Wasantha Wijegoonawardena had set his sights on a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV as his next choice of wheels. But, all that changed one day when he happened to cast his eye upon a BMW i3. Intrigued by this striking car and learning that it was electrically propelled, with a range-extending petrol engine, he did further research and went to consult the folks at Prestige Automobile. It was there that he met the Mineral Gray Metallic car that would subsequently become his own.
The BMW i3 was launched in 2014 under BMW’s new “i” brand of vehicles along with the sporty i8. Available as a solely electric vehicle or with a range-extending petrol engine, the i3 sports a lengthy list of unique, eco-friendly attributes. Right from the start, the carbon-fibre “Life Module” is produced at a factory utilizing hydropower only. The i3 is finally assembled at BMW’s Leipzig factory which is run purely on wind power (and produces surplus power, too!). BMW proudly boast that 95% of the i3 is recyclable. Inside, the eco and sustainability theme continues with an interior sporting surfaces made from Kenaf which is a type of grass, seats with natural wool blend, leather tanned with olive leaves, and that beautifully curved Eucalyptus wood dashboard top.
Motor previously tested the first i3 that came in to the country, and later this same model with the Range Extender.
“I did a round trip between Mathugama and Kataragama and it only cost me Rs. 1,500 in petrol!” enthusiastically gushed Wasantha. “This car is very comfortable to drive and has it all. Harman Kardon sound system, 8 airbags, collision warning system and a very advanced computer that I am still learning”. Wasantha also appreciates the acceleration of the vehicle; the range extender is stated to do the 0-100km/h sprint in a mere 7.9 seconds, and the collision warning system which gives a graphical display of any obstacles near the vehicle’s four corners.
Open the doors of the i3 and step in, and you are struck by how homely it feels. BMW did indeed model this car on a “loft” concept. Although it may look like it has 2 doors, it is in fact a 4-door whereas the rear coach doors can be opened only once the front doors are open, a-la Mazda RX8 style. You sit high up with your head fairly close to the headliner but the dash spreads away from you and you do not feel claustrophobic. The front is a fairly comfortable place to be, but the air-conditioning does not always spread to the rear: we have to call up more cooling after a few kilometres as photographer Chamila is quietly roasting there!
The first time Wasantha floors it I am momentarily pinned back in my seat. Ah yes, that instant torque that electric motors are famous for. Once we are on the highway I am struck by how quiet and smooth the ride is; on the return journey, in the passenger seat I actually dozed off. From the front seat, you do not hear any hint of an engine, nor is there any indication that there is even one, save for a petrol gauge and second range readout for the petrol engine. The petrol engine is not connected at all to the wheels; it is an electrical generator only.
I climb into the rear seat for a short journey. Yes, it is a tad warmer here and you do hear a faint rumble from the petrol engine when sitting on the left-hand side. I am told that this 647-cc twin is derived from BMW’s motorcycle engines, and closing my eyes it does indeed sound faintly like there is a BMW motorcycle in the distance behind us. This engine is stated to produce up to 38bhp at 5,000 rpm. Coincidentally, this is the same output as a Tata Nano engine! Of course, the purposes and aims are different here.
Having sampled the car as a passenger, I eagerly take the wheel. Getting comfortable is quite easy and I am on my way soon enough. My first impressions are the small steering wheel lends an air of sportiness, and the very friendly accelerator pedal. You could say it has multiple personalities. Feather it at the first 30% of travel and you can make jerk-free low speed progress. Venture into what I felt was the next 40% and you will get decent pickup for snappy overtaking and highway manoeuvres. Or flatten it fully, and its warp speed! That rush is very addictive (albeit energy consuming), and you will find yourself doing it just for the sheer glee! As Gishanka discovered on the Singapore drive, you can drive the i3 “one pedal style”. Lift off the accelerator and the regenerative braking is strong enough to bring you to a halt; on my drive along rural roads I rarely touched the brake pedal even when we entered a town. It was strange at first but took me all of sixty seconds to get used to. Wasantha has mastered the art to such a degree that even in Colombo he rarely touches the brake pedal. In terms of handling, those 155-section front wheels and 175-section rear wheels may look pram-like on their stylish 19-inch rims, but the i3 clings gamely on for longer than you would expect through the corners. I am told by the people at Prestige Automobile that the car’s low centre of gravity caused by the battery pack spread out below the cabin floor enables enhanced stability.
Wasantha has high regard and praise for the team at Prestige Automobile. He excitedly repeats that Hashen Peiris and Teranka Carim made him feel truly special as a customer, not just at the initial purchasing stage, but also the after-sales service and support to this day, and he always feels his vehicle is in safe hands with Daham Liyanagedara and the service team at Prestige. He relates how Prestige speedily attended to the i3’s dedicated charger unit installed at his Mathugama home when it required attention. Prestige Automobile inform me that a few features such as the i3’s navigation map and dedicated in-car SOS button aren’t activated for Sri Lanka yet, but they have these planned.
Before we part ways, Wasantha shows me his collection of i3 memorabilia that he purchased along with the car. These include a water bottle and two porcelain mugs that fit into the car’s cup-holders seamlessly, an i3 key tag, branded flash drive, i3 model car, and a notebook made from the same sustainable materials the car sports. Prestige Automobile have more i3 memorabilia available.
So, here we have it. An owner’s story of a car that is a rare sight on our roads among the plethora of hybrids that are the staple today. During the i3 review, school children looked and pointed. Trishaw drivers were confused as to what this (silent) car was. And for motorbikes, well we had to use the horn otherwise they would get startled as it drew up next to them. Yes, the car turned many heads!