VED is sending the wrong message, just as the £30 VED for my own car. There is, however, merit in not charging for entering the low emission zone in London.

I agree with Malcolm on the other points.

It does appear that hydrogen is currently uneconomic as a way forward. Our DIL has just completed a paper into the viability of alternative fuel cars, and the current generation mix in the UK and elsewhere still means a lot of hydrogen would have to be generated from coal-fired stations. I’m not arguing with her; she really knows her stuff.

Having a tank of compressed hydrogen is not very safe, so why not a giant bag of uncompressed hydrogen on the roof? Just be careful when approaching low bridges. There’s a photo in this article for schools: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/0/ww1/25237886

That reminds me that, out in the sticks, folk will be able to drive “gas producer” cars, using wood as a primary fuel and wood gas to power their internal combustion engines.

The future:

The size of hydrogen gas bags would need to be restricted to prevent them floating away and being a hazard to air traffic.

Wood gas would be more practical but in event of a leak the occupants of the vehicle and cyclists nearby could suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning.

This looks a good idea:

Continue to buy by NAME ! many still do ! There is always BETTER cheaper options but all well known well publicised name still sells even thought the product has changed since the name was first used Some MUST buy a BMW some must buy a FORD and will not even think about other cars More ” money ” than sense again

To be fair to BMW, they do have strong green leanings and have been investing in electrical car developments for years. In the UK, they are marketed as a prestige brand, not entirely unlike Audi or Honda.

The only BMW I’ve ever owned was an “11 series” (R1150RT “pipe & slippers” touring motorcycle) and it was a nicely engineered piece of kit, eminently suitable for long cross-country rides in the UK, or across Europe.

Looking at Ian’s airship, you know there are developments in that field – really – as a large drone carrier with “deliveries of the day” for Amazon et al.

By moving a piston or diaphragm set up and down you can vary the volume of the pockets of H2 or He (but not their mass) – ie you can play with buoyancy without loss of gas. Add a few props and it can take off, land and steer with minimal energy with a moderate payload…