I took my hands off the steering wheel and my feet off the pedals and let the car roll itself into the park and it was fine. The self-parking feature wasn’t the reason I was trialling the electric BMW i3, but once I knew about it, it was the first thing I wanted to try.
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It’s terrifying letting a machine control something I would normally do. But the BMW i3’s collision avoidance system means the car is covered in sensors that stop you from running into anything. The car will automatically stop if anything gets too close, including if a pedestrian walks behind it.
I drove along a row of parked cars while the i3 scanned for a space it could fit in. When it found one, it told me to stop and then took care of the rest. My only job was pressing and holding the parking button while the car easily slid into the space.
The silence while driving the i3 compounds the surreal experience of, essentially, a self-driving car. This is the future.
The i3 is a four-door electric car (the two rear doors are coach doors that can only be opened when the front doors are open). All models sold in New Zealand come with a “range-extending” petrol motor. This kicks in when the battery gets too low and recharges it; it doesn’t directly power the wheels.
Combined with the range extender, the BMW i3 can go further than 200km on a full charge. In the week I used the i3, including a two-day stretch without charging, the range extender never kicked in.
Having the range extender means on longer journeys you don’t have to find a charging station to keep driving, only the next petrol station. This is useful given New Zealand’s lack of charging infrastructure. There is a supply and demand aspect: the more electric cars we have on the roads; the more charging stations we’ll see popping up. Auckland currently has the largest concentration of public charging stations, including a few quick-charge stations supplied by Vector. You can find an interactive map of charging stations at plugshare.com.
At home, charging required simply plugging the car into a wall socket, just like any appliance. Charging took five hours on average. You can set the charging time, so if your power company offers cheaper overnight rates, you can save money by only charging at night. While the car is locked and charging, the plug cannot be removed. This means you can walk away while you’re at a public charging station without worrying someone might pull the plug.
The central control panel interface was easy to use. The main screen is to the left of the steering wheel, in the centre of the dashboard. Where a regular car’s gear stick would be, there is a flat raised disc. You use this to control the car’s system through various movements (left, right, up, down, twist and push) as well as being a touchpad to write characters on (for example, entering destinations in the GPS).
The car’s built-in SIM card offers connected services, such as GPS and a web browser (which only the passenger can use while the car is moving). You can also connect your phone via Bluetooth.
Phone connectivity was my only gripe with the i3. Once paired, the car can play your phone’s stored music, which is great. However, when I got in the car and my phone connected it would instantly start playing music, and not always what I had been playing last, but just random music from my collection. This was incredibly annoying.
As I drive and encounter more electric cars, not to mention self-driving cars, the more I believe they will fill our roads in the near future.
First Looks are trials of new and interesting products from the perspective of our product experts. Our lab-based tests offer truly objective product comparisons. The BMW i3 was loaned to the writer by BMW New Zealand. This First Look was suggested by Consumer member Peter Hallinan.
By Hadyn Green