i3’s COTY will boost BMW NZ electric car push

Being named New Zealand Car of the Year not only lifts the stature of the BMW i3 electric car but will also be a boost to the potential introduction of a certain sister model.

The wee i3 city car being named New Zealand’s car of the year for 2015 is a morale-boost that will have positive effect on the distributor’s thinking about an eventual ‘i’ car family expansion, the likelihood of which is being strongly signalled by the maker.

BMW New Zealand’s corporate affairs spokesman Edward Finn shied from speaking to emergent reports that BMW Germany is now in the final stages of determining the next addition to an electric car fleet that presently comprises the $83,500 i3 hatch and the i8, a $230,000 sports car.

However, he confirmed the Auckland-domiciled distributor is up to speed with talk that Munich is weighing up the merits of two different vehicle configurations for the next car, which is widely tipped to be badged i5.

One consideration is to present a lengthened version of the strictly four-seater i3 as a mini people carrier. The other is to produce a sedan off the i3 platform to create a competitor for an upcoming Tesla of similar dimension, the Model 3.

Motoring Network asked if BMW NZ had become more enthusiastic about taking the i5, or any other potential ‘i’ product on the basis of the i3 having just been named New Zealand Car of the Year by the New Zealand Motoring Writers’ Guild, a national body of journalists whose award is considered the premier prize because it alone represents a national view.

In response, Finn said: “I don’t think anything has been confirmed in regard to i5 though there certainly has been speculation about it.

“But absolutely we would be more than happy to look at future product offerings, but we’re not in a position yet to confirm if anything might come to New Zealand.

“Are we more confident that the NZ COTY will have a positive rub-off for the i3?

“Absolutely! I guess that any sort of independent, third party endorsement of any of our products is very well received and we would like to think (the award) will have a positive rub-off on interest and correspondingly with sales as well.”

The i3 is understandably far from being a volume seller; the market for electric cars in general is small and even though BMW NZ’s decision to sell their version in the range-extender format – meaning it has a small petrol engine in the back to produce more energy for the electric drivetrain when the battery, which has priority, depletes – has been a positive, the takeup has been modest in the 14 months since introduction.

In all 40 units have found homes, 33 in 2015, and most are in Auckland, whose urban driving environment potentially best suits the car. Also, the ‘i’ brand’s sole dealership is located in the country’s largest city.

Finn would not say if the count was up to the brand’s in-house sales forecast, but said the car was doing well all things considered.

“I guess it was always a bit of a toe-in-the-water experience for us. It was the first time we have sold a vehicle such as this so we did not have any hard-and-fast expectations. Certainly we have been very heartened as to how it has been received.”

One particular positive was that the buyer interest went beyond merely eager early adopters from the private sector. “There is also an interest from sustainably-oriented businesses as well as early adopters of technology, and that is in line with the global experience.”

That most were in Auckland did not necessarily mean it could only be considered as a city car. “Most being in Auckland is just in keeping with BMW sales as a whole; approximately 65-70 percent of our sales could be considered Auckland-based.”

Internationally, the i3 has become the world’s third best-selling electric vehicle, with BMW saying that it might have been better had international oil prices not lower than might have been expected.

The i3’s victory with the NZMWG was an electric car first, though two others – the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and Holden Volt have achieved previous years’ top 10 finalist status.

The New Zealand COTY dates back to 1988 and has been presented in association with the Automobile Association since 2012.

Other candidate vehicles for the honour this year were the Volvo XC90, Audi Q7, Ford Mondeo, Hyundai Tucson, Land Rover Discovery Sport, Subaru Legacy/Outback (this writer’s personal choice), and three Mazdas – the CX-3 crossover, Mazda2 city car and the MX-5.

The top 10 shortlist is determined by an expert panel. Cars launched within the previous 12 months are eligible and the requisite is that any contender has to have been driven by at least half of the organisation’s voting members.

The vote for the top car is decided by the Guild membership; judging criteria covers styling, economy, comfort, interior design, build quality and finish, practicality, value for money and the more ethereal X-factor. There is only one winner, though the AA has separate awards for categories.

Normally Guild members get to test candidate cars on their home turf, generally for a week – the i3 was a bit different in that BMW was reluctant to circulate their press vehicles beyond Auckland; at least until it was known to be a candidate for the prize. Then a test car was sent to Tauranga, for a journalist there to evaluate it.

Otherwise non-Auckland media had to come to that city to experience it; some having the car for no more than a day (the Guild generally expects tests to be of a minimum of four days, but leaves the final determination of how much driving is required to form an expert opinion to the individual member). This writer had the i3 to test for three days, and two nights, during a visit to Auckland in early 2015. I found it excellent for inner-city use, but questioned the car’s ability to survive as an inter-city car, not simply because of the performance limitations but also because of its poor refinement on coarse chip at 100kmh.

The i3 shares virtually nothing with other BMW production models and offers up to 150km range from its lithium-ion battery pack, with a further 150km provided by its on-board petrol generator.

The model is based around a platform constructed from Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic (CFRP) - a  material which will also be used in other more conventional BMW production cars, including the forthcoming 7-series luxury sedan and next-generation versions of the 3-series and 5-series.