In this new series, our clandestine correspondent - The Secret Sparkhead - will give you an in depth look at what it's like to own and drive an electric vehile (EV) in Jersey. As someone known locally as a 'petrolhead' with a taste for fast cars, we have agreed to maintain their anonymity!
How best to describe someone who has a lifelong obsession with cars and all things internal combustion? Petrolhead? Pistonhead? Car nut? Whatever you choose, I expect it’s been used at some point to describe me.
Since I passed my driving test in 1985 I’ve had 30 cars of many different kinds. It’s been a journey of exploration and discovery. Conventional thinking associates people like with me with fast, powerful, impractical and probably noisy cars, and I’ve had more than my fair share of those. But for as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with efficiency in car engineering.
Whilst my car history does include a few examples of designs that achieve performance through brute force, there are at least as many that are notable for ground-breaking use of lightweight materials and super-efficient engines. And almost every single choice I’ve made in those 30 purchases has been driven by a fascination with the driving experience itself.
So perhaps it’s not that surprising that someone like me is interested in a lightweight, rear wheel drive, high tech car made largely of aluminium and carbon fibre, from a manufacturer noted for its focus on driving pleasure.
But this one’s electric.
If this was a meeting of Petrolheads Anonymous, I might be saying "My name is Sparky, and I just bought an electric car.”
As it turns out, many of my petrolhead friends have also been secretly fascinated by the BMW i3 since they read the first road tests in early 2014.
Yes, it looks odd. And it is odd, by almost every measure of “normal” in the city car market. To my eyes, its visual quirks simply communicate its intent, which is to defy convention in many very meaningful ways.
I bought mine second hand, from an old friend who had looked after it very well. As a new purchase, the i3 can’t be described as cheap. I’d long harboured a secret desire for one, but not at any price. When one popped up at the right price on JTInsight I was straight on it, and the fact that I knew the seller was a big benefit.
I’d never driven or been driven in a pure electric car of any type before, so my expectations of the experience were based on the road tests I’d read, and those fleeting moments of silent running in a cabby’s Prius. The test drive was a real learning experience.
I drove the car from Trinity to my home out west through the lanes, and almost immediately found myself amongst a crowd of people taking part in a long distance charity walk. Creeping along behind groups of them in a single car-width lane, I learned one of the most important lessons: pedestrians can’t hear slow-moving electric cars. More on that in a later post…
On the upside, I also discovered several big electric dividends on that first drive.
Firstly, this thing shifts. Its official figure for the benchmark 0-60mph sprint is 7.2 seconds. Some years ago I bought one of the first Lotus Elises delivered to Jersey and I remember being wowed by the feeling of its 0-60 of 6.6 seconds. Only half a second separates this city car and that iconic sporting roadster. The two share light weight as a virtue, and the i3 adds the central characteristic of the electric motor - it doesn’t need to spool up to deliver its instant thrust. The BMW i3 will not disappoint anyone but the outright reckless driver with its acceleration on Jersey roads. From a standing start it can outrun pretty much anything.
Now obviously there’s not going to be much mechanical noise in an electric car, but what noise the i3 does make is very pleasant. My 12-year old son likens it to a fighter jet. It’s a sort of muted turbine whistle that sounds both potent and cultured, and should entertain anyone. At 30-40mph it’s not much quieter than a very quiet petrol car, which illustrates how much of any car’s noise comes from tyre roar and the air passing over the exterior surfaces.
It does come as a shock for anyone used to a conventional powertrain when absolute silence prevails as you stop for a junction. On the warm summer day of my test drive, with the windows down, that silence was filled at country T junctions with the sounds of the birds. It’s reminiscent of cycling in that respect. And it allows you to make full use of an often-overlooked piece of road safety equipment - your ears. Exiting Jersey’s many blind junctions is safer if you ”hear” your way out, in addition to looking as far as you can past the overgrown hedgerows.
There’s one completely unexpected aspect of driving electric that makes a big impression on your first drive: it’s almost a one-pedal experience. When you’re on the move and not accelerating, the i3 is converting the resulting kinetic energy back into electricity to recharge its batteries by using the motor as a generator. This creates a drag effect that is as powerful as lightly touching the brakes - powerful enough that the car’s brake lights will illuminate if you lift off the accelerator sharply enough. You quickly learn to modulate your use of the accelerator as you approach a junction or the back of a traffic queue so that you roll to a stop without ever touching the brakes. It makes for a supremely easy and relaxing driving experience, especially when allied to the low noise and smooth, stepless acceleration of the motor.
The outcome of the test drive? I bought the car.
In my next post, I’ll go into a bit more detail about options for charging your electric car.