A quiet revolution in car design

This week we were excited to have for a few days one of the first BMW i3 on the Sixt fleet – the most radically different production car of our time. It's a design that conceptually, thematically and technically is very different to anything else. But what we really weren't expecting was the way the experience of driving and being in the i3 on many different roads would be dominated by a very different shift in the bias of sensory responses to it. It was far less about how the car looked and behaved and far more about the soundscape that the car design delivered...

Press the key-fob button and the lights illuminate and the car wakes. So far, so twenty-tens car.

You need to pull the handle and open the door for the first feel of a not-quite-normal twenty-tens car – there is a perceptibly low inertia to the way the bantamweight, carbon fiber door opens. It's similar to the aluminium doors of the Audi A2 of yore, but this is a far larger door with a far wider arc.

Climb over the exposed carbon-fiber sill, sit and tug the door closed. It's not a ‘clunk’ or a ‘clank’ noise, but a ‘thunk’ and then a ‘wirp’ as the sound of the catch resonates through a composite structure and the window electrically closes the last half inch (the i3 has frameless windows).

Catch a whiff of the slightly different new car smell (does carbon fiber smell?) – it's more man-made or technical somehow.

Press the start button and hear the sub-Apple electronic ‘weeble’ sound that denotes a fully ready-to-go i3, along with a few gentle electric actuators switching on. 

‘Nonk’ the drive selector into D and – with a hushed mewwwww – off we zoom. 

A light coloured cabin with lots of light flooding in and a voluminous MPV-like feel is your personal space on the road. Most other road users are stealing glances at this unusual looking car, peering in at you in this (post)modernist gold-fish bowl (although their stares could have had something to do with the massive SIXT script down the side).

But from inside it’s not the sight of the car, or the smell, or even the feel – very different to any other car they may all be. It is another sensory quality – the soundscape of the i3.

A quiet sound; less sound than you’re used to, less sound than an internal combustion engine car makes – obviously perhaps. You can hear the faintest murmur of wheel bearings and axles whirr, of suspension heaving, of wind rustling, of tyres swishing – first with slush under the wheels and then later you can hear that it's just water. Occasionally you can hear the wipers quietly ‘wup’, and the indicators softly ‘plick-plick’. You can hear the motor ‘mew’ gently or slightly less gently. You can hear the car working in high-fidelity – but always quietly. And you can hear other traffic, as if instead of being part of their world you’re an observing interloper.

Then you stop at a set of lights and realise that if you press the ‘fan off’ switch you can hear absolutely nothing. Silence; the sounds of the next big thing.

A twenty twenties car in twenty fourteen – our first i3 hire car.

Literally, what a sensation!