Words: Sirish Chandran
I tell you what the problem is with electric cars – they’re not cool enough. It doesn’t advertise your greenness, how forward thinking and worldly aware you are. No matter how many green or blue streaks you paint on an e-Verito or e-Tigor, nobody will give it a second glance and the e2o evokes curiosity not respect. More than our ministers bulldozing it down our throats, what electric cars need is sex appeal, something that the BMW i3s has in spades.
Say hello to what will be one of the highlights of the upcoming Auto Expo, going on sale later in the year though at a ludicrous Rs 25 lakh price tag, maybe even Rs 30 lakh. Now the i3 is nearly three years old but it still looks properly futuristic, something that would be totally at home on a Star Wars set. That’s important. You want your neighbours to know that you’ve got one foot in the future. The ‘s’ in i3s is new and ‘s’ has always stood for sporty, not slow. Appropriately, the exterior gets sporty elements like bigger nostrils in the bumper though they’re blanked out as there’s no internal combustion engine to feed fresh air into and wheel arch extensions to accommodate the wider track. The wheels have been upsized to 20 inches and like all the new kit this too is painted a gloss black adding menace to the i3s. Concern for the environment doesn’t mean you’ve got to look like a pushover. Neither does it mean a dreadfully boring drive.
The 33.2kWh battery is retained but in the ‘s’ the i3 puts out an additional 12bhp and 20Nm, figures now peaking at 180bhp and 270Nm. It drops the 0-100kmph time to 6.9 seconds and scooting off from a standstill it feels really, really potent. You’re looking at a traffic light grand prix champion here! And the sensation of speed is heightened by the relatively high seating position and also the immediacy and linearity of the torque. As you know, electric motors deliver max torque from the word go, there’s only a single-speed automatic transmission so you’re always in the right gear, and every prod of the accelerator is met with unbridled enthusiasm. BMW also claim 30 per cent more torque has been added at higher speeds and the i3s does feel punchy above 100kmph though the ferocity of the acceleration definitely dies down once you cross three-digit speeds. The range has gone down slightly but BMW still claim a real-world range of 200km on a single charge, though sustained high-speed driving will kill this figure. And it does have a range extender variant – which has to be the version that will be launched in India, we don’t have the charging infrastructure yet for a full electric – that adds a 650cc two-cylinder motor that sips petrol while charging the batteries.
What is it like to drive? In a word entertaining. Once you get over the noiselessness of the i3s and the sci-fi whine when you motor along briskly, you realise that the i3s does handle rather well. Wider tyres do help as does the low centre of gravity thanks to the batteries mounted down in the floor. It is quite stiff, especially over cobble stones, but not disagreeably so and nipping around the tight streets of Lisbon that are forever climbing or dropping rather steeply (walking kills you!), the i3s felt superb. It grips well and the immediacy of the responses makes it… fun. Fun in an electric car – there, I said it!
After being routed through the backest of back alleys in Lisbon we finally found ourselves at the Estoril race track where, in the parking lot, was laid out a gymkhana sort of track for us to test the i3s’ handling. Here we discovered a Sport mode to the traction control buried in the menus (like a loud and proud DSC button on all, traditional, BMWs) that actually allows for some slip at the rear. Did I not mention the i3 is rear-wheel drive? Well, it is rear-driven and when hot-footed it does feel rear-driven. Of course it is not wildly oversteer-y, not even mildly oversteer-y, but you can feel the push and squiggle at the rear wheels, which is grin inducing. At the limit though it understeers and the limits do arrive relatively early when compared to a modern day hot hatch. And then three of us piled into an i3s as DTM ace Bruno Spengler took us on a hot lap of the gymkhana track to show us just how far the i3s can be pushed – and I can tell you it’s a fair bit.
The side benefit of the hot lap is that I can tell you the i3s, for a car well under four metres in length, isn’t cramped. There’s no fixed B-pillars and so despite the rear doors being rather short they open suicide style, giving you great access to the rear quarters. And the cabin itself is very quirky and interestingly styled with lots of different material including recycled plastics, a scooped out dash that opens up a lot of cubby spaces, a dipping rear door line that makes even the rear quarters quite airy and a general sense of being in something that isn’t ordinary.
That’s the biggest triumph of the BMW i family. It doesn’t feel ordinary. And it can make a case for itself today, and not wait for IC-engined cars to be banned forcing adoption of electric cars. After a day spent driving the i3s the next day we thundered around Estoril and the roads around the track in the 592bhp M5, a petrol-gulping, grin-inducing dinosaur, and then for the drive back to the airport on the motorway we were handed back our i3s. And guess what, the i3s didn’t feel inferior. You of course have to learn how to drive the i3s, stuff like the regenerative braking that slows the car down when you lift off the accelerator (got to forget the term gas pedal) negating the use of the brake pedal (middle pedal, another term soon to be consigned to history books) except to come to a complete stop. But in all other respects this feels like a regular car. It feels safe and planted. We drove it on the motorway and got up to speeds that would have had the speed cameras flash us. Trucks didn’t buffet us from one lane to the other. It didn’t feel hairy or scary. It felt like a normal car, yet we got rubber-necked everywhere we went. Nobody will accuse an i3s of not being cool enough.