I’d never driven an electric car but have been thinking about converting my Range Rover, which has no engine at the moment, to run on electricity. The costs of the batteries and motors are a bit prohibitive, bearing in mind how little I use a vehicle, so this has gone a bit on the back boiler. However, when planning our holiday to the West Country, it seemed a reasonably sensible thing to try and hire an electric car while we were down there. I try and consider my carbon footprint (see here if you would like a quick calculator for your carbon dioxide contribution. Other calculators are available online) so wasn’t driving all the way down or (perish the thought) flying. Initially the idea was to hire a car in Bristol, but internet searches didn’t reveal any electric car hire there. I eventually found EVision who hire electric cars out of Diggerland Devon, which we decided was better anyhow, being closer to our destinations. I first wanted a Renault Zoe since it was cheaper to hire and had more range, but it was not available on the days we wanted, so I decided to go with the BMW.
I’m not that keen on the styling of the BMW, but then most modern cars leave me pretty cold. The passenger accommodation was spacious and comfortable for two, although the luggage space was a bit disappointing – I have since found out that there is space under the boot floor for a small generator as an optional ‘range extender’. This compromises the package for the pure electric model like this one. We ended up putting our rucksacks on the back seat and strapping them in like additional passengers. The handover was quite brief, but even if it had been twice as long it may not have helped. I had a quick introduction to the controls and a little drive round the empty carpark. Very quiet when moving, since there is no engine noise, it is uncanny to put your foot down and feel the silent acceleration push you back into your seat. The initial range was 146 miles (a full charge) but we only had a short hop to the East Devon Forest Garden (EDFG) so we did not have to bother about charging for a couple of days. The car was equipped with two leads for plugging in to roadside chargers or the mains. Most roadside chargers seemed to include leads, but not all. AC was worried that someone might steal the lead whilst we were gone (she’s lived too long in Birmingham – or I’ve been too long on Skye), but as it turned out the socket was locked by the car when you start charging. Anyone who tried to cut through the cable when powered up would be sorry I suspect. The leads were stored in a shoebox sized compartment under the bonnet along with some tools.
I found the car easy and pleasant to drive. It has far more acceleration than I would use – easily keeping up with other traffic. I gather the car is limited to 94mph. The instrument display was mainly taken up by an economy meter which I found a bit distracting. A pale highlight floats on a blue curved scale. To the right the car is using electricity and to the left it is generating it. The car starts generating as you lift off the accelerator, using the braking effect of the generator to slow the car down. By keeping the indicator in the centre of the scale the range is optimised. This means you become one of those annoying drivers that accelerate down hill and decelerate uphill whilst trying to keep the floating point in the optimum position. BMW have obviously worked hard to make this a light weight vehicle. The body work is carbon fiber composite which is visible in the door shut areas. The dash and other trim is naked to an educated eye, which I quite like, but may seem harsh to some. I loved the really tight turning circle the car had – probably due to the rear wheel drive. I don’t think I’ve experienced a better one since (don’t laugh!) the LDV Pilot vans which were also great. The doors are a little odd with a small suicide door leaving a huge side opening if access to the rear seats is required. Personally I think it might have been better to have tilting seats and a standard three door configuration, but it was quite cute.
I rarely needed to use the actual brakes on the move (which would be wasted energy!). The hand brake is a button down near the centre cubby box. It is automatically released when the accelerator is pressed to pull away. There is no need to change gear during forward motion – just like an automatic gearbox. A gear selector on a hand control selects forward, reverse and neutral by twisting the end. When we stopped at EDFG I couldn’t work out why the car would not turn off properly – it kept saying that the gearbox needed to be put in park. This meant I couldn’t lock the car. We left the car and came back to it later and it seemed to have reset itself, but then the same message came up. Eventually through the handbook and the on board information system I worked out that there was an additional switch on top of the gear selector that selected a Park position. All happy at last, I could lock the car and hence comply with the insurance requirements. This was the only real niggle I had with the car – the teutonic arrogance of the controls! BMW have this annoying rotary knob thing to navigate through the menus on the central computer display and let’s just say it’s not that intuitive. I think if you drove a BMW for a few months you would get used to it, but it certainly takes more than a few days!
Charging the car up was always going to be the most challenging part of the trip. It actually turned out to be even less easy than I had thought. Not the actual charging part – which in the main turned out to be pretty much as simple as plugging in an electric automatic kettle, but the access to information about charge points was even less easy than I had thought. The BMW has a navigation system display which did indicate some (not all) charge points. We didn’t have access to the manual on the computer system, so it may be that more information about the charge points was there, but certainly it was not obvious. I don’t have a smart phone. OK I don’t even have a mobile phone. If I need one I sometimes borrow my husband’s, but on this occasion I decided not to. My friend AC had loaded the zapmap app onto her phone, but it didn’t seem to have the same functionality as the website. We could work out where the charge points were, but couldn’t seem to filter by public access and charging network. Silly though it seems, you can’t just use any charge point to charge up your electric car. No. First it has to have a compatable plug. Then most don’t just take a credit card, some you need to join a club beforehand, some you need a smart phone (that’s me out for a start then!) some are free after you pay for parking, or for customers of the venue (like the slower charge ones at Eden project). So assuming that you have found the charge point (none of the ones we found were signposted except once you’d found them) have mobile and/or internet access to activate them and pay for it, you simply plug the car in and magic happens.
On the BMW a light surrounds the charging flap and bizarrely flashes different colours as it goes through the process. We never did quite work out what the car was up to – it seemed to slow the charge rate down if we opened doors, and only displayed the charge state if it was on (and therefore slower charging?). The other thing to bear in mind about charging is that not all charge points are created equal. We charged up at three different public charge points and also a standard three pin mains outlet. Different charge points have different charging rates and so will ‘fill up’ the battery more or less quickly. For example the rapid charge facility at Eden, which was the fastest we used, put about 10kWh of energy in in one hours charge, although it was nominally a 43 kW charger (I think now we may have plugged in the wrong lead so getting a reduced rate) . In contrast the three pin socket put about 25 miles equivalent in two hours (the BMW didn’t display electricity, only miles) this would equate to 5 kWh so appears to be only a quarter the speed of the most rapid charge available. Also the mains outlet only charged the car upto 131 miles so couldn’t put the full range into the battery (maximum on rapid facility was 146 miles). The speed will depend upon the state of charge of the car battery as well as the power of the charge point, and the charging controls on the car. The costs for charging were all fairly reasonable (except the overstay fee at the Geniepoint rapid charge facility at Eden project which we hope AC will get back) I worked it out to be about 5p a mile.
On the move it was amusing to watch the car’s range change. Interestingly it didn’t just go down. I was expecting the range to be optimistic and overstate the range available but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Although we did not check the full range out (the lowest we got to was about 35 miles or so) often at the start of the journey the range would actually increase a bit. We put this down to the batteries warming up – I have heard that you get reduced mileage in the winter when the weather is colder. However this doesn’t explain why when we went to Heligan from Eden and back again (to use the rapid charger again), which is a round trip of 20 miles, we only used 10 miles of range! On our final return journey which was about 100 miles we started off with about 30 miles to spare and ended up with about 60 miles left. I guess I’m not as heavy footed as the average BMW driver!
In summary we drove about 320 miles on the holiday and would definitely recommend the BMW i3 as a practical small car if you can afford it and know where you can charge it up. I wouldn’t recommend an electric hire unless you are prepared for a bit of additional ‘excitement’. I would give the car about 8 out of 10 – losing points because of it’s odd BMW controls. I would give the UK government about 2 out of 10. If they really want to phase out the internal combustion engine they need to get the charging infrastructure sorted out. We need more charge points, better signage and information about them (why is zapmap apparently the only universal online list of charging points?), information whilst charging and simpler payment methods.
Now about that electric Range Rover……