BERLIN (Bloomberg) -- BMW's i3 electric hatchback is still rare enough to turn heads even in the most gentrified corners of Berlin. That comes at a price when you're looking for a public charging point.
In a four-day test drive a year after the i3's German debut, the car got kids and adults excited, managed distances only hard-core cyclists would tackle and had the space to transport four people comfortably.
But about 200km (125 miles) of driving also proved that even in Berlin, one of four German cities chosen by the government to promote electric cars, weaning drivers away from the gasoline pump can be a challenge. When the i3's battery indicator showed its last 10km, so-called range anxiety turned to range panic.
Though Berlin has 500 charging stations, two of three visited weren't part of BMW's payment system. The third, in a shopping mall, didn't work.
"These are the kinds of growing pains that you simply have to persevere through," Joerg Welke, spokesman for Berlin's eMO agency for electric mobility, said of the city's hodgepodge of charging networks. "A lot of people and companies are working to improve the situation."
Welke happened to be recharging one of his work vehicles and subsidized an overnight refill of the i3 with one of the multiple charging-station cards in his wallet. While the situation will surely become simpler over time, it raised the question of how truly practical electric driving is for busy urban residents without garages or a dedicated parking space.
Spotty EV infrastructure isn't just an issue in Berlin, but a critical part of the segment globally. BMW competitor Tesla Motors Inc. has tried to win over customers with its own series of fast-charging stations. Tesla has about 280 superchargers in North America, Europe and Asia, and both companies are adding charging stations in China.
BMW's network, ChargeNow, is slightly different by working through partnership deals with other providers. In Berlin, the company plans to expand the network in the next quarter, said spokeswoman Verena von L'Estocq.
Currently, ChargeNow provides access to 192 stations in Berlin, but just one in Prenzlauer Berg, which is where the car was based during its test weekend. The 11 square-kilometer central district is home to well-off singles and young families and dotted with organic grocery stores and upscale restaurants and cafes. It's the kind of place the i3 was made for. But for the i3 to win over this target audience, it doesn't need to compete so much with other cars but as the range of transport options available to city dwellers, especially in affluent, densely populated European centers.
That made Berlin, a sprawling city of more than 3 million people, a challenging test ground. The German capital has more than 1,000km of bike paths, and its buses, trams and subways call at more than 3,100 stations. The local car-sharing fleet totals some 2,900 vehicles, making it Europe's biggest, according to Frost & Sullivan.
In daily inner-city commuting, the i3, about the length of a Mini, couldn't match a bike's ability to knife through gridlock and park anywhere. And then there's the price tag: 34,950 euros can easily buy dozens of two-wheelers.
For BMW, there's a lot at stake. The world's largest maker of luxury vehicles has invested heavily in the i3 and its i8 sports-car cousin, including $100 million for a plant in Moses Lake, Washington, that spins the carbon fiber for the frame. Moreover, BMW's image as an innovator suffers if the i3 falls flat. So far, buyers aren't quite lining up for the car, which is a rarity on Berlin's streets even a year after its German debut. With 2,004 cars registered in its home country in the first 10 months of 2014, the i3 accounted for just about 0.5 percent of the market.
While spokeswoman Emma Begley said BMW is "very happy" with demand and even increased production earlier this year, it started a rent-to-own offer last month to encourage buyers. The program allows drivers to use the car for 30 days for 555 euros -- the equivalent of seven months of transport on Berlin's public-transit network. That money can then be applied to buying the vehicle.
"Once customers have the chance to experience how well the i3 fits into their daily life, the more likely they are to make the purchase decision," said Bernhard Ederer, a BMW spokesman.
During this particular test, the i3 ended up being an uncomfortable fit. After cutting the travel time in half on a Wednesday evening run from Prenzlauer Berg to the Dong Xuan Vietnamese market in eastern Berlin, it posed a struggle in the morning commute under difficult conditions.
Germany's train drivers were on strike, hobbling not just long-distance freight and passenger lines but also the commuter rail service that ships as many as 1.3 million people every day through Berlin. On that Thursday morning, what would have been less than a half-hour on a bike to the Brandenburg Gate turned into almost an hour of stress-inducing traffic and searching for parking. Friday's and Monday's door-to-door commutes were a more bearable 45 minutes -- still longer than on a three-speed Dutch bicycle. A day-care pickup to an outlying district took about an hour, roughly the same as via public transport.
To be fair, the car can't be blamed for the traffic or the parking situation. The test was in temperate fall weather, so the i3 didn't have a chance to prove its superiority over a bicycle in a snowstorm. And the car was fun, essentially the automotive equivalent to a puppy -- contagiously cute and with a lot of get-up-and-go.
Everyone from little boys to gray-suited office workers stared at it or gave a thumbs-up, and the electric engine's instant acceleration was exhilarating and handy for zipping past buses off a red light.
It was also obviously more versatile than a bike, carting weekend guests to the palaces in nearby Potsdam. The two SUV-owning Americans said they'd be happy to spend twice as long in the surprisingly roomy back seat.
But the question that every potential buyer has to face is whether to take the plunge as the infrastructure struggles to catch up.
Berlin's municipal government plans to more than triple its number of charging stations within the next few years. Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt has said Germany will add 400 charging stations at freeway rest stops to make longer road trips possible and help meet a government goal of putting 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020.
Dobrindt himself took a symbolic step of support last February and made the i3 his official car. "I like it," he said at a recent reception hosted by BMW. Then again, he doesn't need to deal with parking or charging. His driver does that before he climbs into the front passenger seat, balancing files on his knees as he's shuttled through the capital.