Rory Reid Reviews the BMW i3 in both battery electric and range extender forms, and finds it’s probably the best electric car on the road today.
Electric cars are supposed to be the future of motoring. However lacklustre products, technology limitations and a lack of consumer acceptance have meant vehicles of this nature have become something of a laughing stock in the eyes of a petrol-obsessed public.
Enter the BMW i3. Designed from the ground up as an electric car, this city runabout is designed to address every last shortcoming of modern EV: it’s desirable, drives superbly well, is well-equipped, can charge quickly and even offers good driving range. It can even, through very rose-tinted glasses, be perceived as being quite affordable. So is this the poster child EV advocates have been waiting for?
The BMW i3 is a real looker. Sure, looks are subjective, and we’ll happily concede it can appear a little awkward in pictures, but it’s quite dashing when seen in the flesh. We’re big fans of the a narrow, aggressive-looking headlamps and the oversize ‘kidney’ grille, which combine to give it the look of a snorting animal, ready to rip your face off – or at least hump your leg.
It resembles a snorting animal, ready to rip your face off – or at least hump your leg.In profile, it looks like nothing else on the road, with front and rear wheels pushed far towards the edges of the car leaving very little bumper overhang, and a window line that dips at the rear to create a larger side window surface for rear passengers. This, while quite jarring at first glance, has the benefit of giving rear passengers a better view, and the driver better sight of objects in his or her blind spot.
The doors are worthy of note. The car had no central B-pillar so the fronts open normally, but the rears are hinged towards the boot end. As a result, the doors open extremely wide, allowing very easy ingress and egress.
On the whole, we can’t help but be impressed by the BMW i3’s design and judging by the constant streams of adoring glances, so were most others who clapped eyes on it.
Don’t let the i3’s status as “BMW’s little electric” car fool you, it’s surprisingly practical. The front is easily as comfy as other vehicles in the company’s extensive range. There’s plenty of head and legroom, as you’d expect, and the seats are supportive yet comfortable.
It’s also an easy car to live with day to day, thanks to a decent number of cubby holes for general flotsam, a decent-sized glove compartment that can accommodate a couple of bottles of water, plus any paperwork or cables that you deem essential for your journey. Or just a shedload of sweeties.
It’s entirely possible for two six-foot-plus adults to sit in the back.We half expected rear space to be thin on the ground, but this isn’t the case. It’s entirely possible for two six-foot-plus adults to sit in the back, even if two more adults of similar size are sat in the front seats ahead of them. There’s decent head and legroom, plus visibility back there is exceptional, thanks to the aforementioned rear windows, which are larger than they have any right to be.
With such impressive interior space, it would be perfectly forgivable for the i3 to have a rubbish boot, but it doesn’t. The luggage space officially meausures 260 litres, though this is expandable to a very decent 1,100 litres with the rear seat backrests folded flat. A Ford Focus, by comparison, has a boot measuring 316 litres (expandable to 1,148). Sure, the i3’s is smaller, but you can fit a few rucksacks or a large suitcase inside with no hassle whatsoever.
Performance & Handling
The BMW i3 defies its appearance and stature to produce truly inspiring performance. The car really hauls ass from a standstill, its 170bhp motor producing sufficient shove to facilitate a 0-62mph time of 7.2 seconds in battery electric form or 7.9 seconds with the range extender.
More impressive is its performance over shorter sprints. The battery electric BMW i3 will hit 0-37mph (0-60kmh) in 3.5 seconds, with the range extender smashing the same target in 3.9 seconds — quicker than many sports cars can manage. Indeed, we lined the i3 up against a BMW M3 for a sprint to 30mph and in most cases it was the i3 that emerged victorious. Rest assured then, that there are relatively few vehicles you’ll encounter on a regular basis that will trouble the i3 at a set of traffic lights.
We launched the around Brands Hatch in pursuit of faster BMW hardware and it acquitted itself brilliantly.Handling shouldn’t be particularly impressive in the i3, but again, somehow, it is. It uses worryingly skinny tyres (we’ve seen thicker rubber on some motorcycles) yet the i3 produces a remarkable amount of grip. We launched the thing around several high and low speed corners of Brands Hatch in pursuit of faster BMW hardware and it acquitted itself brilliantly, holding on relentlessly through bends with tolerable amounts of body roll. Watch out for slippery surfaces though – the rear-wheel-drive layout might provoke the odd tailslide if you’re a little too keen on the throttle.
It performs well in more mundane circumstances too. The suspension is supple enough to coast untroubled rutted road surfaces, the steering is light and the car has a turning circle that would put a London taxi to shame. Its front wheels can reach quite ludicrous angles at full lock, meaning the i3 will complete u-turns where most cars might require a three-pointer.
You’ll rarely need to use the actual brake pedal except – you can accelerate and slow the car with the accelerator.The i3 has a slightly strange characteristic to its braking. When travelling at low to medium speed, the car’s regenerative braking system kicks in aggressively the instant you lift off the throttle, giving the feeling you’ve actually applied the brake. It’s so forceful, in fact, that the brake lights are activated the minute the throttle is disengaged. You’ll rarely need to use the actual brake pedal except in emergencies – you can accelerate and slow the car with the use of a single pedal.
The i3’s driving range is reasonably good. BMW claims 80-100 miles for the battery electric version – a number that seems eminently possible provided you’re progressive with your application of the throttle and limit your speed. Those who occasionally travel longer distances should opt for the range extender model, which has a total claimed range of 184 miles.
Equipment & Value
The BMW i3 is laden with standard equipment and, being a BMW, can be personalised to hell and back. The car comes in either white or grey as standard, with metallic orange, metallic grey and a choice of two metallic silvers available for an extra £530. 19-inch ‘i Streamline’ alloys come as standard, with a choice of fancier ‘i Turbine’ 19-inch rims available for either £560 or £580 on top. A set of very attractive 20-inch ‘i Double’ alloys is available for £1,080.
Three types of interior trim are available; Standard, Lodge, Loft and Suite. The ‘free’ Standard interior is the most basic of the bunch, offering simple grey cloth material seats spiced up with blue stitching. Loft (£1,000) nets you a more contemporary grey-themed interior with fancier embossed seat stitching with a matching dashboard, while Lodge (£1,500) is fancier still, with part wool, part natural leather seats, a leather covered instrument panel, and a decent amount of eucalyptus wood on the dashboard. Suite (£2,000) is the most expensive of the bunch thanks to plentiful use of black leather.
More impressive than all of that, perhaps, is the fact the BMW i3 comes with BMW Navigation System Professional as standard – basically BMW’s best infotainment setup. It includes a massive 10.1-inch screen, controlled via the company’s iDrive knob, and includes access to a wealth of features. Downloadable apps, streaming music services, Internet access, email services – it’s all there.
Optional equipment includes an electric sunroof, heated front seats, a 360-watt, 13-speaker Harman Kardon stereo and LED headlights.
The BMW i3 is made from a combination of aluminium and carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP), which BMW says is on a par with other structures and even performs better in some areas of crash testing, thanks to its ability to absorb energy. We can’t attest to that, but BMW says that in a 40mph frontal impact test, the passenger cell remained in tact. We’ll eat our hats if the i3 is anything other than rock hard in crash situations — BMW has too much to lose for the i3 to be a weakling.
The battery, often an area of concern in an electric car, is encased in aluminium sections to keep it protected against the elements and in the event of a crash, and its casing has a cut-off mechanism should the worst happen. The i3 also has dynamic stability control, dynamic traction control and its stable, predictable handling should help you avoid accidents in the first place.
The BMW i3 isn’t just the best electric car we’ve ever tested to date, it’s also one of the best city cars on the market full stop. It’s good looking inside and out, is well-equipped, offers practicality beyond its physical stature and, above all, is an absolute joy to drive. It doesn’t iron out all the foibles associated with electric cars but, in range extender guise in particular, it’s is the closest thing we’ve seen to electric car nirvana. It sits head and shoulders above its rivals. Now, if only BMW can drive the price down.
Model tested: BMW i3 battery electric & range extender
Engine: BMW eDrive motor
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 7.2s (Battery Electric) or 7.9s (Range Extender)
Top speed: 93mph
Range: 80-100 miles (Battery Electric) 149-186 miles (Range Extender)
Emissions: 0/km CO2
Charge time: 8hrs from domestic charger
Price: £34,000 (exclusing £5,000 plug-in car grant)