2014 BMW i3: Commuting to a Three-Day Race Weekend
February 2, 2015
Last weekend I volunteered to work as a starter at a three-day SCCA club racing weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. The track is 46 miles from my front door, which made me glad our 2014 BMW i3 hatchback had the optional range extender.
I would not have bothered with the BMW if it had been the regular i3 or most any other all-electric car this side of a Tesla Model S. The 92-mile all-freeway round trip would have been out of reach for most, especially since my prospects for charging at the track were uncertain. Even if I could find a socket it would be no better than a 120V level 1 setup, the kind that adds around three miles of driving distance per hour of plug-in time.
But the range extender meant I didn't have to factor in any of that or do any impromptu EV math. There was no question I'd drive our i3 to the races. There was no doubt I'd make it home regardless of the availability of places to plug in. Our 2014 BMW i3 REX simply does not have that sort of leash.
After departing home with a full battery, Day One saw me arrive at the track with 18 miles remaining. I didn't find any handy 120V outlets when I first arrived, though. There were plenty of motorhome hookups in the paddock, but racers were still coming in and I didn't want to risk blocking up someone's pre-assigned pit.
So I simply didn't bother. Recharging would have been nice, but it wasn't a necessity. My fate was not tied to the plug.
At lunch I learned that the paddock was as full as it was likely to get. Some spots near the end were likely to remain unused. So I picked a lonely looking one and plugged in for the afternoon, eventually leaving the track after the conclusion of the first day's activities with 37 miles showing on the electric range meter.
That didn't seem to be enough to make it home on battery power alone, but I nevertheless pulled in to my driveway with 9 miles left over. How could this be? Traffic bordered on terrible, which kept my speed down to 35 mph or so. And the route home is more downhill than up. The range meter was hanging on to its miles longer than usual because of the topography and my pace.
I left the house on the second morning with the battery at 69% full because, well, I don't own a 240V Level 2 charge station. But this wasn't quite enough to get me back to the racetrack. This time consumption was high because of an utter lack of freeway traffic, the fact that I was running late and the slight uphill trend of my route.
This time the range meter shed miles quicker than expected — because of the topography and my pace. The generator kicked in about 6 miles before I arrived, an event that was celebrated on the navigation screen's eDrive sidebar with the addition of a fiery orange glow to the cutaway illustration of a BMW i3.
I plugged the i3 in for a full day's charge after first shooing away a black widow that had occupied my power port. But this charging session had started with zero miles in the battery, so at day's end the range meter displayed the same 37 miles I'd earned during yesterday's half-day charge session.
Traffic flowed a bit more freely on the return trip this time, but the slight downhill trend still worked in my favor. I arrived home in EV mode with just 5 miles to spare this time.
Another 12-hour at-home overnight charge brought the battery back up to 68% full, nearly the same as the previous morning. Once again I arrived at the track with a drained battery and the range-extender humming, but this time it lit up 7 miles before I wheeled into the paddock.
I plugged in once again at my favorite trackside power port, but about three hours later I encountered the EV driver's worst nightmare. The BMW iRemote app on my smartphone flashed an alert while I was busy working the flagstand hanging over the Speedway's start-finish line. Charging had ceased with only 15 miles in the battery due to an unspecified "Charging Error."
This would have been a disaster in a regular i3, but I just shrugged and went about my business thinking, "I guess I'll be on gasoline most of the way home." That was pretty much the case. The last 38 miles of my drive home after the final checkered flag were made with the range extender doing its thing.
What had gone wrong? I'm still not entirely sure, but it was upstream of the motorhome power drop I had plugged into. I surveyed the scene during my lunch break and found that all of the paddock power outlets were dead. Well, maybe not all, but all three of the randomly selected ones I sampled. Whatever the reason, it didn't concern me much.
All I knew for certain was the car displayed no warning lights and everything worked as expected when I got home and plugged the i3 in for the night.
Over the course of the weekend the range extender more than proved its worth. Exactly 50.2 of the 283 miles I drove over three days came courtesy of this onboard generator system, which consumed 1.332 gallons of fuel at 37.7 mpg during the periods it was pressed into service.
A regular i3 couldn't have handled this mission past the limit of its daily range unless two conditions were met: 1) I had a 240V Level 2 charger at home to ensure my battery started each morning absolutely 100% full and; 2) I was 100% certain there'd be reliable top-off charging facilities at my destination.
Meanwhile, our i3 REX was able to comfortably tackle this driving scenario with neither of these.
Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 1,519 miles