Is the carbon-fiber BMW i3 the car of the future?

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Is the carbon-fiber BMW i3 the car of the future?
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Is the carbon-fiber BMW i3 the car of the future?

Expect to hear a lot about the BMW i3 in the coming months. A four-seater about the size of a Nissan Juke, BMW's first electric car for sale will combine several cutting-edge technologies, potentially making it one of the most advanced vehicles on the road.
BMW calls the i3 an all-electric car, but it is more than that. It has several tricks up its sleeves.

For starters, the i3 will be the first production car for the masses to use a carbon-fiber body to save weight. Electric car engineers say this is key since it allows the car to travel farther on a smaller, lighter, and cheaper battery. At just 2,630 pounds, the i3 weighs less than many subcompact cars. (The car is about 151-inches long, 79-inches wide, and five-feet tall, with a 101-inch wheelbase.) BMW claims a range of 80-100 miles, similar to other electric cars, from the i3's 22-kWh lithium-ion battery.

However, that's not the end of the story. BMW will also offer an optional gasoline engine as a "range extender"--a 34-hp, 650-cc motorcycle-type two-cylinder engine. This engine will generate electricity for another 60 miles of travel before its 2.4-gallon tank needs a refilling. Sounds familiar? It's the same idea behind the Chevrolet Volt.

This fulfills another promise of plug-in hybrids: dramatically downsizing the gas tank and engine to offset the size, weight, and cost of the battery. (Other plug-in hybrids today use four-cylinder engines ranging from 1.0 to 2.0 liters.) As a plug-in hybrid, the i3 may have twice the electric range of the Volt.

BMW will sell the i3 along with a suite of services called 360 Electric, including a home charger, free access to a network of public chargers, and car sharing through the DriveNow network, providing access to other BMW models for longer-trips. (That is a good concept, because, really, who wants to refill a tiny gas tank every hour?)

In earlier trials with the Mini-E and the BMW Active-E, the company found that in 12.5 million miles of driving, 1,000 EV drivers averaged about 30 miles a day. With its big battery, range-extending engine, and available assortment of replacement loaners, the i3 should be more than capable of meeting these needs. And when it debuts next year, the company also promises that the i3 will drive like a BMW to boot.

—Eric Evarts

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