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Most of us with a driver’s license can remember the days when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Not literally, but through the hydrocarbons – oil, diesel, gasoline – they left behind. To be sure, the vast majority of cars sold today still run on the gold stuff, but not so long ago the idea of walking on the lot and driving off with a car that didn’t burn pterodactyl juice was pure science fiction.

Today, Nissan has the all-electric Leaf. For twenty-five big ones and some federal incentives, you can whir home in the little hatch, making it the most affordable and available electric ever built. Other automakers see the writing on the wall, and most major automakers have announced plans to bring their own EVs to the market.
Many lament this emission-free future. They see in it the death of the gas-swilling, smoke-pouring age of raw internal combustion power. Their greatest fear is giving up the visceral performance of their flambé engines for the quiet purr of an eco-friendly electric. “You can pry this gearshift from my cold, dead hands!” they cry.
And yes, it’s true these new-fangled EVs have little use for gearshifts, rumbling exhausts, or earsplitting snarls – but the rise of electrics hardly means the end of the sports car. To wit: auto-enthusiasts everywhere should take note that BMW is entering the eco-car fray with two impressive concepts, the i8 and the i3.
Beautful look of the i8BMW calls the swoopy design language for these cars - say it with me now - “Vision EfficientDynamics Concept.” Like all concept cars, there is plenty of for-show fluff that won’t see a driveway any time soon - things like pressed plant-fiber interior surfaces,“floating” taillights embedded in the rear glass, and the swaths of blue paint that flow over, sideways, and under the curvy sheetmetal. That said the i8 is undeniably gorgeous, with enough soft, flowing surfaces to make Georgia O’Keefe blush.
While the curves catch your eyes, it’s the stuff underneath most likely to make it to your garage. The i8, with its menacing, heavy-browed headlights and its dual-kidney grill is unmistakable as a BMW, and its electric-hybrid drivetrain is no black sheep either. A 3-cylinder gas engine pumps out 220 horses. Not too shabby… for a Camry. The real fun begins when BMW mixes in its 170 horsepower electric motor for a combined total of 349 head-snapping ponies (don’t worry about the math, it’s an engineering thing).
The result of this concoction? BMW claims the i8 will hit 60 in less than five seconds, yet handily best the Prius in the miles per gallon game. Of course, few drivers will wax nostalgic about “the roar of the 3-cylinder,” but the electric side of the equation brings its own perks. In both the i8 and i3, BMW fully availed itself of the flexibility offered by electric drivetrains. With just the teeny 3-cylinder tucked in the back, the designers were free to stash batteries wherever they pleased, helping them attain the magical 50/50 front/back weight distribution shared by the world’s greatest performance cars. The electric system also ups the car’s flexibility - the front-mounted electric motor and rear-mounted gas engine can be turned on and off depending on the driver’s need for front, rear, or all-wheel drive configurations.
If I say “electric BMW,” the low-slung slopes of the i8 probably wouldn’t spring to mind. The automotive layman would probably envision the stubby jelly-bean profile of many eco-conscious cars, but with a BMW badge and grill smacked on the front fascia. In short, they’d be imagining something closer the i3 concept car.
Unlike the i8, the i3 is pitched as an all-electric car for city dwellers. Space is at a premium in the bustling city confines of BMW’s well-heeled customers, so the i3 is a significant downgrade in size. The designers did their best to graft BMW style onto the i3's efficiency-first shape. It’s worth noting the dual-kidney grill is nothing more than a giant hood-ornament on the i3 – no air flows through it and there’s no engine behind for it to cool off. Like its big brother the i8, the hood slopes down to form a glowering brow above the headlights, but it’s not very convincing on this cutie-pie, pint-sized Bimmer. The result of the styling is mixed, but worlds better than any EV outside the stunning designs of all-electric upstart Tesla Motors.
Bird's eye view of the BMW's new electric car, the i8A similar description applies to its performance. With its 170 horsepower electric motor, it skedaddles to 60 in less than 8 seconds, according to BMW. It’s a far cry from a genuine sports car, but will best most other eco-conscious rides in a drag race. (Again, Tesla’s offerings excepted.) In typical BMW fashion, it will beat them around the track, too. Like the i8, the weighty batteries are stored low, giving the car a low center of gravity and splitting the weight 50/50.
As a pure EV, its range is just shy of 100 miles. BMW hopes to fight range anxiety with its infotainment system. In place of the usual, friendly dash-mounted GPS unit is a futuristic display of light orange and cool blues that will guide you, via a 3D isometric display of your surroundings, to the nearest charging station.
Other notable touches for the i3 include wide bench seats for both front and rear occupants, a perk courtesy of the all-electric propulsion – gas powered vehicles often have to bisect the front seat to wedge in that complex, multi-speed transmission we all know and love. Rear passengers can easily scoot from one side of the car to the other to avail themselves of the rearward-hinged suicide doors (although BMW labels them with the much classier “Coach Doors.”)
For those that absolutely, positively need the smell of burning thunder-lizard on your daily commute, there’s the Rex, or rather REx. BMW says it will offer the i3 with this small, Range Extending gas motor as an option for the range-anxious. (May I suggest the electric-age portmanteau ranxious?) The Minimus REx does not actually deliver power to the wheels, but in the fashion of its distant relative, Chevy’s Expensivus Volt, the motor powers a generator that recharges the battery when an outlet is too far away.
Despite their concept-car glitz, the i3 and i8 show BMW is serious about entering the electric car market. BMW will likely launch the i8 in 2012 as the halo car for the new “i” sub-brand (lowercase despite the best efforts of autocorrecting software everywhere) of electric and hybrid BMWs. / Issue 126 - September 6911
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