When it comes to electric cars and those new to their benefits, range anxiety is a very real thing. I’ve felt it myself behind the wheel of the likes of the Tesla Model S, BMW i3 and the Nissan Leaf – a worry creeps in between your ears as the battery level decreases and you begin to envision yourself sitting by the side of the road out of juice, hunting frantically for the nearest charge point or waiting in a queue when Often, 200km can seem like a daunting prospect, but what about 13,000km?
Having had the good fortune to test drive several quite nice cars during my time as a motoring journalist – including Toyota’s GT86 and the frankly fantastic Audi A8 – I believe it’s fair to say that the BMW i3 is the one vehicle which has received the most attention. That’s not to say, however, that all of this attention has been completely positive. ‘Unique’ is possibly the best way of describing the exterior styling, which hovers in that ambiguous grey zone of subjectivity (as opposed to the Aston Martin DB9, which is simply and undeniably beautiful). From the outside, at least, it’s clearly a BMW – just look at the aggressive front kidney grille which is at home with the rest of the range (actually fully closed on the i3, whose electric motor doesn’t need cooling air), though the iconic propeller badge now features an electric blue rim encircling the blue and white disc. Several onlookers enjoyed its distinct looks. Many thought it was simply ugly. One preferred the styling of the Nissan Leaf, a viewpoint I still find quite puzzling. At worst, the i3’s looks will grow on you and, at best, it’s better than the Leaf.
With its tall stance on the road, you would be forgiven for thinking the i3 doesn’t handle very well at first but this notion is quickly dismissed once you get going, and the i3 handles curves and bends with confidence, helped to a great degree by the car’s low centre of gravity as the batteries are stored in the floor. The i3’s tyres are an interesting feature. Designed especially by Bridgestone they have a larger diameter and a narrower tread yet they still grip well in all conditions, and they’re more aerodynamic to boot, something which Bridgestone refers to as ‘ologic’ technology.
To drive, the i3 is surprisingly different from what I expected. I stepped into the cabin having never driven an electric car before, and perhaps brought several typical petrolhead prejudices on board – namely that electric cars are pointless, too slow (despite the fact that torque is available immediately) and you’d only make it several miles before having to scurry about in a panic, searching for a socket. It took an embarrassingly short time for those preconceptions to disappear (mostly). For starters, the i3 is anything but slow. Gently tap the accelerator and you’ll find yourself launching forward at a somewhat alarming rate before you find the brake. The i3 has a 0-100 time of just 7.9 seconds (for the range extender (REx) version) and it’s quite eerie to be thrust forward that fast accompanied by the sound of silence (and possibly only your startled squeaks). Bear in mind that the accelerator here works more like an on/off switch – once you remove your foot from the pedal, the i3 immediately begins to slow down quite noticeably.
BMW have also included regenerative braking on the i3 and for drivers suffering from the very real affliction that is range anxiety, it’s nice to see the range creep upwards by a few km now and then instead of the opposite. Once you take your foot off the accelerator the electric motor switches from drive mode to power generation and begins feeding electricity to the lithium-ion battery. If you’re worried about a lack of warning for the car behind you, the brake lights will illuminate if the energy recuperation process produces the same braking effect as if you were pressing the brake pedal.
Drivers and onlookers around NYC today were probably wondering if some futuristic car had time-traveled from 2050, and got caught up in traffic on their way to find some trash to fuel their Mr Fusion energy reactor. Actually, and a little disappointingly, this is the VW XL1, one of the latest of a line of more unconventional vehicles from Volkswagen, which made its debut as a prototype way back in 2002 and was confirmed for production ten years later.
This isn’t the first out-there automobile from VW; the German car maker has a reputation for building limited-run, expensive cars, often at a loss, as exercises in engineering to prove a technology’s viability, like the Bugatti Veyron (€1.4 million) and the Golf Design Vision GTI (€4 million). But while the Veyron has an 8.0L 987bhp engine, and there’s 3.0L 500bhp on tap in the superpowered GTI, resulting in some pretty frequent trips to the petrol station, the XL1 is a test of a different kind. That’s because it’s a diesel-electric hybrid with an electric range of 31 miles and overall mpg figures of 261. That’s right. 261.
Got your attention now? That’s like five times better than your average run around. Take that, Prius.
Boffins at the German company have really outdone themselves this time; combining an incredibly efficient hybrid engine, a lightweight carbon fiber structure and the most aerodynamic body of any production car in existence. It has a 48 bhp two cylinder diesel engine combined with a 27 bhp electric motor and a 5.5 kWh battery, but don’t let the small figures fool you; it’s not the fastest car you’ll ever drive, and 0-60 takes around 11 seconds, but you can still cruise comfortably along at 60 miles using only 8 horsepowers. That’s actually amazing. Somebody’s surely getting a bonus.
One of the failings of many electric cars is that they’re just so damn ugly – I’m looking at you, Nissan Leaf. Hang your battery-powered head in shame. The Tesla Model S is one of the first to realise that you can have an electric car that is astoundingly good looking while using to force of electrons to whisk you from A to B. I’ll stop short of calling the XL1 a beautiful machine – sure, the front end is captivating, the best of the new Golf/Passat face glaring at you to get out of its way. But the further down you go, the less sure you are about its design – VW decided against side and rear windows to keep those mpg figures as high as they could. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great either.
Apparently 50 of a 250 run have been built already, with 200 to be sold to the public in 2014. Don’t get your hopes up – the registration process closed in October and in any case, pricing starts at around €111,000. Like the Tesla Model S, Volkswagen presume the first buyers to get their hands on the XL1 will be early adopters; tech heads with plenty of money and concern for the environment. For the rest of us, we’ll just have to make do with watching our fuel gauges visibly dropping as we resolutely hang on to our love of petrol and, logically speaking, distaste of disposable income. It’s a cruel world.