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The flying cars that we were promised way back when we were so much younger aren’t here yet, but now that everyone has sobered up to the possibility that flight isn’t going to be a mode of personal travel in the near future, time to look at more realistic possibilities.

The BMW i3 is the kind of car that BMW thinks our future generation will be driving, and the unveiling sequence was initiated simultaneously across three different continents by three cute little kids, whom BMW calls the future drivers of these cars.

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After EV trials with the MINI E and BMW ActiveE, BMW decided that converting a regular combustion engine car process to build an EV wasn’t the right way to go about it. So it went out and completely overhauled the process. BMW has never done something like this before in the past. The BMW i3 has required complete revamps to how the company approaches building a car, and many services that never existed before had to be created to support the car’s target customer.

Yes, the trademark BMW design features such as the U-shaped daytime running lights in the headlamps and the kidney grilles are there, but the BMW i3 doesn’t really look like a BMW, does it? Readers commented in the previous live gallery post that it looks rather like a “big Myvi.” The i3’s looks were deliberately designed that way because it was designed to look like a car from the future.

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The design process of the BMW i3 was different from the way a typical BMW is designed. The design team started off designing the interior first – interior dimensions were set, and then the exterior was designed around it. The i3 had to be a true four-seater, but it couldn’t grow too large either as there were weight targets to be met.

The versatility of the LifeDrive architecture that the BMW i3 is built on has allowed very compact exterior dimensions, with very short overhangs, compared to the amount of interior space offered. We will go into more details on the LifeDrive architecture later. The body measures only 3,999 mm in length, which is relatively short for a car that has the interior space of I’d say somewhat between a 1-Series and a 3-Series. The i3 is 1,775 mm wide and 1,578 mm tall.

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Look at the front of the i3 and you’ll immediately notice the kidney grilles that identify it as a BMW. This is a pure design feature as the i3 doesn’t have anything that needs cooling behind the grille, so there are no actual openings at the front. Next, you’ll notice that the headlamps each have only a single ‘lens’, compared to the typical BMW double lens headlamp configuration. They are bordered with U-shaped LED light units.

On the rear, a glazed expanse of black covers the hatch of the BMW i3, no matter what colour you pick, with U-shaped LED rear lights integrated into them appearing like ‘floating’ elements. The side profile is even more interesting – there’s no B-pillar, and the belt line dips to create a larger side window profile for the rear suicide doors. BMW says this is to make the car look more dynamic as well as create an airier view for the rear occupants, to make up for the fact that the rear windows cannot be wound down.

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Those tyres are unusually narrow, which makes for an odd profile when you look at the i3 from dead-on front and rear. The low-rolling resistance tyres are sized 155/70R19, and are mounted on forged-alloy lightweight wheels that weigh about seven kilograms a piece.

Six colours are available – two non-metallic and four metallic. The most striking is of course Solar Orange Metallic, which is the shade of the orange car that we’ve seen before. The hero colour used in most of the marketing brochures seems to be Ionic Silver Metallic. The remainder of the colours are Capparis White, Arravani Grey, Andesite Silver Metallic and Laurel Grey Metallic.

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On the inside, four different colour schemes are available – Atelier as standard, which can be upgraded to Loft, Lodge or Suite. The loft design scheme combines light grey colours with light open pored eucalyptus wood. The wood is lightly treated, and as a result it’s one of the best wood-based shades I’ve ever seen used as a car interior trim. We were shown a photo of a loft with grey cement walls and a wooden staircase as inspiration for the interior colour scheme. The suite interior is sportier, with its black colour scheme.

The BMW i3’s interior design is also unlike any other BMW. Because there is no need for a prop shaft, there is no centre tunnel required. The effect is the i3 doesn’t have that feel that the passenger areas are distinctively divided onto four zones like in a regular BMW. Even for the front passenger, the console between the two front seats where the storage and cupholder are doesn’t join up with the dashboard, so as long as you flip up the armrest, you can probably cross easily between the front driver and passenger seats.

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There are no analogue metres in this car – there’s a small LCD screen in front of the driver which shows speedo functions, and another typical iDrive screen mounted in the centre of the dash. It appears two-spoke steering wheels are fashionable again. Right after we saw the W222 S-Class debut with a two-spoke steering wheel, we see one again on the new i3.

As there’s no shift lever in the typical area next to the iDrive controller, you may be wondering how to shift gears in this car. Well, since the car doesn’t have a traditional multi-gear transmission, there are no gears to swap between, so a typical stalk with plus/minus shift control or even paddle shifters are not necessary. The BMW i3 uses a single-speed transmission, so all that’s needed is a very simple shifter that BMW has mounted on the right top side of the steering column.

The column shifter’s operation and design isn’t like the typical indicator stalk concept that most manufacturers use for their column shifters – it’s a big chunky thing that you twist according to R, N or D modes. A park button and the engine start button are also integrated onto the shifter.

As for storage, there’s a single cupholder, some more storage underneath the flip-up armrest and some netting in the area below the air-conditioning controls where the car’s chunky centre tunnel would typically be.

Here are photos of me in the driver seat as well as in the passenger seat behind me, taken during the Beijing part of the global launch. The driver seat position is quite comfortable as the car is pretty wide, so shoulder and elbow room won’t be a struggle if you’re carrying a front passenger. It was a bit of a struggle getting into the rear seat from the driver side with the driver seat set at my driving position (I’m 181 cm tall), but you can always get in from the passenger side.

I suppose if you are big-sized, I’d consider the car somewhere between a proper four-door and a coupe in terms of ease of ingress and egress. Getting into the rear seats, I immediately noticed how thin the front seat backs are, which contributes to maximising interior room without increasing the actual footprint of the car. It actually gets thinner from the bottom to the top.

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While the view from the front is commanding with a high seat position, the view at the rear can feel a little claustrophobic. My head felt pretty close to the roof and looking left, all I could see was the pillar of the car. The tall front seats take up most of the forward view. On top of that, you can’t wind down the rear door’s window, which is why as a consolation BMW increased the height of the rear windows in an effort to make up for that.

If you’ve looked at the high-res versions of the interior photos, you might be wondering what’s that fibrous texture that a lot of the interior seems to be made off. It’s the most obviously seen on this photo behind the iDrive screen.

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These are fibres from the kenaf plant, also known as hemp. Kenaf is a strong and light versatile crop which is now gaining popularity as an automotive trim and bumper material. It’s not the first time it’s used in a BMW – even the F10 5-Series uses it inside the doors, but in the i3 the exposed weave’s natural look is a design element.

In addition, 25% (by weight) of the plastic used in the interior is made with recycled materials or renewable raw materials. Even the leather in treated only with natural substances, like olive tree leaf extract. The seats have a “climate active” wool combination surface – wool is said to have a heating effect in the cold and a cooling effect in summer, aiding in reduced usage of the air conditioning or heating, allowing battery power to be conserved.

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The BMW i3 is built on a platform that BMW calls the LifeDrive architecture. First, we’ll look at the Drive part of LifeDrive and what’s under the hood. Yup, nothing. You can’t exactly use this phrase with the BMW i3 anymore, as the equivalent of the engine is located inside the chassis at the rear axle. It’s basically under the luggage floor.

Unlike a ‘conversion’ car, which uses a normal car’s platform and is modified to fit electric car components (like the BMW ActiveE based on the 1-Series), there are a lot of legacy designs in a normal car chassis that cannot be put to good use in an electric car, such as the space reserved for the fuel tank or the exhaust system.

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BMW likes to call the LifeDrive platform an ‘architecture designed for electric car components’. The Drive module is at the bottom and contains all the components necessary to move the car.

The electric motor is positioned at the rear axle, and directly drives the rear wheels, so no prop shaft is necessary. The area between the front and rear axles is occupied by the lithium-ion battery. It’s seated in a low and central position, allowing the 1,195 kg car to achieve a 50:50 weight distribution.

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The i3’s lithium ion battery weighs 230 kg and is produced at BMW Plant Dingolfing. It consists of eight modules, each with 12 individual cells. Together, they produce a rated voltage of 360 volts and can generate 22 kWh of energy. The battery warranty is for eight years or 100,000km, and BMW says it should last the natural life of the vehicle, which is at least 10 to 15 years.

Each cell is used equally to power the motor, and individual modules can be swapped out in case of a fault. The battery is cooled by the air-conditioning coolant, which ensures a 20 degree Celsius operating temperature for the batteries to maximise battery capacity and life.

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The electric motor offers 170 hp and from the moment the car moves, you have the full torque of 250 Nm – such is the nature of electric motors. Zero to 100km/h takes just 7.2 seconds, which qualifies as warm hatch acceleration. Putting the pedal to the metal on the i3 is going to feel fun, but you probably won’t do it often, in an effort to maximise range. You won’t get to a very high top speed either – because the gearbox is single speed, you’re limited to 150 km/h. The motor revs to a maximum revolution of 11,400 rpm.

The motor uses about 0.13 kWh per km in the NEDC cycle. Based on my current house electricity bill, I consume about 1,000 kWh a month. That means whatever I add on by charging a BMW i3 would be charged at the highest tariff of about 45.4 sen per kWh, which assuming 7.7 km travelled per 1 kWh calculates to an average cost of about 6 sen per km. If you travel about 2,000 km a month, an i3 would only cost you RM120 to ‘fuel’ for the entire month.

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Now, the key question that anyone considering an EV will ask is ‘how far?’ BMW claims about 130 km to 160 km of regular driving from a full charge. You can either charge the car using a domestic wall socket, a BMW i Wallbox or a public charging station. If you switch on the ECO PRO driving mode, you can possibly gain about 20 km in range, and this gain doubles if you use the ECO PRO+ driving mode. This potentially means a 200 km range, under a specific type of fuel efficient driving style.

You might wonder what happens if you don’t drive the i3 for a long time, since when you do that with a normal car, it is likely that the battery will go flat and you won’t be able to crank the engine. According to BMW, leaving the BMW i3 alone for two to four weeks should not be an issue. You can just hop into the car and drive as per usual. But if you don’t use it for an extended period like say a year, then you need to talk to your dealership to take the appropriate measures.

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With the 50 kg electric motor mounted to the one side of the rear axle, you may be wondering what’s on the other side. It looks like space for another motor, and is actually where the optional internal combustion engine goes for the range extender version of the vehicle.

The range extender engine is a 650 cc, two-cylinder unit offering 34 hp. Its fuel tank is in the front of the car, where you can fill about nine litres of fuel for the engine to generate electricity to charge the batteries as well as run the electric motor.

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Range extender operation is a refuel and go affair – no need to wait for the range extender to recharge the batteries before you can move. The nine litres of fuel add about 100 km of range to the car. Based on current RON 95 fuel price, this is at a 17 sen per km cost, nearly triple that of the 6 sen per km electric power cost we calculated earlier.

The range extender engine and fuel tank does make the car less efficient. For one, weight is increased because of the additional components. Secondly, aerodynamics are affected because of the need for airflow to cool the internal combustion engine. The tyres on the range extender model are also wider at the rear – sized 175/65R19 instead of 155/70R19.

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As a result, all of this increases the range extender model’s 100km/h sprint time to 7.9 seconds and reduces pure electric range by 10%. This means that if you’re certain electric range will suffice for you, the pure EV model is a better bet, as its price tag is lower than the range extender version.

Now, we look at the other half of the LifeDrive module – the top half called the Life module, which is very important as this is where occupants are seated. The Life module is constructed from high-strength ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre reinforced polymer. There is no B-pillar – the carbon-fibre cage contains the entire interior of the car, the same way an F1 driver sits in his carbon-fibre cage.

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You might be wondering just how safe the BMW i3 is in a crash. After all, this is new territory for pretty much all of us; we’re so used to sitting in a metal cage with big crumple zones in the front and rear (assuming you drive a sedan), so the idea of sitting in a carbon-fibre cage can raise questions, especially since there’s no B-pillar.

The company says that for frontal impacts, the energy is distributed optimally through both the Life and Drive modules. Additionally, the fact that the motor is mounted at the rear allows for a low crash pulse and therefore low occupant loading in a frontal crash. BMW claims that even after a structurally debilitating offset frontal crash at 64 km/h, the rigid materials maintain an intact space for passengers.

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The high-strength carbon-fibre passenger cell is claimed to remain almost free of deformation, and the doors will not get jammed. In its dry resin-free state, CFRP is cloth-like, so it is very flexible in terms of how it can be shaped. It only becomes hard once the resin injected into the lattice has hardened.

The high tear-resistance along the length of the fibres also allows CFRP components to be given a high-strength design by following their direction of loading. To this end, the fibres are arranged within the component according to their load characteristics. By overlaying the fibre alignment, components can also be strengthened against load in several different directions. In this way, the components can be given a significantly more weight efficient and effective design than is possible with regular material.

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The aluminium structures at the front and rear of the Drive module also provide additional safety. For rear impact crashes, most of the impact energy is absorbed by the Drive module, and there are impact resistant rear structures to protect the high voltage components in the rear.

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Side impact is where you may have the most concerns, since there is no B-pillar. The Euro NCAP side impact test strikes the side of the vehicle dead centre at 32 km/h using a pole. In this test, BMW claims the Life module absorbs the impact with minimal deformation. The honeycomb elements in the sill absorb the impact energy and divert it above the Drive module.

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What about protecting the battery, you might ask? The CFRP Life module protects it – the results from the same Euro NCAP test shows that the pole does not penetrate to reach the battery. The battery is disconnected from the electrical system and all components are discharged whenever the passenger restraint systems are triggered, to prevent the possibility of short circuits.

The battery compartment is also not completely filled with the battery, so there’s some margin for an accident. Of course, these are all learnings from crash test results within the Euro NCAP specifications and does not cover all kinds of possibilities potential real-world accidents might bring up.

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While we’re on the subject of fender benders, you might be wondering how something like the BMW i3 be repaired? To know how to fix it, we must first know how it is put together. See that shiny metal covering the car? It’s not metal at all. The exterior design of the car is mostly made out of body panels made out of plastic. The plastic parts are either screwed on or clipped onto the Life module at special mounting points that cannot be seen from the outside. Minor bumps are absorbed without leaving dents, and damage to the paint does not lead to rusting because it’s not metal.

Repair costs are actually 40% lower than a conventionally-built car, but we’re probably talking about first world practices here, where not everything is ‘knocked back’ into place by a ‘mud guard guy’. If a section of the external skin of the BMW i3 needs to be replaced, you simply unclip it and clip a new section in. Any authorised BMW i dealer can repair the outer skin.

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As for structural damage, both the Life and Drive modules can be repaired, but only at specialist repair centres. For the Life module’s CFRP structure, several repair stages are defined for the side frame together with the option of replacing it as a whole. If only a damaged side sill needs to be replaced after a side impact, the workshop carries out a visual inspection and damage assessment, and then removes only the side sill repair section using a patented milling tool. The required side sill component is manufactured to fit, and then installed on the damaged vehicle. The new part is bonded to the separation points using repair elements. Overall, BMW estimates the i3 repair costs to be about the same as a BMW 1-Series.

By now, you’ll have realised that the BMW i3 is quite a unique car. The way it’s put together calls for a complete overhaul of the production process. Because it uses a CFRP skeleton, there’s no press shop and paint shop on the Leipzig production line, where it’s built. There’s no sparks from welding involved – the car is bonded together using adhesives.

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The i3’s CFRP shell begins as bundles of fiber produced at BMW’s US JV partner SGL Group at its plant in Moses Lake, Washington. The two production lines in Moses Lake currently each have a capacity of 1,500 tonnes a year – BMW claims the plant already accounts for around 10% of global CFRP production today. It produces carbon fibres from a polyacrylonitrile-based thermoplastic textile fibre precursor. In a complex multistage process, the various constituent elements of the fibre are removed by gasification, eventually leaving a fibre that consists of virtually pure carbon, with a stable graphite structure.

The resulting carbon fibres are just seven microns (0.007 millimetres) thick. A human hair, by comparison, has a diameter of 50 microns. For automotive application, approximately 50,000 of these individual filaments are bundled into so-called rovings – or heavy tows – and wound on reels, prior to further processing.

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These rovings are then sent to the JV’s second site at the Wackersdorf Innovation Park, for industrial processing into lightweight carbon fibre laminates. In contrast to a woven fabric, in these laminates the fibres are not interlaced or interwoven, but all lie in the same plane. Weaving would kink the fibres and detract from their special properties. The fibre orientation in the laminate is crucial to achieving optimal quality in a CFRP component.

Then, the laminates are sent to the CFRP press shops at Landshut and Leipzig, where the laminates are processed into body parts. The Landshut plant is not new to carbon fibre processing – it has been making the carbon fibre roofs for the M3 and M6, as well as the bumper supports for the M6, for some time. At the initial “preforming” stage, the pre-cut carbon fibre laminate supplied by the Wackersdorf plant begins to acquire a shape.

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During this process, a heat source is used to give a fabric stack a stable, three-dimensional form. Several of these preformed stacks (preformed blanks) can then be joined to form a larger component. In this way CFRP can be used, for example, to produce components with a large surface area that would be difficult to manufacture from aluminium or sheet steel.

Preforming and preform joining are followed by the next stage in the process: high-pressure resin injection using Resin Transfer Moulding (RTM). This technique, used in the aerospace industry, shipbuilding and the manufacture of wind turbine rotors, involves high-pressure injection of liquid resin into the preforms. As the fibres and the resin bond, and in the subsequent hardening process, the material acquires the rigidity which is key to its outstanding qualities.

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The CFRP presses apply a pressure of up to 4,500-t, until the resin and hardener are fully cross-linked and the resin is hard. BMW’s manufacturing process eliminates the need for an additional time-consuming autoclaving process to harden the parts. BMW claims that newly-formed parts can leave the press in less than 10 minutes.

Next, the components from both the Leipzig and Landshut press shops make their way to the body shop. The basic structure of the Life module of a BMW i3 comprises around 150 parts, a third of the number required for conventional sheet-metal architecture. Only bonding technology is used, and it is 100% automated. Individual components are positioned 1.5 mm apart at the bond line gap in order to ensure optimal strength of the resulting joint. The adhesive used is workable for only 90 seconds after being applied to a component before adhesion begins. An hour and a half later, it is hardened.

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Once the Drive module supplied by Dingolfing is bolted and bonded to the Life module supplied by Leipzig, the plastic outer layer that we talked about earlier is installed.

To complete the i3’s eco credentials, the power sources for these plants are renewable as well. The Moses Lake CFRP plant is powered by 100% hydroelectric power, while the Leipzig plant is 100% wind generated, thanks to four 2.5 MW Nordex N100/2500 wind turbines that BMW installed. These turbines generate about 26 GWh a year, which is about 2 GWh more than what BMW anticipates the BMW i cars need at the Leipzig plant.

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Now that you probably know way more about the BMW i3 than the average person would normally know – here comes the most important question of all. It has a BMW badge, but is it a BMW? We haven’t had the chance to drive it yet, but many foreign publications have come back with positive remarks about how it drives. Technically, the i3 should prove quite competent – the acceleration figures are quick, the centre of gravity is low, the car is light, the weight balance is 50-50, the unsprung weight is low, and the only thing I can think of what might reduce the car’s joy to drive would be the high-ish seating position, but then again an exciting drive can be had in a BMW SUV as well.

The i3’s price tag was announced before the car was even unveiled to the public. The official base pricing for pure EV version of the BMW i3 for the German market is 34,950 euros, while the American price tag is US$41,350 before tax incentives. The price for the version equipped with a 650 cc range extender engine will be announced later.

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A base price of 34,950 euros without any options would place the i3 just under the pricing for the BMW 3-Series 320i GT or 318d GT with manual transmission in the German market, which starts at 36,150 euros. If you start to load up the options on a 3-Series, the base price of an i3 would be slightly cheaper than the price of a BMW 316i with similar options in Malaysia.

But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before the BMW i3 can go on sale here. The private charging vendors have been appointed internationally, so BMW Malaysia will just have to figure out who will be installing them. Charging equipment seen at the Beijing launch were from manufacturers such as Delphi and Schneider.

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There’s also the matter of 360 ELECTRIC services, which are a suite of services that a BMW i driver can use. At least some of them will have to be introduced here to complete the i3 experience, I would think, unless the standards are lowered for ‘developing’ markets. One of them is long distance vehicle leasing. In markets where the BMW i3 is introduced, BMW allows the i3 owner to lease a regular combustion engine BMW for long distance travel.

The 360 ELECTRIC programme also includes the BMW ChargeNow card, which enables universal access to different charging station providers with a single standard invoice from BMW for electricity used. ChargeNow is important in countries like Germany, because apparently there are over 70 different providers of public charging facilities. As for public charging infrastructure in Malaysia, there are quite a few players who are in the midst of setting up shop, but the only one that we are aware of with a few charging points already installed is First Energy Networks, a Tan Chong subsidiary.

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And then of course there is the matter of government policy, especially when it comes to import and excise duties. We still don’t know whether the current import and excise duty exemptions for hybrid cars will be extended beyond the existing cut-off date, which is at the end of this year. It may take a pretty long time before the BMW i3 can be launched here – we might be looking at 2014 or even 2015.

For now, we’re looking forward to trying out the new i3 to tell you how it drives. Since Singapore has a BMW i dealer appointed, perhaps we can sneak a peek across the causeway eh?