The new BMW i3, rear-engined and electric. It hasn’t got a hope, has it?!

In theory, BMW’s new plug-in city car couldn’t be any less appealing. In reality, it could be right on the money.

i3 city car a

2,237 electric cars were registered in the UK in 2012 according to The Sunday Times today. That’s almost exactly just 0.1% of the total passenger car market. But it’s nearly three times the number sold in 2011.

If you were the investment manager of a car corporation, where would you put your money?

According to a recent global survey by auditors KPMG – following disappointing worldwide sales so far, and buyers’ concerns over price, range and charging – only 8% of manufacturers will invest in pure electric cars in the next five years. Audi and Toyota have both canned their plans.

Meanwhile, 24% will focus on plug-in hybrids, cars powered by electric engines charged either from the National Grid as normal, or by small on-board internal combustion engines (ICEs). The rest will concentrate on conventional hybrids and ultra efficient gas, petrol and diesel power.

BMW is making a billion pound bet that the 8% are correct. Its brand new i3 city car – on sale later this year, previewed again at the Detroit Motor Show starting tomorrow – is powered solely by a 168bhp electric motor placed between the rear wheels.

This could be a double whammy for consumers well schooled in the received wisdom that rear-engined cars – like the VW Beetle, numerous Skodas and the Porsche 911 – are dangerous. However, electric motors are half the size of ICEs so drivers are unlikely to feel there’s a lump of iron slung out the back.

interiouer i3 b

Conceived from the beginning as an electric vehicle, built from reclaimed aluminium with carbon-fibre reinforced plastic body panels (batteries tucked away in the floor pan) the i3 weighs a third of a tonne less than a conventional car. With no transmission tunnel or gear lever the i3 makes unhindered use of the space inside the bodyshell. Its inherently torquey electric motor sees 0-60 in under eight seconds while rear wheel drive and futuristic styling means the i3 lands bang on BMW’s precious core brand values.

The company’s research says its 100 mile range is all most people will ever need (the battery will recharge in 6 hours from a household socket, or 80% in half an hour from a high speed connection). The car also comes with a raft of bespoke internet technology and smartphone applications. That includes a fully integrated satnav which can not only direct the driver to the nearest charging point but, at the touch of a button, reserve it too.

Even more cleverly BMW is hedging its bet by offering a two cylinder petrol ‘battery charger’ as an option. This bumps the range to 250 miles (though it’s not clear what it does for the weight distribution!).

The i3 is a compelling package even on its own. Add in BMW’s market making ability and the launch of Tesla’s premium Model S in the summer (with its proven 200+ mile range). It’s clear the image of the electric car is about to receive a major boost.

Even exponential annual growth though would see only 72,000 electric cars sold in 2017, or 3.5% of the market. Current growth however is faster than merely exponential. On top of the threefold overall increase, it should be noted that 36% of UK sales last year were made in the final quarter.

Too much can be read into early figures. Yet-to-be-convinced drivers at least have the luxury of waiting to see what happens. But do car manufacturers? Either way, 2013 will be the year of the electric car. Future fortunes may be made, or lost.

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