Proceedings kicked off at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Oubaai where we were attended a presentation by BMW SA's Guy Kilfoil and Edward Makwana on their Active Hybrid models. The current line up consists of 3, 5 and 7 series, all of which have the same drive train that is a 3 litre, 6 cylinder petrol combustion engine along with the hybrid electric motor which is situated above the rear axle of the car. The large lithium ion battery sit just behind the back passenger seat ensuring not much space has been taken up in the cabin and still has ample space in the boot. Things that stood out for me was obviously the large petrol engine, given that hybrid electric vehicles are meant to be eco friendly and cut down on carbon emissions as well as saving you cash at the filling station, why would BMW opt to put a 3 litre engine and not a smaller one?
Guy was quick to tell me that BMW has always had a rich history in performance cars, so instead of compromising on performance they decided to see how they could use it with this technology, plus who am I to argue when the cars claimed consumption on eco mode is said to be 6.4L/100km, that's miles better than my current 2.0 petrol car which averages around the 9L/100km mark. Another feature that caught my eye was 'e-boost', in other hybrid vehicles you either driving with the electric engine or the petrol engine, with the e-boost feature on BMW's Active Hybrids, the cars intelligent hybrid system realises when the petrol engine is taking strain therefore it activates the electric engine to help out thus alleviating the strain from the petrol engine. This works like a dream when going up hill as I will explain to you shortly. Other key features are energy regeneration from braking, similar if not the same technology used in F1 where by kinetic energy is generated when braking.
After the presentation we were handed over the keys to our chosen hybrid and given the map to our destination of Oudtshoorn, a lovely 120km route which had a little bit of everything to showcase the cars versatility in any driving environment. I drove the 5 series Active Hybrid on the journey there, having not driven a hybrid car before I wasn't sure what to expect, it felt just like a normal car but when I reached cruising speed of 100kph and the drive train switched from petrol to electric, I watched in awe as the revs completely dropped and silence filled the cabin. The large screen displayed a graphic showing that the car was now using the electric motor, also when I braked it had an animated graphic to indicate kinetic energy was being created. The car itself felt solid and well balanced even though it had another motor in the back along with a very heavy battery pack, it didn't lack power at all as when the road cleared up and I had the opportunity push, it picked up speed with ease.
Coming back to the 'e-boost' I spoke of earlier, there were some hills to climb en route to the destination, climbing up hill I noticed the automatic gearbox didn't down change to accommodate for the car going up hill but rather the electric motor and petrol engine worked in tandem to get the car up the hill at the cruising speed I was doing, no increase in revs and no strain on the combustion engine at all. Once at Oudsthoorn, we freshened up, chatted briefly about our experiences with the car and those who had the 5 series swapped with those who had the 3 series. Now having the same drive train but in different bodies, the 3 series would have more kick than the 5 but I was left completely speechless at how much more better it was to drive, not to say the 5 series was bad but on the whole, the 3 series seemed more fun, more nippy and more agile to maneuver at high speeds. I am honestly considering this as my next car...if I have adequate funds that is.
The day ended of with a presentation from Guy Kilfoil, the GM of Communications at BMW, with the EU's 2020 target of 95 grams fleet average per manufacturer drawing every so closer, would hybrid be enough? Hence the topic of his talk BMW i, its a sub brand of the company which could become the reality of the motor industry in the future as it focuses on producing cars with low or zero emission output with the use of sustainable technology. He took us through the history of BMW's attempts at producing a car which used an alternative power source, the first of which was the 1602e that was produced in 1970 to coincide with the Munich Olympics. The car had a power output of 32kW and a range of 30km, not much I know but it was the start of a long journey that brought us to the i3 Concept Coupe. What is the i3? Well its BMW's attempt at what it envisages the car of tomorrow will be, the shell is made from light weight carbon fibre which will be mass produced to cut cost of the product in a plant that will have a low environmental footprint, in fact every plant that will be manufacturing these cars will be self sustainable and not have a large impact on its surroundings. So not only are the cars good environment but so are the facilities that they're being made in. The base of the car will house the lithium iron batteries and it will be protected by an aluminium frame. The batteries will be the most costly part of the car so its good to have them well protected, from there the team have designed a cabin to give the driver and its occupants enough room for comfort and maneuverability. Seeing that this is a city car, the driver will be seated higher than a normal car to improve visibility as they have to be alert for any on coming dangers.
Being a technologically advanced car, it has to keep up with the latest trends and in doing so BMW have come up with the connected drive feature, where by you can communicate with your car via your mobile phone. It can give you updates on when your car is fully charged, the integrated software allows you to receive locations and will direct you via the GPS, you can search for places of interests near to you and when giving directions, it will chose the shortest route to save energy. In future with the help of cities, one could book parking spots in the city via your phone so one doesn't have the to hassle to find parking.
Day 2 commenced with us being split into 3 different groups, all taking turns to test drive the electric powered cars, whilst the other 2 groups were in different workshops listening to presentations and discussing the pros and cons of the electric vehicle. The cars we were driving were the MINI E and the BMW1 Series ActiveE, both models formed part of the largest consumer trial in the world where by customers in Europe and the USA purchased these cars and used it for their day to day needs, whilst giving feedback. The customers in the USA had a common problem with the range of the vehicle as the distances they had to travel were remarkably more than what their European counterparts had, so they had to recharge the cars more often. Both models we had to drive were flown in from Germany so both were left hand drive cars, there wasn't a problem driving them but it required a bit more concentration having the steering wheel on the other side. The first thing that strikes you is the silence, there is no big noise when starting up, no revs, just start put it in drive and go! Much like a golf cart....but a bigger more fancier golf cart. I drove the 1 series first and was blown away at the torque and power the car had, where it was on a flat road or climbing up a hill there was no sense of sluggishness as it just kept going. One thing that was very evident and impressed me a lot was when you let go of the accelerator, the electric engine immediately begins to regenerate power by slowing down the car and practically braking for you without using the brakes. This will save you tons of cash on brake pads since there will be hardly any wear and tear on them. I managed to take the car to 120kph with ease, on take off the car is no slouch and it achieves speeds with not much difficulty so it would make it perfect for day to day driving. I swapped the BMW for the MINI which was their first prototype so the 1 Series is more refined, there was a clear difference with the MINI seeming more raw. Its acceleration was more quicker and its regeneration braking was more abrupt but with its size and weight, all of this made things more fun for the driver. You were able to build up speed quicker and could brake later going into bends knowing that the car would slow down much faster.
After a spin around the area it was time to hand back the cars and attend my only workshop due to time constraints. I attended the one held by Deena Govender of BMW, he is heading up BMW i in SA and was very frank from the beginning. This is new waters they're treading in and they require input from every possible area to help them understand what the potential buyer of the i3 would want in the car, what problems they could experience and what would make them chose this car over another one. One of the key characteristics with the i3 is its weight, because of its carbon fibre shell, the car weighs 600kg's less than the 1 series ActiveE which would make the car much quicker. The next question was safety, if the i3 was involved in an accident, with 80% of the car being carbon fibre, how safe will the occupants be? Many of us watch F1 and see how drivers walk away from high speed crashes, carbon fibre is known to absorb most, if not all of the impact, yes it will shatter into a million pieces but having absorbed most of the collision, the passengers will remain safe. With a range of 160km, it doesn't give one the option to travel long distance so BMW have thought of a solution. When required, you could take your i3 into the showroom and exchange it for a petrol or hybrid model of your choice to use for the required journey. Obviously one cant do this every weekend and a structured plan will be worked out allowing you so many turns per month and a limit on what model vehicles to chose from.
Overall it seems that BMW have thought of almost everything but one can only know for sure when the car is introduced into the market and we have not long to wait as the global launch of the production model is in mid 2014 and first sales of the car in SA will be towards the end of 2014. There will be two models being sold, the i3 and the i8. The i8 is a performance hybrid car that made its movie debut in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, everything Tom Cruise used in that car will be reality in the production model I'm told. The car is a cruiser and not really designed to be a city car, hence it has the hybrid drive train, BMW are currently conducting hot and cold weather testing with the car and it was spotted in the Western Cape in camouflaged livery. This may be where the future is heading for cars in general but not for BMW, with the increase demand in electricity which caused the drastic rise in price, one cannot rely on electricity to power cars of the future. BMW's ultimate goal lies in Hydrogen, it has zero emissions as cars which run on it produce water vapour. The problem for now is finding a way to store it as it needs to be used in liquid form, seeing the massive strides they've made in E Mobility, I can foresee them doing the same with this venture.