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The BMW i3 was conceived to be solely battery-powered but a gasoline engine will be optional.

Traffic doesn't flow so much as rage in mid-tow Manhattan.

A newbie has no choice. Drive like a New Yorker or take the subway.

Prime example, changing lanes, you cannot wait for a gap because there are no gaps. You create one by turning sharply into the other lane – forcing the adjacent driver to brake rather than crash into your fender.

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It's as though your front fender is a football blocker creating a hole for the running back carrying the ball – in this case you and the remainder of a priceless BMW ActiveE, a limited-production electric car based on the BMW 1-series.

Immersion at the wheel of the ActiveE was somewhat of a superfluous item on the agenda of BMW's Born Electric Tour, a public forum held here, Nov. 14-18, where panels of traffic experts and academics discussed the future of the automobile.

But the driving was unforgettable. Downtown Toronto is nothing like Broadway. Your horn is your best friend – relieving personal stress while communicating intent.

Battery power thrusts this BMW into every hole or away from the light. And the ActiveE brakes itself as you ease off the accelerator pedal with the electric motor regenerating power. The brake lights light up although you're not yet touching the brake pedal.

It's is an instrument of Manhattan mobility. Yet this car is yesterday's news for the forward thinkers at BMWi, the division of BMW created in 2008 to address emerging global gridlock.

This ActiveE was made available to Americans in selected cities early this year on lease ($2,250 down, $499 monthly, cars returning to BMW after 24 months). Another 70 ActiveEs are on offer as rentals in San Francisco ($39.95 one-time fee, $12 first 30 minutes, $90 daily maximum) in an inaugural DriveNow program intended to someday expand to major cities including Toronto.

Today's news is the run-up to production of the carbon fibre-bodied/aluminum-framed electric i3 that is to go on sale globally in late 2013 (arriving in Canada in the spring of 2014), and the hybrid i8 sports car in late 2014. Tomorrow's news? "There are a lot of numbers between three and eight," said Henrik Wenders, head of i8 product management and the senior executive attending this conference, indicating a range of plug-ins.

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Unmentioned were the dismal sales of existing electric cars, including the much-heralded Nissan Leaf and the hybrid Chevrolet Volt.

But BMW has recognized that consumer acceptance of all-electric cars is falling short of its own commitment. Although the i3 was conceived and designed to be solely battery-powered, with a range of 130-160 km, it was announced last year that a gasoline engine is to be optionally available as a range-extender.

"I'd strongly recommend electric i3 alone, the car is more fun that way," Wender insisted.

Wender explained how the i3 encompasses everything BMWi has learned from 21 million kilometres of consumers driving vehicles they leased in earlier programs. The Mini E, BMW's initial foray into battery propulsion in 2009, weighed 500 pounds more than a regular Mini and had no back seat. "Even the ActiveE loses trunk space to the battery," Wender continued.

"But the i3's battery is under the car, out of the way, creating a very low centre of gravity. The car is pure go-kart, 7.9 seconds from a standstill to 100 km/h, with perfect weight-distribution."

The optional gasoline engine is certain to adversely affect performance and handling with its added weight over the rear axle. Thus Wender's point that the i3 is more fun as a pure electric vehicle.

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France, Norway and the United Kingdom, where ecological awareness and taxation on gasoline favor electrical operation, are anticipated as strong markets when the car goes on sale. As for North America, the Born Electric Tour coming to New York was all about converting the masses.

People jamming cities everywhere requires change, panelists stayed on message during Future Cities and How Mobility Changes Us discussions.

In 2010 for the first time more persons lived in urban rather than rural areas, and global growth through 2050 will be in cities, said Mitchell Moss of the New York University center for transportation policy, whose study, Urban Mobility in the 21st Century, was released. "There is huge growth in single families and this, along with an aging population, a need for increased mobility."

Kate Ascher, Columbia University professor of urban development, noted the global emergence of tall residential buildings increase urban density. Ron Thaniel, director of the U.S. National Association of City Transportation Officials, said a rethinking of city streets with more lanes dedicated to bicycles "is the most exciting possibility."

The BMW executives recognize the unthinkable: car sales could stop growing or even fall. "We have found that especially young people have learned that life without a car is still a life," said Joachim Hauser, director, BMW Mobility Services.

By adapting new technology, BMW intends to make driving more attractive. Interactivity is key. "The car may say to its driver on the way into Munich, 'Stop, take the train,' because of information it has received regarding conditions within the city," Hauser continued.

Future traffic streaming could leave the driver in the driver's seat yet not driving. Sensors and radar could take over. "You may have the option to drive or not. Sit back, relax, do other things – that is really good."

BMWi exists to assure BMW is in the vanguard rather than left behind. And batteries – whether in cars or in smart phones – power its efforts to extend the relevance of the automobile.

The DriveNow app guides travellers to rental cars. BMWi Ventures has invested in ParkatmyHouse, the U.K.-founded website that directs drivers to driveways when regular parking lots are overfilling. The BMWi Mobility Services iPhone app, combines more than 50 local mobility apps in MyCityWayNow, available in Toronto among 40 cities worldwide.

In the end, though, the BMWi forward-thinkers assert that the sporty character of BMW automobiles must continue to resonate if the company is to continue prospering. "The Ultimate Driving Machine," the ad-line introduced in 1975, needs to remain credibile even as we drive less.


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