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James May on: his new BMW i3
I am very, very excited about my new electric BMW i3. In the interests of accurate journalism, I ought to point out that it’s still not here, despite what I said a month or two back, but that’s probably because it’s being recharged somewhere on the way from Germany. Badoom tsch!
But I’m still very excited. Why, though? Why would I be so sleepless over a car that’s going to traumatise me with this new syndrome of ‘range anxiety’, a very polite name for ‘battery tyranny’? Why, when I’ve recently driven La Ferrari LaFerrari – a car that harnesses the wonder of electricity in a very intelligent and sustainable way – am I worked up about humming around in an overpriced battery-powered aircon unit? It troubles me.
I’m taking a lot of stick about this car. A number of people have pointed out that buying an electric car but continuing to work on Top Gear is somehow not very ecological. But who said it was? I’m not interested in the ecology, I’m buying it because I’m a car enthusiast, and I’m really not going to sleep better in the knowledge that Nick Clegg is pleased with me. Quite the opposite, to be honest. Doesn’t explain why I’m jumpin’ about it, though.
Someone on Twitter was also having a pop at my credentials as a car fan. How could I deny the passion of driving, they asked?
Well, look. There’s more than one way to be excited by cars. I love daft supercars, but I also like a Rolls-Royce Ghost for its serenity and sense of detachment. A whisper-quiet electric car may expose a new facet to this thing that used to be called ‘motoring pleasure’. We’ll have to see.
I’ve said it before, but the electric car thing is a bit of a public experiment, and I’m keen to take part in it. But, having said that, I never got very excited about taking part in experiments in the chemistry lab at school, except the one where I heated up Clive Kingston’s metal ruler in a bunsen burner and then left it on his desk. So that still doesn’t explain it.
What intrigues me is that the electric car has been around almost as long as the car itself. Even within my own lifetime, it’s been kicking around on the back burner (an analogy that needs work, because obviously it would be on an electric ceramic hob) in the form of milk floats and meals-on-wheels delivery vans. But I never considered anything like that for a moment.
But all of a sudden, an electric car is a bit cool. Why? I suppose because the environmental pretence makes it quite fashionable. Driving an electric car is being the change you want to see in the world, or whatever hipsters say, and sneaking around town in complete silence, mowing down unsuspecting pedestrians, places you in that sector of society that embraces change instead of resisting it. It’s the fuzzy edge, the avant garde. And that’s me. You should see some of the shapes I throw out on the floor.
But there’s something else. For decades, an electric car was simply that – a car powered by a useless battery and an electric motor, but in every other respect just like a car. The only other thing anyone ever recharged was a toothbrush.
Now, though, we recharge everything, even vacuum cleaners, so it seems perfectly humdrum. Not only that, the act of plugging in your car has become part of the culture of being connected. It’s not just about electricity, it’s about intelligent devices.
To put it another way, an electric car used to be like Richard Hammond. You fed him some baked beans, and he carried on being another irritating Brummie bloke. Now it’s more like Professor Brian Cox. You ply him with exotic French wines, and he explains stuff about quantum physics.
This, I’ve now realised, is what it’s all about. I’m sad enough to sleep with the i3 order form next to my bed, and looking at it last night, I noticed that I’d held back on posh trim and phat alloys, and spent all my money on things like satnav, jam assist, driving assistant plus, internet capability, online entertainment, smartphone compatibility, DAB, and so on and so on. I can play computer Battleships in a traffic jam and watch YouTube clips from Battle of Britain in the privacy of my own car.
That’s why it seems to be, suddenly, a thing of wonder. It’s not really a car at all. It’s a giant iPad. Being a car is just one of its apps.