- Words by Mr Henry Alexander
The lingering fug of dinner party sanctimoniousness still clings to the Toyota Prius, a breakthrough effort, undoubtedly, but not a car you'd ever really want to be seen in.
Until very recently, driving a truly eco-friendly car meant committing an automotive style crime. You could have a good-looking car. Or you could have Larry David's car. What you couldn't have was something that was both. Factor in "range anxiety" - electric cars can traditionally squeeze only a limited mileage out of fully charged batteries - and even tech-savvy early adopters were reluctant to sign up.
That's fast changing, thanks to an unusual confluence of factors. Just as Apple's iTunes forced the lumbering record industry to wake up, so it took an unknown technology outsider to challenge the car industry. Tesla first appeared in 2006, and won some converts - particularly among the Gulfstream brigade - with its all-electric Roadster. Sharing some parts with the Lotus Elise, it was hampered by heavy batteries and range issues. It might even have become another noble footnote had it not been for the tenacity and vision of Tesla's co-founder and CEO, Elon Musk. The billionaire co-founder of PayPal, the mainstream media loves him, partly because he's the only car company boss with plans to terraform Mars, as well as talking up a high-speed transportation system called Hyperloop meant to zip people from LA to San Francisco in 30 minutes. Tony Stark has nothing on this guy. In fact Musk inspired the Tony Stark character in the Robert Downey Jr reboot of Iron Man.
[The Tesla] might have become another noble footnote had it not been for the vision of co-founder and CEO, Elon Musk. Tony Stark has nothing on this guy
He also loves cars, and maintains that there is a sustainable future in personal mobility. Tesla's Model S is a large four-door saloon, the first all-electric car with the aesthetic appeal of a BMW, Jaguar or Mercedes. It can also do up to 265 miles on a full charge and has enough acceleration to rival a Porsche. Inside, a huge, 17" touchscreen houses all the controls normally scattered across a car's centre console, with Google navigation and full internet connectivity. There's no handbrake, no noise and no vibration, because a large underfloor battery pack feeds an electric motor. It's fast, effortless and sexy. Plug it in overnight at home, or when parked during the day, and pretty soon the petrol station will become an alien concept. Tesla says the latest generation "Superchargers" - good for a 260-mile recharge in around an hour and being rolled out in Europe now - will make long motorway journeys realistic, too.
BMW's response to Tesla proves that an apparently old-school car-maker can still pull some seriously smart moves. There are various layers to its billion-dollar "i" car sub-brand, including a technology investment fund designed to incentivise and reward fresh thinking. The i3 is the urban silver bullet, a zero-emission BMW precision-tooled for well-heeled loft dwellers in one of the world's many rapidly expanding megacities (defined as having more than 10 million inhabitants). It looks quirky enough to be a statement car without being self-righteous, and offsets the extra weight of the batteries by using carbon fibre in its construction. The rear-hinged "coach" doors open wide to reveal an interior that rethinks a car's basic layout, and uses tactile, high-quality recycled material and wood to highly original effect.
The i3's data stream is projected onto a small screen ahead of the driver, with a second central one handling multimedia and connectivity. (In the "i" car, connectivity is as big a deal as zero emissions - this is aimed squarely at the smartphone generation, and an app effectively gives you remote control over the car's systems.)
BMW's response to Tesla proves that an apparently old-school car-maker can still pull some seriously smart moves
The i3's drive module is good for 168bhp, and that coupled with the electric motor's seamless power delivery from a standstill means that an urban traffic light getaway can humble a hot hatchback. You'll get around 75 miles on a full charge, which is enough for its target urban demographic, or go for the "range extender" version, whose twin-cylinder bike engine cuts in if and when the batteries are depleted.
Better still is the plug-in hybrid i8, a new-age sports car in which driving hedonism and environmental awareness happily co-exist. BMW's designers have clothed it in a dramatically aerodynamic, almost conceptual body, one that makes an unequivocally futuristic declaration. A 1.5l three-cylinder petrol engine, boosted by a turbocharger to 231bhp, is mounted in the middle of the car, while the electric power comes from a second motor upfront. All in, there's 362bhp to play with, which in pure pub trivia terms sees it on a par with the regular Porsche 911, though still less than the Aston Martin Vantage and Audi R8.
Ultimately, they remain more fun to drive, at least in terms of old-fashioned physical interaction. Where the i8 really scores is in the way it stimulates your brain. The instrument dials are pure sci-fi, glowing and pulsing from blue to red when you select Sport Mode. The doors open upwards and outwards like butterfly wings. It hums when you push the start button, and generally feels different and special.
The i8 manages around 20 miles of seamless electric propulsion, before snapping awake with a surprisingly throaty petrol-powered bark. For the full effect, go for BMW Group DesignworksUSA's bespoke i8 carport, complete with solar panels and bamboo structure. This isn't just a car, it's an entire lifestyle. A very elegantly designed one, and proof that the electric car's time really is now.