BBC Top Gear’s James May: I’m Buying A BMW i3 Electric Car

He’s part of the trio known worldwide for their love of everything petrol, a team which has traditionally taken great pains to paint electric cars as slow, boring, expensive and impractical.

But now BBC Top Gear presenter James May has come out of the closet: he’s buying a BMW i3 REx electric car.

BBC Top Gear Presenter James May is buying an electric car. (Photo: Flickr User Airwolfhound,  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

BBC Top Gear Presenter James May is buying an electric car. (Photo: Flickr User Airwolfhound, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Talking on BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours Bank Holiday Monday special today on electric cars, the 51-year old petrol head not only admitted that he ‘quite likes’ electric cars — but that he’s going to buy one, too.

“We’ve known for a long time that the electric motor is the ideal way to propel an electric car,” he said. “We’re discovering that there’s a different sort of pleasure in motoring in an electric car because of the smoothness, the silence.”

Extolling the evolutionary jumps made in electric car technology since the heyday of the electric milk float twenty or thirty years ago, May admitted that electric cars are no-longer seen as the “anti-car” by people, and that modern electric car battery technology has made electric cars practical for the first time.

May’s interview — part of the same show chronicling the trip made a few weeks ago by BBC reporter Samantha Fenwick — provided a fairly balanced view of electric cars, from the different models available to some of the current issues surrounding unreliable charging infrastructure.

Fenwick, who recently drove from Nissan’s Sunderland factory in a brand new Nissan LEAF to Nissan GB’s technical centre in Bedfordshire, experienced some major delays due to an Ecotricity Electric Highway DC quick charging station which failed to accept her RFID card.

James May has come clean: he's buying a BMW i3 REx

James May has come clean: he’s buying a BMW i3 REx

Fenwick, who was forced to wait several hours to be ‘rescued’ by another LEAF driver with a working RFID card, was able to continue on the rest of her journey unimpeded, successfully using other Ecotricity Electric Highway DC quick charging points along the way.

Talking about the challenges Fenwick faced, May admitted charging infrastructure is still the weakest point.

“In terms of technology, the electric car works perfectly well,” May said. “The problem is still electricity, the difficulty in charging, the difficulty in storing it.”

“You do still have to think ahead,” he concluded.

Yet May still wants to own an EV — and he’s buying a BMW i3.

“I sort of want to be part of the ‘experiment’. I don’t know what the answer is — or if a car like the i3 is the long term future of the car,” May said. “It’s not that small. It’s actually quite roomy inside. It’s almost a small people carrier.”

Having been part of the BBC Top Gear team for many years — a show which has relentlessly criticised and made fun of electric cars for many years — May said it was time to go green.

“I talk about cars, as I was saying earlier. I make a living out of doing that…I sort of feel obliged to,” he said of his BMW i3 purchase.

Later in the show, May discussed range extended electric cars, and came clean that he is buying the BMW i3 REx range-extended EV rather than the all-electric i3 EV.

EV fan or not, May still has a little range anxiety.

“It’s called a range extender,” he said of the i3 REx’s tiny range-extending petrol engine. “It really ought to be branded ‘pure cowardice,’ because that’s what it is and that’s why I’ve got one,” he joked.

“You don’t have to use it, and I will try not to use it,” he promised. “It’s a bit like when I tell the doctor I’m not going to do any drinking or smoking but I will do a bit. I will try to use the electric car infrastructure as much as possible.”

Despite having a range extended BMW i3 electric car however, May says the BMW i3 isn’t going to be his only car — and when he goes long-distance away from his London home, he’ll use another car instead.

When pushed, May was a little sheepish as to what that car is.

May is getting a BMW i3 REx -- although jokes it should be called the 'pure cowardice' option.

May is getting a BMW i3 REx — although jokes it should be called the ‘pure cowardice’ option.

“It’s a Ferrari,” he admitted. “I’m cheating I know. I really hoped you weren’t going to ask me that!”

Talking of a gradual transition from petrol to electric and a future where multiple different fuel options exist, May reiterated that the change from petrol to electric will be a little bit the change from horse-drawn carriage to cars in the first place.

“The real world is about money, and a lot of people have to make ends meet,” he said. “It sounds pompous I know, but electric cars are currently for the wealthy and electric cars will proliferate if they are made cheaper and more attractive.”

“I really don’t want anybody to think I’m buying an electric car so the Government is pleased with me. I couldn’t care less,” he said. “I’m buying an electric car because I’m thinking it’s exciting and I’m in the fortunate position of being able to do it and take part in this rather interesting experiment.”

As for improving electric cars for the future? Aside from the obvious points like price, range and charging capabilities, May says automakers need to work harder to improve the onboard noise generators used to alert pedestrians to an electric car’s presence.

“They kind of sound like vomiting robots,” he moaned. “They could sound like bird chirps or snatches of Oasis riffs or something. They need to make a bit more effort.”

Here at Transport Evolved, we’re pleased to hear at least one of the Top Gear trio is giving electric cars a real chance — but what do you think? And which electric cars would you recommend May’s fellow presenters — Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond — consider buying?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.

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Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield
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Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield

Self-confessed geek and mother of two, Nikki has been talking and writing about cars ever since she passed her driving test. Back then, her Internet contributions were all classic car-focused. Now, she’s all about greener, cleaner, safer and smarter cars.
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  • Michael Thwaite

    Happy Days? Could this be the start of a new romance?

  • u010eakujem

    Good heavens. It’s not April 1, and the sky hasn’t fallen. This really is happening. One of the Top Gear crew are buying an electric car. I’m dumbfounded.

    • Jonathan Tracey

      lets be honest of the three of them, he is the most likely to “get it”, he drove a fiat panda for a number of years

      • CDspeed

        The three of them are bound to get together and talk about James’s new car at some point, maybe there will be a domino effect. I could see Richard crossing the line, and discovering electric cars.

  • danwat1234

    Vomiting robots, ha!

  • cohenfive

    I’ve driven the model s and the i3, and while both are fun, I found the i3 to be a really cool v1 attempt at the future of transportation. I would love to own the i3, but agree that the range issue limits their usefulness.This is the start, not the end. If you look at the two big problems with EV’s, you see Tesla and BMW each attacking an issue. For Tesla, they are building a massive battery plant to drive the cost of the battery packs down, and efficiency up. BMW is spending tons of money building new composite body panel manufacturing capacity, in order to keep the weight down. If we can combine cheaper batteries with lighter weight, we will really have something. Years away, but likely not decades.

    • Sam

      The rEx is great for materials but not the EV range, the network of charging or looks/performance. nnIt’s an in-town runnabout.

  • BetelgeuseOrion

    No one can deny the raw power an electric motor gives you, if you have the chance, drive a Model S P85, it will knock your socks off. Instant power all the time.nnlike he said, if we pour money into energy storage tech (not necessarily “batteries”) and charging infrastructure, it can beat gasoline and diesel in any comparison you throw at it.nnex: capacitors can cycle 100,000- millions of times with absolutely no wear or tear, and work in extreme conditions. you can shove megawatts of charging power into them and recharge them in a blink of an eye, the only problem is they are not as developed as they could be because no one is spending the money.nnex: electric motors are already near 100% efficient (92-97% in most cases for high quality ones) the motor the size of a watermelon puts out more power over its rpm range than a 6.5L V12, now imagine if the motor was the size and weight of the V12, it would be putting down like 3000HP and it would still get 100MPGe

  • Sam

    An act of cowardice, the range extender. But helpful for EVs nonetheless.

  • Bubba Nicholson

    Poor fellow is kind of a nit wit, isn’t he? I mean, who really cares what he thinks, much less what he drives, aye?

    • Jayne Eisan

      Bubba, poor fellow is kind of a nit wit isn’t he? I mean, he couldn’t care less what James May thinks or drives but he clicks on a link about what James May thinks and drives, aye?

  • David Gilmore

    Experiment!? Your tiny island country should be leading the charge, not hurling insults from the gallery. The revolution has been underway elsewhere for a decade. We’re well beyond the experimental phase here in the USA. There’s a Tsunami forming across the ocean called Tesla Motors. When it arrives, you’ll wonder what happened to all your European car brands.

    • Jayne Eisan

      OMG, another blinkered American who has probably never left his country and assumes America is technologically superior to the rest of the world, you have a lot to learn buddy, I moved to America from Europe and couldn’t believe how far behind this country is. That “tiny island country” has contributed more toward modern civilization than any other nation on Earth.

      • Irontits

        Fucking LOL. Are you seriously that ignorant? America invented the transistor, the internet, the computer, the first 3D printer, video games, the atomic bomb, oil wells, lasers, the artificial heart, the motorcycle, goddamn airplanes, fucking microwaves, … I could go on for hours.

        • Jayne Eisan

          Yes I’m sure you could and at the end of the day you would still only be around 20% correct. Seriously, stop believing everything that second rate education system has taught you and do some serious research. You will be surprised.

          • shannon

            Im from the UK and our education system isn’t the best finlands is so much better than our but I agree that the UK is somewhat behind in some areas and the rest of europe seems to be ahead in some ways. Britain needs to stop thinking it rules the waves because we are so behind all the previous inventions may be good but we are not as great as we once were I’m not saying that america is better and I certainly dont think so but just stop going on about how great the UK is.

        • irontits_is_wrong

          Well..nnThe “internet” was invented by Sir Tim Berners Lee. Who was British. The atomic bomb was also worked on by Germany at the same time as the USA. The only reason why the US arrived at it first was because a german scientist couldn’t do some maths, and thought that it was impossible, go figure.nnOil wells? They invented a hole in the ground? Come on.nnLasers? US university, fair enough.nnNot the artificial heart.nnMotorised transport was by Henry Ford, aka Ford, the British company.nnLet me go on about the UK.nnMRInAtomic clocksnFirst tractorsnPolyester (so say goodbye to all your socks and shirts)nSewing machine (so say goodbye to all your clothes too)nThe PencilnRadio equipment (and first radio channel)nTesla coils, various experiments with electricitynTelephonenCricketnFootball (soccer to you)nLCD displaysnSMS systemsnmp3 playersnRaspberry PinDNA fingerprintingnCaterpillar tracksnElectric transformersnFirst blast furnace (so you can have iron)nSteam enginesnDisc brakesnEngines in generalnToothbrushnBagless vacuums (James Dyson is British)nTin cansnLight switchesnLawn MowernFire ExtinguishernPostage stampsnFlushing toiletsnElectric kettlesnElectric toastersnSmallpox vaccinenPenicillinnRADARnFirst to develop and use vaccinesnGeneral anaestheticnUltrasoundnTanksnTuning forknOrgans (i.e. the music thing i’m sure you are unaware of)nFirst scientific journalnVarious scientists, such as Isaac Newton,Stephen Hawking, Robert Hooke, Rutherford, etc)nRugbynSnookernFirst paralympic gamesnParachutesnGlidersnFirst railwaysnPlasticsnnAnd so on.

          • Vu00edtor Cu00e9sar Menezes

            And the airplane is a Brazilian creation (Santos Drummond)

          • jamesdmay

            Alberto Santos-Dumont. The pioneering work was done by George Cayley. The Wright Brothers acknowledged this.

          • Steven Rounds

            Motorized transport was by Henry Ford, in Detroit, Michigan, USA. A major point to remember is that while many people in many countries can envision something new, the USA is where we actually DO something and build it. How’s your British moon-landing program coming along? How about Space-X? I suggest that you (and May/Hammond/Clarkson) check out litmotors.com for true EV innovation.

          • Tom Huffman

            Tim Berners Lee did NOT invent the Internet. He is credited with developing the world wide web. This is no small feat, as it is the way that most of us interact with the Internet, but it is not THE Internet.nnIts development came much earlier from a U.S. Defense Department project called ARPANET. The people most responsible for this include Larry Roberts and Mike Wingfield, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf (TCPIP), Paul Baran, Donald Davies, and Leonard Kleinrock (Packet Switching), Ray Tomlinson (e-mail), Abhay Bhushan (FTP), and Paul Mockapetris ( Domain Name System).nnLee’s important contribution came later.

        • Reeve Allan Taylor

          Well the Germans invented the car… which is a European country…

      • David Gilmore

        I beg your pardon, and I really meant no insult. Nor do I mean to engage in a pissing match regarding which country is more advanced. I’m very well traveled for a blinkered American, and I find your country delightful in most ways. However, I would rate the Scandinavian countries above either of ours in terms of cleanliness and advanced mindsets–particularly the ones involving EVs (remember, the original topic here?) However, size does matter when it comes to EV motoring. A smaller country is more fit for such ventures. The USA is probably the least fit but somehow on top of this. Yours is the most fit, yet the farthest behind. That is the source of my bewilderment. I assure you I mean no disrespect.

  • geosynch

    EVs for the other two TG petrol-heads? Clarkson should be driving the Rimac Concept One. Hamster would be in the Audi R8 e-tron.

    • offib

      I think Hamster would settle with a Porsche, as usual. 918 or Panamera Plug-In?

      • geosynch

        The 918 would be a decent choice, of course! Too much petrol — at least for my suggestion. I thought of the concept Porsche e.Boxster for the Hamster, but, it isn’t available.

        • offib

          Hmm… I remember that Hammond is very fond of off roaders. I’m not sure what he’ll think of the Outlander PHEV and the upcomming XC90 PHEV. The Model X is the exact comeptitor for the Q7, not specifically an offroader, just a very posh 7 seater “city cruiser”.nnnI think the perfect car for Hamster would be the Via trucks! Hell, that X-Truck really gets my attention!

          • geosynch

            I didn’t think if the Via! Good choice!

  • CDspeed

    Excellent news, I’m glad that he’s stayed open minded, and didn’t shut the possibility of driving electric out of his mind completely. Yes he has said some anti EV things, but I doubt he’d be looking at the i3 if he held to those previous statements, so good for him, he thought outside the Top Gear box and has apparently seen how good electric cars are, and can see them maturing.

    • Victor Wong

      To be fair, so has Clarkson. Apart from the range (which is a legit complaint) and durability issues (and he always moans about that with Mercedes models), he was pretty complimentary about the four-motor Mercedes electric STS

      • CDspeed

        Yes but in that test drive of the SLS electric drive he complained about the range, and then said the charge time was 20 hours. It may be 20 hours from a 120 volt home outlet, but he made no mention of charging it at a level 2 charge. So he did make the SLS look less capable then it really is at the end of his “review”, and then he made it seem weird that the car made no sound while the Stig drove it. It still was his best on show test drive in an electric car, you can see from his drive in the Tesla Roadster, to his drive in the Nissan Leaf that he was getting to understand them, and that only got better in the Mercedes. If we could get him to do a test drive of the Model S with someone explaining the Tesla ownership experience Jezza might have a breakthrough.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.moriarty.395 John Moriarty

    Well my other car is a Honda S2000, and /it/ would be a Ferrari – if my Aunt had balls.

  • http://twitter.com/brian_henderson Brian_Henderson

    “For longer distances” u2026 James May says he uses his other car “it’s a Ferrari”!nnToo funny u2026 traveling long distances (greater than 150 mile range of i3 REX) using a vehicle averaging ~12 MPG (3 miles per L) vs. 3 miles per kWh.nhttp://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/bymake/Ferrari2013.shtmlnAt cost of L petro vs. kWh u2026 I can picture James May holding a bill in each hand, one bill for 20 kWh the other for 20 L petro! Perhaps inspiration for a future @theOatmeat comic? ;) nnFYI: At 12 MPG, a 300 mile trip would require ~25 gallons (100L) in driving in eco mode u2026 a bit more u00a3’s out of pocket if wanting to enjoy the rumble of the V8, or play with the gearbox. Not sure what current u00a3/L rate is, but expect the Ferrari trip will mean dropping at least u00a3100 out of pocket (pre-insurance premiums).

    • acm_acm

      I think Mr. May can afford it.

  • http://twitter.com/brian_henderson Brian_Henderson

    One point covered indirectly; but of note from Samantha Fenwick is that while she was stopped for 2.5 hours (failed RFID card), she interviewed 2-4 EV drivers that also stopped at that location. (whether they successfully charged while she was waiting was not clear).nnInteresting comment from Ecotricity: 500,000 EV miles traveled on their Electric Highway in 2013 with expectation of over 1,000,000 EV miles in 2014. A big change from 3 DCFC locations in 2012 to 68 DCFC in 2013 to 100% roadway coverage by end of 2014.

  • Peter Scott

    Fair play to him…. :)

  • D. Harrower

    Great news!!nnThe Dacia Sandero has — wait, what?

  • E Clectic

    I’m not a bit surprised by this. May has often been mocked Hammond and Clarkson for being “Mr. Slow”. (As if electric cars were slow). He always seemed be the more sensible chap of the three, to me. nnnAlthough Top Gear’s writers seem to say that electric cars have a useless range, it’s all in good fun. nnI appreciated Nikki and Mark’s review of the Tesla S in saying, in effect, that it was too much car for a Brit. So it’s appropriate that May is interested in the i3

  • RandomGuy189155

    Finally, Mr May!! Clarkson’s next to buy the Tesla Model S, now that it is launched in the UK ..Model S is the benchmark of E cars….in fact the BMW I3 is running on technology developed by Tesla

    • mutle

      If you mean “developed by Nikola Tesla” then your statement is correct. But BMW is not using any technology developed by Tesla Motors, or you might be confusing it the Mercedes B-Class ED.

      • RandomGuy189155

        I genuinely think the BMW I3 looks ugly….I generally hate BMW’s design philosophy….Mercedes are way better in design of their cars ! And of course the Model S defies everyone else !

      • RandomGuy189155

        Yes, I think Tesla electric Drive technology is used in mercedes B Class E car !

  • Ad van der Meer

    So he will have a range extender and yes his other car is a ferrari, but it’s still good PR for the EV.

  • DdavidD

    When my three-year lease on my Leaf is up next year I’ll be test-driving the Fiat, the BMW, the Spark, etc., so many choices now!nnnOh, and ‘David Gilmore’ & ‘irontits’… one word… “Travel”.

  • tokenpom

    I think James did a fantastic job on what was otherwise an appallingly and determinedly pessimistic programme.nnListen to the programme, and you’ll see what I mean.nnAny argument against a new product (in this case, EVs) that tries to suggest that a new technology gives the consumer too much choice, or makes their purchasing decision too hard, is a failed and pointless argument, – but that is what this pathetic programme tried to do here.

  • Jason Cobb

    u201cWeu2019ve known for a long time that the electric motor is the ideal way to propel an electric car,u201dnnHow else do you propose to propel an electric car?

    • kjetilm

      Witchcraft…?

  • Michael Thwaite

    Time for A Star in a Reasonably Priced Electric Car?

  • Ciaran

    Just drove my Tesla Model S 85P from Philly to Cleveland. A 450 mile trip….. I stopped once in Somerset PA. to recharge FOR FREE. It takes only 30 minutes for an additional 220 mile range. I’m not a blinkered American, I’m Irish and lived in the UK and now the US. I chose my Tesla over a Maserati and honestly…. until you test drive this amazing family sedan, shut up.

  • Doug Robb

    The top gear boys haven’t hated every electric car just the ones like the G-Whiz. Their problem is that the network for charging electric cars isn’t where it should be outside of major cities such as London for the electric car to be used as primary transport. James is more interested in Technology and how things work than the other two so the I3 appeals to him more than some of the other options.

  • GW74

    “u201cI really donu2019t want anybody to think Iu2019m buying an electric car so the Government is pleased with me. I couldnu2019t care less,”nnnwho said anythinng about the government being pleased with you? the issue is the environment being pleased with you, you idiot.

  • Steven Rounds

    Jeremy could get a Tesla S, because it’s expensive and will appeal to his love of status. Richard should get a Lit Motors C-1, because it’s fast, leans in turns and is a fully-enclosed, air-conditioned and air-bagged gyro’d electric motorcycle.

  • Doug

    I agree with everything May said, if I could afford an EV it would be the Volt, it’s the only EV that does everything I need.